Alemayehu G. Mariam
Happy Mother’s Day, Birtukan (Invictus) Midekssa !
As Mother’s Day is celebrated in Ethiopia on the second Sunday in May, I feel privileged to share with my readers a testimonial tribute honoring Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history and the most famous political prisoner in that country. Let me say up front that Birtukan needs no tribute or praise from me or any other person. She has written her own heroic chapter in the modern history of Ethiopia for which she will be praised by future generations. Her suffering and sacrifices in the struggle for democracy, human rights and the rule of law are inscribed in the hearts and minds of her people in the indelible ink of courage and humility. But on this Mother’s Day, I have taken the liberty to say just a few words in tribute to Birtukan for her sacrifices as a mother.
Of course, I hold great admiration, respect, appreciation and gratitude for Birtukan not only on Mother’s Day, but every day. I am awed by her display of supreme grace in the face of withering oppression by one of the most barbarous dictatorships in the modern world. When democracy is trampled in Ethiopia, and “wrong forever sits on the throne”, to paraphrase James Russell Lowell, and the rule of law, human rights and truth dangle from the tyrant’s noose on the scaffold, Birtukan did what Nelson Mandela did. She stood up and shouted for the world to hear: Only right makes might!
For her selfless sacrifices in the service of her fellow citizens, we all owe her a heavy debt of gratitude. Birtukan has been to the mountain of temptation and offered the chance to live in the lap of luxury. She could have had everything that money can buy: a posh mansion away from all the poor people, the very best of amenities, the finest garments and jewelry, power and the invisible benefits of office that many have used to accumulate personal wealth. Birtukan refused outright the temptation to sell her soul for all the silver and gold in Ethiopia. She paid a heavy price to keep her soul intact and free: Life Imprisonment.
For showing courage and integrity facing the Beast, I have the highest admiration for Birtukan. As a judge she stood up for justice and the independence of the judiciary. She refused to bend justice to serve politics; and for her judicial integrity, she was booted off the bench. By refusing to betray her professional obligations and judicial oath, Birtukan has served not only the ends of justice in Ethiopia but also the cause of universal justice. She is to be honored for being a fair and impartial judge whose loyalty was always to the supreme law of the land and never to the supreme dictator.
I appreciate Birtukan for showing dignity even when she is the object of obscene mockery. When she stood up for her rights, the constitution of her country and the rule of law, she was mocked as a “silly chicken” that “hanged herself”. After she was forced to endure six months of harrowing solitary confinement under the most brutal conditions in violation of a court order, she was made the object of the proverbial “fat woman” joke. They said she sat around in solitary confinement eating all of the prison food, not exercising and putting on a “few kilos.” I know Birtukan would never stoop to the sewer to respond to such filth. She is just a class act!
I commend Birtukan for being a great Ethiopian. As Shakespeare wrote, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” In Birtukan’s case, she achieved greatness. Let me be clear. She did not achieve greatness through exploits in the battle field. She was never a general. She abhors violence, brutality and inhumanity. She did not achieve greatness by amassing great fortune. She comes from a humble background; and she would never steal from the people to enrich herself. She did not achieve greatness through extraordinary scientific, literary or artistic endeavors. She never had opportunities for such pursuits. She did not achieve greatness because of her long service to the state or extraordinary political experience and skills. She is too young for that.
She achieved greatness in her profound and absolute faith in what she likes to call “the future country of Ethiopia” and her willingness to pay for it with her life. She has a bottomless faith in the future of her generation to raise Ethiopia from the ashes of dictatorship and transform it into an impregnable fortress of democracy. The “future country of Ethiopia” is the country of Birtukan’s generation. They will inherit a land that has been scorched by dictatorship and oppression, racked by enforced ethnic division and ravaged by poverty, disease, corruption and ignorance; but Birtukan’s generation will be able to build on that arid landscape an oasis of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Birtukan’s generation will be Ethiopia’s greatest generation. In her youthful idealism, Birtukan has overcome the cynicism, pessimism, negativism, defeatism, criticism, lack of enthusiasm, neuroticism, bitterness, doubt and distrust of the generations that have come before her own. I believe a person’s greatness should be measured not only by what they have done in the past, but more importantly by what they are prepared to do for the future and the sacrifices they make in the present for that future. By this measure, Birtukan is truly a great woman!
I have heard it said that Birtukan could walk out of prison at any time if she kissed the hands that keep her chained in the in the dungeons and licks the boots that press heavily against her neck. “She must beg for mercy and ask for a pardon,” they say. She won’t do it! Birtukan is the type of young person who personifies the principles spoken of by Winston Churchill when he urged the youth of England to “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.” She is also that ordinary person anywhere to whom President John Kennedy’s message could be addressed when he pleaded with his fellow citizens, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Birtukan refuses to yield to force and asks not for a pardon, but what she can do for her country.
I pay homage to Birtukan for being an inspirational role model to all young Ethiopians. Through personal example, she has taught young Ethiopians the values of honesty, courage, integrity, intelligence, fair-, open- and broad-mindedness and an unshakeable faith in the future of democracy in Ethiopia. In the final analysis, Birtukan is a symbol of the titanic struggle between those who cling to the impoverished and bankrupt politics of the past and the young people who are fighting for a future Ethiopia built on a vision of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If the past wins, the nation will be lost; and if the future wins, the nation will have been reborn. I have no doubts whatsoever that those who fight for the “future country of Ethiopia” will win because history is on their side.
But on this Mother’s Day, I pay a special tribute to Birtukan for being a mother to her five-year-old daughter, undoubtedly someone she values more than her own life. I can not even begin to imagine what thoughts may have rushed through her mind when she resolved to leave her then three-year-old daughter and serve out a life sentence. The psychological pain and anguish must have been more painful than the prospect of serving out a life sentence. Though her daughter will grow knowing her mother is in prison for life, I can imagine the enduring pride she will have knowing deep in her heart that her mother is very, very special.
I possess neither the poetic imagination nor the ability to write the silky prose that Birtukan deserves in praise for her sacrifices as a mother. So I shall borrow verse from William Ross Wallace, whom Edgar Allan Poe called “one of the very noblest of American poets”, to pay my tribute to her.
“The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Is The Hand That Rules The World”
Blessings on the hand of women!
Angels guard its strength and grace,
In the palace, cottage, hovel, (prison)
Oh, no matter where the place;
Would that never storms assailed it,
Rainbows ever gently curled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.
Happy Mother’s Day, Birtukan Invictus (Unconquered)!
Free Birtukan and all political prisoners in Ethiopia.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.