By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: Birtukan Mideksa, former Ethiopian high court judge, political prisoner and first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, returned home a couple of weeks ago following an invitation by H.E. Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Last week, she was confirmed by the House of People’s Representatives to chair the Ethiopian National Board of Elections.
Birtukan was the singular object of ruthless persecution and prosecution by the late Meles Zenawi, leader of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, a gang of bush thugs that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist and steel-soled boots for 27 years. It has been said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Birtukan stood for justice and was imprisoned for defending the rule of law. Today, she lives her dream in what she yearningly called years ago, “The Future Country of Ethiopia”.
CONGRATULATIONS, BIRTUKAN INVICTUS!
When I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family last week, I told them during the invocation blessings that I must be the most thankful person on the planet.
“Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
My weeping began in 2005 when Meles Zenawi, the late leader of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, ordered the massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators following the parliamentary election that year.
I remember the victims of the Meles Massacres every November.
But joy came to me 13 years later on April 2, 2018.
Over the past 7 months, my dreams and wishes, along with those of 100 million other Ethiopians came, to pass, one after the other.
For 13 years, I had a dream that one day all political prisoners in Ethiopia would be released.
In July 2015 when President Barack Obama traveled to Ethiopia, I begged him to tell the pharaohs of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front to let my people go.
Paraphrasing the old Negro spiritual, I asked Obama: “Go down Moses way down in Ethiopia land/Tell all Pharaohs to let My people go/Oppressed so hard they could not stand/Let My people go…
Obama stood up shoulder-to-shoulder with the pharaohs of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front and told the world “Ethiopia has a democratic government”.
Exactly three years later, our modern day Moses Abiy Ahmed came out of nowhere and let them all go. Free. Free at last.
Abiy Ahmed ended our 27-year captivity by the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front.
Yes, we know right at this moment they are hatching plots, conspiring, colluding and cooking up diabolical schemes to spread death and destruction throughout the country from their citadel in Mekele.
But it will amount to nothing more than bellyaching, teeth-gnashing and finger-wagging.
I shall prophesy, “Their sword shall enter into their own heart. Their bows shall be broken.”
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a “great beacon light of hope to millions of Ethiopians who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice under the bloodthirsty rule of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front. Abiy Ahmed came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity for 100 million Ethiopians”.
For 13 years, I had a dream that arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and politically-motivated prosecutions under the so-called anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia will end. Abiy Ahmed ended them.
For 13 years, I had a dream that one day there will be freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of religion and freedom of peaceful assembly. Abiy Ahmed made it happen.
For 13 years, I had a dream that the rule of law will replace the rule of thugs in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed today teaches, preaches and practices the rule of law today.
For 13 years, I had a dream that Ethiopians and Eritreans will heed the wisdom of Dr. King. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Today, the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea are at peace. I was a witness to history in Bure and Zalambessa when the borders were reopened for the first time in 20 years on September 11, 2018.
For 13 years, I had a dream Ethiopia’s destiny will be in the hands of its young people. Today, it is with Abiy Ahmed at the helm and his young gender-balanced cabinet.
For 13 years, I had a dream that Diaspora Ethiopians will no longer be demonized and ostracized by those who cling to power by force of arms. Abiy Ahmed travelled the world over embrace us in the Diaspora, urged us to take pride in our Ethiopiawinet. With open arms, he invited us, “Come on home!”
I had a dream that one day I will stand up in a free Ethiopia and proclaim my pride in my Ethiopiawinet. In September 2018, I realized that dream after 48 long years of yearning and waiting.
Damn the Derg! Damn the TPLF!
I remember the dark days when I wished I was Ghanaian, deeply revolted and outraged by the crimes against humanity and corruption of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front.
For 13 years, I had a dream that one day Ethiopia’s political opposition could freely organize and compete in free and fair elections.
Today, Abiy Ahmed has appointed Birtukan Mideksa as chair of the National Election Board.
As we speak, Abiy Ahmed is sitting down with opposition leaders and mapping out plans for a free and fair election in 2020 election.
I could go on and on…
But the fact of the matter is that the future country of Ethiopia Birtukan Mideksa talked about so much is finally here!
Thank God almighty, the 27-year nightmare of captivity in the bloody and corrupt hands of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front is over.
Hear ye! Hear ye! The Future Country of Ethiopia is here!
Birtukan Mideksa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopia, is my personal heroine.
