Beloved, and behind bars -

Beloved, and behind bars

Birtukan Mideksa, the country’s main opposition leader, has been in jail for 18 months


Photography Chris Flaherty

Two months ago, Halle Mideksa celebrated her fifth birthday. For the fourth time, the bubbly little girl—dressed, to meet Maclean’s, in pink and purple, hopping on one foot, a yellow sucker gripped between her teeth—had to celebrate without her mom, Birtukan Mideksa. The 36-year-old former judge is Ethiopia’s most famous opposition politician. But she was forced to miss Ethiopia’s state elections on May 23—along with the party for her only child. Mideksa, the only female leader of a main opposition party in Africa, is being held in a two-by-two-metre cell she shares with two other prisoners. She’s been at Kaliti jail for 18 months—her second stay in the hot, crowded maze of sheet-metal shacks at the southern edge of Addis Ababa, the capital. She is accused of violating the terms of a pardon under which she was released in 2007.

Mideksa was initially jailed on treason charges after elections in 2005 in which her opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party—widely popular in cosmopolitan Addis—fell curiously short of expectations. Many took to the streets to protest results observers deemed fraudulent; 30,000 were jailed, including hundreds of journalists and human rights activists; 200 unarmed protesters were shot dead and 70 opposition politicians were tried en masse, Mideksa among them.

The crackdown by Meles Zenawi’s government—which took 99.9 per cent of seats in last year’s local elections—hasn’t slowed. Four months ago, the newspaper Addis Neger, one of the country’s lone remaining independent voices, was shuttered after intimidation and harassment by government. Tsion Girima, one of the country’s only female political journalists, was jailed for misidentifying a judge in the high-profile trial of singer Teddy Afro, whose songs compare the government to a brutal junta. Ahead of these elections, the government jammed broadcasts from Voice of America, a move Zenawi defended by likening VOA to Radio Mille Collines: hate media that stoked Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

All this as the West, Ottawa included, lavishes record amounts of aid on Ethiopia, subsidizing a government now ranked among Africa’s most repressive and dictatorial regimes. Surrounded by basket-case neighbours, the country is a key Western ally in the war on terror; without Zenawi, it would join the rank of anarcho-hellholes like Somalia—or so the argument goes.

In the past five years, Mideksa, a brilliant speaker with a quick, agile mind, has become a symbol for democracy and change: a female leader in a country where, outside Addis, female circumcision remains the norm, and a single mom who staunchly opposes the politics that divide Ethiopia along ethnic lines. Her sacrifice has captivated the country—terrifying its leadership. “I wish everybody hated her,” her 76-year-old mother tells Maclean’s, tears washing down her face. “The only reason she is in jail is because everyone loves her.”

Mideksa’s books, among them works by legal philosopher John Austin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jean-Paul Sartre, and a poster of her idol, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, still line the walls of the family’s tidy green and white house. But hope that Mideksa might be released following Zenawi’s landslide, preordained victory was dashed by the PM. No, he announced on the campaign trail, she won’t be released—“ever. Full stop.”


Beloved, and behind bars

  1. The ill conceived approach of the west on stability over repression of the Ethiopian people is ridiculous. It's actually becoming a liability to the west, as the repression continues in Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi, the stability becomes a time bomb. The Ethiopian government led by Meles Zenawi, cannot be an ally to west fighting terrorism when he is terrorizing his own people.

  2. Let it be known to the world, the sales pitch presented by Meles Zenawi to Western donors “…without Zenawi, it would join the rank of anarcho-hellholes like Somalia…” simply a lie. To disprove his own argument, let's take him back 19 years ago when Mengistu left and before he was comfortably sat on the saddle, the country was without a functional government, police etc for weeks and months. The disciplined Ethiopian people managed themselves to be civil and no significant violence occurred.

  3. In the country of over 80 Million people, it's a disgrace for the west to think, there is only one person to lead the country…. The west is giving all the support a dictator needs and then talk about repression. If the west cared for TRUE Ethiopian people, they MUST stop supporting the dictator in Ethiopia.
    If the west sticks with to Matthew 7:12 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” we all be alright.

  4. Thanks to this article writer Nancy Macdonald for saying Mideksa the only female leader of the a main oppostion party in Africa. Indeed she is the only African wemen oppostion and even across the globe,when evaluting the situation to the current political movements in this planet.And of course she may have done history in wemen's struggle aganist the tyrant regime. Bravo Burtukan of Ethiopia.Long live!

  5. Canada and the USA, please stop helping dictators and indirectly sponsering the continued misery of the people of Ethiopia under the brutal dictator Meles Zenawi!!

  6. An appeal to Canadian female MP's
    I want to appeal to Canadian women's groups and Canadian female politicians to please speak on behalf of Birtukan Mideksa , the first female leader of political party in their Ethiopian history, please speak for her immediate and unconditional release. Canada should do the right thing, today not tomorrow. If you don't who will?

  7. It is a shame for Canada to invite Such criminal as Meles zenawi to attend the G 20 Meetings. If you can roll the red carpet for meles zenawi, why not for Castro, Mugabe, Kim el sung, or the tyrant of Iran. He is responsible for thousands of Death and is worse than all this leaders. The only difference is his victims are Ethiopians not white ppl.

