By Barry Malone | Reuters
The first time I interviewed Birtukan Mideksa I was struck by how careful she was not to say the wrong thing. It was 2007 and we were standing in the garden of a community centre in the part of Addis Ababa where she was raised. She had just been released from prison and the locals — many of whom struggle to feed themselves — had each given about a dollar to throw her the party-cum-political rally we had just attended and to buy her an old Toyota Corolla car to help her back on her feet again.
Such was her care when talking to me that, after less than five minutes, I discreetly switched off my recorder knowing the interview would never make a story, and continued the conversation only out of politeness and professional interest in Ethiopian politics.
It seems her caution was well-placed. The 36-year-old opposition leader and mother of one is back behind bars, accused by the government of speaking out of turn. It has been almost exactly one year since a group of policemen snatched her as she walked to her car with political ally Mesfin Woldemariam. Mesfin — a large, grey-haired man in his 70s — was bitten by a police officer in a scuffle when he tried to intervene.
Now her supporters in the Horn of Africa country are calling her “Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi” in what analysts see as a move aimed at attracting international attention to her detention. Government officials often smirk when what they see as an overblown comparison is made.
Party colleagues say she was jailed because the government feared her heading an opposition coalition in national elections set for May and rights group Amnesty International calls her a “prisoner of conscience”.
To her champions, Birtukan is the great hope for reconciliation in Ethiopia’s often bitter political landscape. To her detractors, she has been made a romantic figure by her jailing and doesn’t have the intellectual muscle or strategic nous to lead the huge country.
Some Ethiopians see sinister shading in the lack of international attention, claiming western powers are happy to see Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — in power for almost 20 years — stay on as long as he liberalises the country’s potentially huge economy and remains a loyal U.S. ally in a volatile neighbourhood that includes shambolic Somalia.
Others say, with some resignation, that yet another jailed politician in Africa just doesn’t make news anymore.
Opposition politicians have even started arguing amongst themselves over her jailing. A split in Birtukan’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party is being blamed by some on accusations that certain UDJ officials had policy disagreements with their leader and so are now not working hard enough for her release.
Birtukan was jailed for the first time after Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005. A coalition of parties, of which she was a leader, claimed a fix when the government declared victory. Police and soldiers then killed about 200 opposition protesters in running street battles when Meles said they were marching on state buildings to overthrow him.
She was released in 2007, along with other opposition leaders, after the government said they had accepted responsibility for orchestrating the violence and asked for a pardon. But Birtukan, a former judge, then made a speech in which she said she never asked for any such pardon.
Her defiant words riled many and ruling party members said she was trying to destablise Ethiopian politics, risking a rerun of 2005’s trouble. Meles himself — who had to fight hardliners in his party to push through the 2007 pardon deal — seemed angry and backroom negotiations aimed at forcing her to withdraw her remarks began. She refused.
Now, a year into her detention, Meles seems reluctant even to speak her name, preferring to call her “the lady” or “that woman”.
When he finally did say the word Birtukan last week at a news conference, he couldn’t have been clearer about her future.
“There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan,” he said. “Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.”
The words will have chilled her family, friends and political allies.
So what next for Birtukan? Does Meles mean what he says? Or will she be pardoned again after the elections? Is she a future Prime Minister for Ethiopia? Or has she simply become a romanticised figure? Why isn’t the international community pushing harder for her release?