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.”

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