Refusing a ‘diminished self’

10 mins read

Informed by prison experience, activist-scholar imagines a more open Ethiopia

By Corydon Ireland
Harvard Staff Writer

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer “I was in prison because I spoke,” said Birtukan Midekssa, a Harvard Scholar at Risk who spent 41 months of her life in Ethiopian prison.
Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
“I was in prison because I spoke,” said Birtukan Midekssa, a Harvard Scholar at Risk who spent 41 months of her life in Ethiopian prison.

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 with Harvard 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 Harvard Scholar 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 democratic society.”
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 Democracy party 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 emblems.”
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 represented.
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.”

Source: harvard gazette


  1. A wonderful article reflective of the situation in Ethiopia.
    I am glad Birtukan is speaking now after being absent for a while. She ia an amazing, courageous woman who stood up against absolute power.

    • What has that got to do with the topic being discussed?
      Your out of place and deliberately distracting malacious comment reflects your stupidity! I don’t know what you look like but I do know that your I.Q,judging by your imbecile remark is very very low indeed.

  2. F.KR

    Birtukan is talking about very important issues such as individual freedom and human rights to bring about change in the country. You talk about “dental work”? This shows the level of your thinking … VERY LOW … you smell very much like the TPLF cadre.

    Thank you Birtuakan for articulating what Ethiopia desperately needs without resorting into the usual TPLF style politics. It will not be far away for us to live in a democratic country where the rule of law is respected, and I thank you very much for making that point … let us continue our peaceful struggle and we will soon be there.

  3. Very promising groups and individuals, mainly not form’ya tewled’ are emering with a common principle of HUMANITY BEFORE ETHNICITY & NO ONE IS FREE ULESS WE ALL R FREE
    semayawi party, raey youth association, Obang Metho, Tamagn Beyene, Sisay Agena, ESAT, ODF( Oromo Democratic Front), Birtukan Medikssa, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Arage, Reyout Alemu, Tewodros Kasahun, Abraham Wolde, Ethiopia Transition Council, the youth from Ogaden with hard audio and vidio evidences,… day after day one enemy is emerging asolutelly clear ..tplf (not EPRDF), Ethiopia is reviving from 20 years zeregna government fascist styeled banda weyane

  4. ” that she left ethiopia hollwed out”, she said “deprived of national symbols and emblems”
    You are so childesh that you do not know what you mean by “national symbols and emblems”. To educate you, it noting more than what Amhra’s imposed on the nations and peoples of that prison house of nations. It is Amhra culture, language, religion, values and ethos etc. You are a victim your self. That is why an aleggedly “oromoo by blood” you are being a slave to that Amhra culture. You are recycling what Neftegna mentors educated you. Fortunetly, that ethiopia is gone forever, and try as they maight, there is no brining that back. Unfortuntly, they did not teach you that at Harvard!!!

  5. It is nice to hear Bertukan again after so long.
    I,for one,am primarily delighted to know that her health is good and she remains mentally unscathed after her subjection to the inhuman treatment and solitary confinement of Meles’s dungeon.That by itself is a great victory.One should not forget that many in her earlier position would have been broken or scarred for life.
    As we have supposed all along,Bertukan is a woman of strong constitution,
    dignity and equanimity.

    Now,I am equally delightful to hear Bertukan speak again from the same place of integrity and strength about the crucial issues confronting our nation.
    Her good message today is confirmed by her current education.It is a message which she had already learnt earlier in her childhood through the communitarean lives of her people and on a national scale it must be one of shared democratized Ethiopian identity.
    Obviously,this message should not be expected to make either the ethnicist regime or the disgruntled ethnic elite who used to be bed fellows with the regime happy.Both groups are similar in making a fetish of separate identities.However,our people who are sovereign in these matters and who are of mixed heritage and common future destiny know that she is echoing their best aspirations.
    Bertukan needs to speak more.She has millions and millions of listeners.

  6. Mamo,

    Her “national symbols and emblems” are those implanted in her mind in Finfine. Amharas used her bi-ethnic background to showcase that Ethiopia is one country with equality of ethnic groups. The fact is it is rotten inside out. Which national symbol is she talking about. Is she talking about Odda Bultum, Odda Nebi or Gondar castle, Aksum obelisque or Haile Selassie Ejersa Goro? Lady you do not know the histroy of your other half. Your other half is marching forward towards realizing its own rightful place among equal nations. Tens of thousands of people did not give their life to award you a successful dream of restoring a foreboding history to them. Go away.

  7. Mr Mamo,what is wrong with you dude? I think you are suffering from narrow ethinicisim just like Woyanes. For you you being born from Amhara and Oromo parents is a crime unless both of them belong to Oromo;if that is waht you aspire it would certainly be called the 21st century stupidity. Let alone Ethiopia having too many ethinic tribes even in Europe where you probably live in exile people of of differnet sorts of social background could get tied with marriage and give birth of a child and enjoy citzenship right of the new country with every entitlments coming along the way.So regardless your tribe try to be a man of broad perspective and be proud of your nationality’Ethiopianism’ and joing the struggle to declare equality among every ethinic groups

  8. Ethiopias national language should be democratized by cancelling Amharas minority language (Amharic) and replace it with majority Oromo language. We cannot have no democracy while minority amaras language and amaras culture towering over majority (oromos).

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