I tried to be Birtukan’s voice when the late Meles Zenawi declared a ruthless personal vendetta against her and jailed her.
Meles Zenawi used Birtukan as his “whipping girl”.
He even threatened opposition leaders. “We will crush them with our full force; they will all rot like Birtukan in jail forever.”
Meles Zenawi once mocked Birtukan as a silly chicken who ultimately did herself in because she did not know the limits of her modest abilities and his overwhelming and boundless might.
Meles Zenawi was so evil, when he was asked about Birtukan’s health in prison by the international press in 2010, he said she “is in perfect health” but was getting fat because she does not exercise. He really said that!
In “Q’ale” (My Testimony), a public statement she released two days before Zenawi imprisoned her on December 29, 2009, Birtukan boldly declared, “Lawlessness and arrogance are things that I will never get used to, nor will cooperate with.”
Birtukan is a strong-willed and determined woman. She is a woman of principle. She will never sell her soul for a few pieces of silver.
Meles Zenawi was a weak man, a bully and a coward, according to those who knew him well.
One way Meles Zenawi could prove his machismo was by jailing a strong woman. The other is to order the massacre of innocent citizens.
Meles could jail Birtukan’s body, but never her spirit, her determination, her true Ethiopiawinet.
That is why I wrote “Birtukan Invictus!” (Birtukan Aybegere!) in December 2009.
Birtukan Mideksa condemned to life in prison by a vengeful dictator, but unconquered.
Birtukan thrown into the dungeon of wrath and tears, but defiant.
Birtukan beaten, bludgeoned and bloodied, but unbowed.
Birtukan mocked, ridiculed and disrespected, but gracious.
Birtukan denounced, vilified, strong-armed and manhandled, but unafraid.
Ethiopia under the crushing boots of soldiers of fortune.
I tried to imagine what life was like for Birtukan in Meles’ prison held in solitary confinement in a dark room for months.
I wrote, fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?”
Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!”
But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’
In the end Birtukan signed Meles Zenawi’s scrap of paper called a pardon petition making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman.”
In November 2018, Birtukan Mideksa is heading the very institution that Meles Zenawi and his TPLF thugs prostituted to cling to power claiming to win 100 percent of the seats in parliament.
Birtukan stood up and was chained down because she valued the rule of law, justice and fairness above her own liberty.
The windbag nabobs of negativism were wagging their venomous forked tongues challenging Birtuka’s fitness for the job given the fact she had lived in America for so long.
As they point and wag their fingers at Birtukan, they should be aware three fingers are pointing at them. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones!
I salute Birtukan Mideksa, our Ethiopian woman for all seasons.
One of my few leftover dreams is that Ethiopia will one day be flooded with strong, principled and independent judges like Birtukan so that “justice rolls on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream” in Ethiopia.
I have translated parts of Birtukan’s speech from February 2009.
She speaks of personal suffering, cruelty, the rule of law, the future country of Ethiopia and other things. (Of course, much is lost in translation, but I hope my effort here will offer a window into the soul, heart and mind of a woman I admire greatly as an Ethiopian heroine.)
Birtukan Mideksa’s speech and poem (author’s translation from Amharic), February 2009
“I am not going to say much that is new to you today.
But everything we could talk about excepted —about being imprisoned and released from prison, arguing about [politics], about being elected and perhaps even about being killed, everything – I want to briefly talk about the essence of our central focus which is our vision (for the future of Ethiopia).
My honored and beloved compatriots. History has made a rendezvous for us at a decisive juncture in the road. The work that awaits us demands our patience, wisdom and sacrifice. In perspective, since our destination is freedom, unity and prosperity, and since what we need for our journey are spiritual strength and fortitude, and though our journey will involve hills, valleys and winding roads, it will be short.
Let me just take you to Tikemt 22, 1998 [Ethiopian Calendar].
It was in a room that is 4 meters by 2 meters, a room covered in darkness all day, that I and [parliamentary] representative W/o Nigist Gebrehiwot were imprisoned.
It was a luxury for us to look at the sky, to breath fresh clean air or walk freely as much as we can.
But a scowling policeman would order me to get up and to sit down. Thought that was uncomfortable, it was not difficult because I expected it.
It was during this time off deep reflection that I wrote this poem. Let me read it to you today.
Expend all of your energy striking me,
Ruthless you are, be ruthless against me.
Then visit upon mean new and newer forms of your cruelty,
Get your pleasure from my suffering.
