Informed by prison experience, activist-scholar imagines a more open Ethiopia
May 16, 2013 (Harvard Gazette) –Four years ago this spring, Birtukan Midekssa was
in solitary confinement in an Ethiopian prison. Her cell was 13 feet
wide and 20 feet long and had no window. She was allowed only two
visitors: her elderly mother and her 3-year-old daughter.
Midekssa left Ethiopia in 2011, after two imprisonments that consumed
41 months of her life. She stayed first in Washington, D.C., and then
at Stanford University. Today — grateful, happy, and energized — she has
an office (with a window) at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, where she is a fellow this year. (A lawyer by training, Midekssa is also a Visiting Fellow withHarvard Law School’s Human Rights Program; starting in the fall she’ll pursue a one-year mid-career master’s degree in public administration through the Mason Program at Harvard Kennedy School.)
Most apt of all her local connections, perhaps, is her role as a HarvardScholar at Risk.
The program — based in New York, with dozens of affiliates at
universities across the world — guarantees a year or more of refuge for
scholars, writers, and scientists who in their native lands are under
threat of death, imprisonment, or harassment.
“I was in prison because I spoke,” said Midekssa.
She was first sent to prison in 2005 — entering when her daughter
Halley was 8 months old — and then again in 2008. Both times she was
sentenced to life (the second time her original sentence was death).
Both times Midekssa was pardoned because of pressure from international
human rights groups. But she was ready to live her whole life in a cell.
“I was being imprisoned for a right cause. What else could I do?” said
Midekssa. “If you restrain your self-expression, you are left with what?
Your diminished self.”
Midekssa had entered Ethiopia’s political arena in 2002 after serving
nearly six years on that nation’s federal criminal bench. “Most of my
years were full of challenge,” she said of being a judge — a struggle to
“keep my independence and professional standards.” While she was on the
bench, Ethiopian officials routinely tried to influence her decisions,
she said. But she refused to go along, despite pressure that sometimes
ratcheted up to threats of death. Her most notorious act of defiant
honesty was to free a former defense minister, Siye Abraha,
who’d been accused of corruption on dubious grounds, charges that had
already cost him years in prison. (Abraha himself was in the Mason
Program at Harvard Kennedy School, from 2011 to 2012.)
From girlhood, Midekssa had been enthralled by the idea that Ethiopia
one day could be an open democracy, despite the fact that such a
concept remained entirely theoretical during her early life. She was
born in 1974, the last year of a dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that had
started in the 13th century, and grew up in the capital city of Addis
Ababa during a military dictatorship that lasted 17 years, ending when
she was a senior in high school.
Before the next dictatorship took hold, Ethiopia enjoyed a brief
Golden Age of open political discussion, said Midekssa. “Naturally, I
aspired to see a country in which individual liberty is protected — in
which nobody is killed for their views.”
Midekssa knew that such killing was possible. In the mid-1970s,
university students and others had rallied behind the idea of a
Marxist-Leninist utopia for Ethiopia — an opposition movement that led
to the death and disappearance of thousands. Her uncle, a promising
student headed for university studies, was one of them, and his
disappearance hovered over young Midekssa’s household. Her uncle’s story
was both a warning and an inspiration. Her mother often told Midekssa
how unwise it was of her uncle to be in politics, she said — but “if I
were his age I would have done the same thing.”
Her childhood contained another influence that could be called
political: her neighborhood. “The community life was very fervent,” said
Midekssa. “I grew up in a big family of small families.” Mutual
support, collective trust, and affection were the norms, she said, and
the egalitarianism of her childhood “was an inspiration for a fair and
Her mother was a housewife; her father a soldier. Both were
illiterate, she said, but intensely interested in education, and proud
of the acuity their daughter displayed in the classrooms of her youth.
By age 25, Midekssa was a federal judge specializing in criminal law —
just one young face in a wave of young judges who replaced those
associated with the deposed military regime. “I was full of enthusiasm
from what I learned in law school,” she said, “but the experience in
court was entirely different.” It was her struggle with maintaining the
rule of law while on the bench, and her close-up view of official
corruption, Midekssa said, that finally propelled her into politics.
During the 2005 national elections, her Coalition for Unity and Democracyparty won every parliamentary seat in the capital, and scored other big wins over the ruling front of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
But within days of the results she was in jail, along with other party
members and a raft of independent journalists — all charged with
treason. The arrest set her on a path to becoming Ethiopia’s most famous
opposition figure. In 2010 she became the first woman in Ethiopian
history to chair a political party, Unity for Democracy and Justice.
At Harvard, in her law school setting, Midekssa has studied how the
judiciary in closed societies can remain independent. But at the Du Bois
Institute her focus has been investigating how Ethiopia can achieve
democracy. There is a strong appetite for democracy there already, she
said, along with a tradition of Christian-Muslim religious tolerance
that suggests to her that democracy would thrive.
But along with bedrock values there are also bedrock problems. For
one, Ethiopia’s new constitution, in 1995, redrew the nation of 85
million along ethnic lines, fragmenting the overarching national
identity into 80 ethnic identities within nine member states. That left
Ethiopia “hollowed out,” she said, “deprived of its national symbols and
Meanwhile, the federal government has ruled with a strong hand,
sometimes by regional proxies. Midekssa called the arrangement “an
unholy marriage between authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism.”
Ethiopia’s aggressive central government and its weak regional states,
she said, undermine “the virtues of federalism” and make the practice of
democracy very unlikely. Leaders have also tightened their hold on the
judiciary, the media, and the electoral process — a further “narrowing
of the democratic sphere,” Midekssa said.
So what is to be done? The first step is to “recast the past,” she
said, to reclaim symbols and a national narrative that would make
Ethiopia one again. Also, re-imagine the future, said Midekssa, by
promoting the shared social values that, for instance, her own childhood
Then there are the practical steps, she said, including an official
language, an independent supreme court, nationwide political parties to
supplant those drawn along ethnic lines, and multicultural education to
“help Ethiopians to imagine democratic Ethiopia, with all her mosaic.”