Note: Except for elements inserted in the nature of narrative license, syntax and independently established facts, this “interview” is based on English or Amharic translations of public statements, hearing testimony, speeches and other declarations[] of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and that country’s most famous political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment in December 2008 on allegations of denying a pardon was a tactical move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate and eliminate his only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 “elections”. In March 2010, the U.S. State Department declared Birtukan a political prisoner. In January 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention. Amnesty International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in 2009.
This “interview” is done partly for the benefit of Western governments and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in light of the May 2010 “elections”. It seems that Western governments in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see nothing and hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic shield of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while coddling a dictator, I hope with this “interview” they will at least begin to appreciate this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful, enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured, humble and compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.
I had the great honor and privilege to meet Birtukan in the Fall of 2007 when she led a delegation of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (Kinijit) party leaders visiting the United States. On numerous occasions, I have publicly expressed my highest respect, greatest admiration, deepest gratitude and boundless appreciation for Birtukan’s sacrifices in the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia.
Q. Let’s start by talking about your situation in Akaki federal prison over the past year and half. We are told that your “health is in perfect condition”, you have picked up a “few kilos” and could use some physical exercise. How is life in prison?
Birtukan: Correction! You mean life at the Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort? Well, the food here is excellent and so are the accommodations. I have my own special room. I like to call it my boudoir. They call it “Solitary Confinement”. It is true that I have “gained a few kilos”, but that is because I spend all of my time in my room. “C’est la vie” at the Akaki Hilton, as they say in French.
Q. The reason you were returned to prison to serve out a life term is that you allegedly denied receiving a pardon when you were released in July, 2007. Did you deny receiving a pardon?
Birtukan: I have never denied signing the pardon document as an individual prisoner. I, along with the other opposition political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders according to the document that was written on June 18, 2007. This is a fact I can not change even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all these illegal intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have nothing to do with playing with words, inaccurate statements I made or any violations of law. The message is clear and this message is not only for me but for all who are active in the peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not according to what the country’s Constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.
Q. As you know, elections are scheduled for May 23, 2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Birtukan: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the Akaki Hilton. I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no radio or television. But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you can judge for yourself what the situation is like today.
In 2005, public interest and participation in the electoral process was massive. The European Union Observer team estimated voter registration at no less than 85% of all eligible voters, based on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons. The total number of candidates for the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 1,847. A total of 3,762 candidates ran for Regional Councils. The total number of women candidates to the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 253, and 700 in the Regional Councils.
To its credit the government in 2005 allowed limited media access, established a Joint Political Party Forum at national and constituency levels, regular consultations with electoral authorities to resolve problems in campaign and election administration, special elections-related training programs for the police and the judiciary, pledges of non-violence between the ruling and opposition parties for election day and invitation of international election observers and so on.
As election day approached, the government started to use its power to influence the outcome of the election. There was widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of public gatherings and opposition party rallies, threats and intimidations by some local public officials. In some instances, force was used to disrupt public gatherings and detain opposition supporters throughout the country. In the days preceding the elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and television using images and messages designed to intimidate by associating the genocide in Rwanda with opposition politics.
Even though the Election Board was required to announce the official results on June 8, that requirement was superseded when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces, and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special military units. The Elections Board simultaneously ordered the vote tallying process to stop, and on May 27, the Board released its determination that the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front had won 209 seats, and affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties had won 142 seats. Our party filed complaints in 139 constituencies, the UEDF lodged 89 complaints, while the EPRDF raised concerns over irregularities in more than 50 seats.
That’s how it was back in 2005.
Q. The ruling regime continues to make public accusations that the opposition in the current “election” is inciting violence as it did in 2005. Recent public statements from the highest levels of the ruling regime indicate that any attempts by opposition parties to boycott the election, complaints of harassment and intimidations and agitations of youth to engage in violence will be dealt with harshly after the elections. How do you assess the situation?
Birtukan: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is any violence to occur in the current election it is not going to come from the opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the government in 2005 to look into the killings and excessive use of force against demonstrators decided that there was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by the government. The shots fired by government forces were not intended to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill them by targeting their heads and chests. The historical facts speak for themselves. If there is election related violence today, one need look no further than the usual suspects.
Q. The ruling regime likes to trumpet to the world that Ethiopia is governed democratically, human rights are fully protected and the rule of law observed. Do you agree with these claims?