  8. Dear Nancy Macdonald,

    Thanks for writing the truth about the situations with Judge Birtukan Midekisa though lately. I hope you would continue generating the necessary awareness regarding what is unfolding in my country of origin Ethiopia in general and the current appalling condition with our beloved leader Ms. Midekisa in particular. Birtukan is indeed the champion of real democracy in East Africa.

    Please take note that during the historic and stolen general legislative election in Ethiopia in 2005, Ms Midekisa was the vice chairwoman of the now defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy party. The country's major opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ), of which Ms Midekisa is both pioneer and leader, was not formed at that time. You may need to make a minor correction on paragraph 2 in this regard.

    Thanks again,

    Mesfin B.
    From Toronto

  9. Allow me to take this opportunity in order to ask the federal government of Canada as to:

    How long must Birtukan, her little daughter and her ailing mother continue suffering before the federal government of Canada uses tax payers money that is lavishly being donated by Ottawa to the tyrant in Ethiopia for her release and every other means at its disposal to put pressure on the increasingly iron fisted dictatorial Meles regime in Ethiopia?

    Canada! Stop subsidizing criminals in Ethiopia now.

  10. Dear Nancy Macdonald
    Thanks to this interesting article about Birtukan Midekssa, the only political party leader in Ethiopia, and the whole Africa. I read the article with tear-bearing eyes, and finally says, “at last we got one journalist who can see what is going on behind the scene here in Ethiopia”. Birtukan is not only a charismatic political leader, but is a role model for most of Ethiopian youth. U.S., Canada and Europe have to stop their silence on such dictatorship, and have to pass a clear message to Zenawi, who is becoming the champion of dictators extending his rule for a quarter of a century by fraudulent election. Citizens of these states has also to push their representatives to pressurize the so called the Ethiopian government to free Birtukan.

  11. It is painful to count the days that Mideksa is in Prison and denying all her constitutional rights. The whole world especially those who can to influence the regime you are supposed to contribute to this lady and give relief to the rest of us. A government comes and goes it is the world’s realty but every countries’ relationship remains with the people of a country not specifically with the government, tomorrow at our victory we ask you why did you have preferred silence when you can to contribute to the need of our people while we are tensed with the human rights violation and more other violations. Even you have time to speak so loudly and take measures to get into the truth.
    But Birtukan remains an iconic figure of my country and to the whole of the world.

    The whole world we are in need of you to be with us to stand with the truth.

    • Nancy Macdonald we need such balanced mind to stand with us to speak the truth. I thankyou with all Ethiopians those who cares for the truth.

    • Nancy Macdonald we need such balanced mind to stand with us to speak the truth. I thank you with all Ethiopians , with those who cares for the truth.

  12. Nancy we salute for your professionalism!

  13. Dear Nancy Macdonald,

    Thank you! Most Ethiopians doent know current situation of their country like you. The situation in Ethiopia by now is really difficult to explain. Meles Zenawi and His Group are distroying Ethiopia.

    Thank you
    Zelalem Tesfaye

  14. Dear Ms Macdonald,

    Hypocrcy and selective morality have become the hall marks of Western Governments. Meles Zenawi grew up hating Ethiopia . For some unknown reasons the U.S. and UK had decided to trust him to carry out their dirty scheme of fracturing and destroying the country. I don't know what ill motives the Western regimes have been harboring about Ethiopia and its people. But I do know that they want the country to be ruled by the most hated person. I have no doubt that sooner than later the darling errand boy of US and UK will go to hell. Then Ethiopians will have an opportunity to vent their anger and frustration and assess their relationship with the hypocrites and partners in Meles' crimes.


  15. Thanks for this thoughtful article. If you look at the bigger picture, this hypocrisy of western governments is complicating life for many people in the developing world. The same people who impose sanctions on Mugabe for expropriating land from citizens, don't move a finger when Melles Zenawi hacks down unarmed protesters in broad daylight. T

    If you have read the HRW report, it clearly states that the core problem is the lack of distiinction between the party and overnment at lower levels. How was that bolstered? Western donors channeled money directly to districts after the 2005 elections! This financed the machinery of intimidation at the local level!!

    I have no more trust in the so-called liberal democracies. ONLY WE CAN LIBERATE OURSELVES.

  16. Good job, Nancy.

  17. Thank you, Nancy, for standing up for justice and human rights, particularly mother's right.

    How come champions of democracy – the USA and the UK kept quiet on this issue?

  18. Thanks for the insightful reporting Mrs. Macdonald. It would be nice to see more articles on important international issues in Macleans. I will be following your writing in the future.



  19. Thanks Nancy,
    this is
    Mideksa is not the only female opposition leader to be barred to run for President.
    Ingabire is the head of the United Democratic Forces, a party formed in exile but not registered.
    Last month she was prevented from leaving the country because she was under police investigation.

    Rwanda's electoral commission barred Hutu opposition figure Victoire Ingabire from running for president because she allegedly denied the country's genocide occurred, officials said Friday as complaints grew of a government crackdown.
    Ingabire, 41 the Hutu opposition figure, returned to Rwanda in January after 16 years, saying the country needs to promote reconciliation. She could face up to two decades in prison under charges of genocide ideology, or denying the genocide.
    Her American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, was arrested late last month when he arrived in Rwanda for suspected genocide ideology but was freed a week ago for medical reasons.

  20. Thanks Nancy