Reveal all your wild (animalistic) nature,
(I live) for my dream, for my freedom,
If need be, I am ready to die today
I was imprisoned here, I [was forced] to come here.
[My suffering] is not my burden, it is my ornament,
Here’s my chest, for you cheap bullets,
Here it is for your wild animal nature,
Destroy it, disable it, tighten it in a knot.
It is not my grief, it is my principle.
But let me raise my head and tell you,
You have separated me from human company,
Speed it up, speed up, hurry up.
And finish up everything you want to do today,
Because tomorrow is not yours,
It’s out of your hands, it’s long gone,
It’s my child, the one I bore.
The one I brought to life through labor pains,
The shining star, the brilliant one,
Hale [Birtukan’s daughter] the feisty one,
Thanks to you, her world is empty.
You have sucked it all up,
Your bullet and our longing to be together,
Brought this beauty, the beautiful Ethiopia,
At the time it gave me spiritual strength.
Thoughts of tomorrow’s beautiful Ethiopia,
The inevitable occurrence that is revealed was part of my dream,
Is this our future country of Ethiopia for whom we yearn,
To those who ask about her ultimate fate.
I say, ‘Before all things, individual liberty and human rights must be protected.’
Ethiopia will be the country where the basic dignity of a human being will be redefined,
Where the freedom of the individual is respected and citizenship rights of all are respected,
But do not worry.
In all parts of our Ethiopia,
In the countryside, in the cities, for the rich and for the poor,
Freedom of blossom throughout the land,
A statue of liberty will stand for her (Ethiopia).
Ethiopia will be a country where real justice shall prevail [where justice rolls like a might stream],
When that happens, there will be judges who shall serve free [of political interference],
Then no one will regard judges as heroes,
[Fair administration of justice] would be responsibility of their citizenship and their professional obligation shall be manifest to all.
And this will be the standard to measure the capacity of every citizen,
The Armed Forces will not support dictators and oppressive rule,
They will be an instrument for preserving the territorial integrity of the nation and integrity of the Constitution,
The police will not arrest citizens without the judicial warrant but will work under the umbrella of law and professionalism.
Lawmakers will do their job without thinking about their personal gain,
They will do their job in consideration of the fate of their grandchildren,
[The parliament] will be a place where just laws are drafted,
We will be owners of such institutions.
How about her (Ethiopia’s) unity?
For this country, her diversity will be her beauty and not an obstacle to her unity,
Why? [Ethiopia will be a land where] their citizenship right is to be respected,
[Ethiopia will be a land] where the people change their government by the ballot and not the bullet.
Where votes are counted properly [and not stolen],
[Citizens] shall be owners of such a process,
Other than this, there’s nothing that justifies disunity,
There will be no problem or dispute that cannot be solved with justice.
My beloved people,
I know this vision is also your vision, our collective vision,
To translate this dream into action requires are collective participation,
I am strong in spirit and vision.
How about you?
If you have the strength, we can walk united, with tolerance of each other in our diversity,
We can work for the betterment of our people and for their freedom and justice,
Let’s seize the moment with our knowledge and our time.
Today is ours,
For those coming tomorrow, we have an obligation and a command from conscience to leave a legacy of an ordered society,
If all of us do our share, the time is near for us to realize our vision today than at any other time before,
Through tolerance, and listening to each other, rule of law, determination and unity.
If our lives today do not represent anything meaningful to the coming generation,
The result will not be history but a debt,
My call to you is one and only one:
Let’s all rise up and build tomorrow’s Ethiopia [today]!
Behold the Future Country of Ethiopia is upon us today!
I believe the future of the “future country of Ethiopia” will be decided in a battle between the “future makers” and “future takers”.
We are witnessing the handiwork of the TPLF future takers today. They have taken everything in the present — the rights of the people, their dignity, their daily bread, their land, their hopes and their dreams, their wealth — so that there will be no future.
They calculate the future to be a continuation of the past, and they will do everything in their power to perpetuate the past into the future.
Future takers worship at the altar of greed and corruption; and for them fairness, decency, generosity and morality are anathema.
The battle between the future makers and future takers will be waged and decided in the hearts and minds of the people. The future takers will wage a war of tears and fears.
The future makers will fight back with hope, faith, charity and love.
The future makers are today making history.
The future takers have been cast in the trash bin of history.
I have been saying so for 13 years.
Ethiopia’s best days are yet to come!