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Birtukan Mideksa: “We are at a time that no one can back off…”

In the past government arrested and abused Birtukan Mideksa for daring to democratize Ethiopia. Now,her help is wanted in the effort to change the country, and she is willing.

Birtukan Mideksa
Birtukan Mideksa after arriving at Bole International Airport

November 7,2018

Birtukan Mideksa was an inspiration to many Ethiopian young women for she was the first one to lead an opposition party in the history of the country.

More inspiring, as many Ethiopians recall it, was that she emerged as an opposition leader at a time when there was total repression against dissent in the country under the leadership of the late Meles Zenawi.

She was first arrested in 2005, following national election, along with Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) leaders for about a year and half.

Although CUD leaders were released later, on condition of “pardon”, the biggest opposition coalition in the history of the country did not survive cracked down and infiltration.

Birtukan, however, didn’t give up as she went on to establish Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) which turned out to be a solid opposition party after CUD.

As the government perceived her party to be a threat, trumped up charges was prepared to throw her to jail in connection with a speech she made during a working visit to Europe (Sweden, to be specific).
Zenawi’s government claimed that she broke the terms of release from prison and needed her to apologize which she refused vehemently. For some reason, his government saw crucial political gain out of her apology so much so that he had to send prominent individuals to conince her to apologize. Apparently, she understood the negative impact of it on young politicized Ethiopians if she were to apologize for it.

On the legal side of it, her background as a judge in a federal court and her study of law at Addis Ababa University must have convinced her that she did not do anything wrong. She persisted that she would not ask apology.

Zenawi’s government vengeance was brutal on her. She suffered from solitary confinement and other forms of abuses after she was rearrested again in 2008 but she does not seem to be willing to speak about it openly.

After years of local and international pressure, Birtukan was out of jail in October 2010.But her citizenship rights including to participate in politics were restricted. Then, she had to leave Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States, where she has been living since then.

In the United States, she got fellowship at National Endowment for Democracy (NED) fellow and apparently studied “factors that have contributed to the weakening of Ethiopia’s democratic opposition and explore ways of strengthening it,” among other issues.

She also studied Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his entourage including Lemma Megersa visited the United States in July 2018, they met her in person but it was not clear if there was an official discussion regarding her return to Ethiopia.

Last week, a rumor emerged in social media saying that Birtukan is packing to return to Ethiopia to take governmetn appointment.

Today, she made it official in a phone interview with the Voice of America Amharic service that she is on her way to Ethiopia. And she is expected to arrive at Bole International Airport in the morning where warm reception awaits her.

Asked why she is returning, she said “we are at a time that no one can back off from doing what could be done.”

She did not hide her excitement about returning to home. “I was not sure as to when I would return and was living with homesickness, which at times is as painful as other suffering,” she told Alula Kebede, VOA Amharic Journalist who spoke to her on the phone.

Her return is initiated by Ethiopian government as her skills and experiences are needed. Attorney General, Berhanu Tsegaye, told VOA Amharic that government would like her to help in the ongoing reform activity in the country.

However, she does not still seem to know what exactly she will be doing to help support the transition to democracy from which she sees hope and fear too, as many Ethiopians do. What she knows is that she wants to focus on the task of building democratic institutions.

There is a talk in social media that she will be in charge of Electoral Commission. It will certainly be clear in the weeks to come if that is the case.

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