Birtukan: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same thing. There is no democracy in Ethiopia today, despite empty claims of “recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our government, the immense progress in creating a competitive, pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society.” The fact of the matter is that there is neither pluralism nor commitment to democratic principles and practices in Ethiopia. The government’s claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the stage of political sloganeering. If pluralism involves widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from citizens, it does not exist today in Ethiopia. If pluralism means increased and diverse participation in the political decision-making process and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not exist in Ethiopia. If pluralism means a process where every voice is heard, conflict is resolved by dialogue and compromise and an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and respect is nurtured, that does not exist either. But democracy in Ethiopia today must not only reflect the values of pluralism, it must also be genuinely participatory, transparent, accountable, equitable and based on the rule of law. We are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will not be accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in earnest by installing its critical pillars of support.
Q. What are the pillars you believe are important in establishing democracy in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: The are many. Let me start by mentioning the need for an independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that having served as a judge and also being a victim of a judicial system that has me imprisoned for life. In 2005, I and the various opposition leaders were prosecuted for various state crimes including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court system that has little institutional independence, and one subject to political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It is a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment, intimidation and persecution. Judges are selected not for professionalism or legal knowledge but for their loyalty to the government.
It is universally accepted that an independent and professional judiciary is a key element in the institutionalization of the rule of law, the promotion and protection of human rights and even in implementing social and economic reform in society. The U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents recognize the central importance of an independent judiciary as the guarantors of due process and justice. Judicial independence is guaranteed by Article 78 of the Ethiopian Constitution but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are supposed to be free of party politics, many are under the direct control of the party in power, if not outright members. With the judiciary under effective political control, there is little confidence in its institutional powers or the legitimacy of its rulings. If we can not have serious judicial reforms, not only will we be unable to protect the rights of citizens, we will always live under the rule of the gun instead of the rule of law.
Q. What other pillars of democracy do you believe are missing in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Press freedom is another essential requirement necessary for building democracy in Ethiopia. Without a free press, there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important political information because of exclusive government control of the media. Political parties need to have equal access to media controlled by the government so that they can effectively communicate with the people. Various international human organizations have ranked Ethiopia at the top of the list of countries where there is little freedom of press. The U.S. and other Western governments can help by promoting private electronic media and supporting the emergence of private newspapers, weeklies and magazines to help develop a well-informed public.
Q. What are your views on the electoral process, and what improvements to that process do you believe are needed?
Birtukan: First, all elections must be free and fair in order for citizens to meaningfully participate in shaping the political makeup and future policy direction of government. People must be free to register to vote or run for public office. Candidates and parties must be free to engage the voters without intimidation or harassment. There must be an independent free press to provide information to the voters. The freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns must be guaranteed. There must also be an impartial system of conducting elections and verifying election results. It was the lack of independence, impartiality and transparency of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board that was one of the factors that complicated the resolution of the dispute in the 2005 elections. We need an elections board that is representative of all the political parties and enjoys the public trust. People need to have confidence that their votes are counted properly and there is no elections fraud.
Q. How do you assess the human rights situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured under international law and the Ethiopian Constitution. The ruling regime has sought to put up a façade of commitment to human and democratic rights. But its practices contravene all of its obligations under the Ethiopian constitution and the human rights conventions that bind Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 14 enumerates all of the “human rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens. Arts. 14-28 enumerate these rights and include basic protections against arbitrary government actions and guarantees of due process. Art. 13, sec. 2 states “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.”
The fact is that the ruling regime observes neither its own constitution nor the requirements of well-established international human rights conventions. The regime’s own Inquiry Commission in 2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government security forces. The human rights violations committed by the ruling regime are so numerous and egregious that it would be too difficult to list them all here. But I wish to cite a few examples documented in the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for 2006.
That report stated that “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees.” Massive arrests and detentions are common, and the Report concluded, “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice…. Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions… The independent commission of inquiry… found that security officials held over 30,000 civilians incommunicado for up to three months in detention centers located in remote areas… Other estimates placed the number of such detainees at over 50,000.”
Q. Do you think Western governments, particularly the U.S., can play a role in improving the overall situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: As the largest donor country, the U.S is in the best position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In general, Western governments must insist on the release of all political prisoners and the immediate restoration of democratic rights. They must insist on accountability and transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep the government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting civic society organizations and implementing other mechanisms that can facilitate adequate monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The West must insist on the functioning of a free press without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help strengthen private media in Ethiopia. The West can also play a central role in the electoral process by ensuring fraud-free elections, helping political parties build more effective organizations and campaigns, strengthening civil society groups to function as facilitators in the democratic process and professionalization of the National Election Board to help it become fair and balanced. On the other hand, we want to make sure that U.S. security assistance to Ethiopia be used for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and never against the civilian population.
Q. What are your views on the future of Ethiopia?
Birtukan: I believe Ethiopia is the country of the future. Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression, ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront the past and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to build the future country of Ethiopia by fully embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only through dialogue, negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be guaranteed in Ethiopia.
Thank you Birtukan for this “interview”. Stay strong!
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.