Messay Kebede – I read with great interest Dessalegn Asfaw’s article titled “Lessons from Birtukan Mideksa’s Arrest,” posted on Ethiomedia. His starting observation is that the EPRDF’s decision to arrest Birtukan emanates from a calculated risk confirming that the advantages of the detention will outweigh all possible negative fallouts. He accordingly unravels three interrelated objectives: (1) the arrest will totally cripple the momentum of the UDJ; (2) it will undermine Birtukan’s own rising popularity; (3) it will deepen the submission of the people by clearly showing that the EPRDF is the absolute master.
I fully subscribe to this analysis. But what is most interesting to me is Dessalegn’s conclusion: for him, the arrest obviously reinforces the view that “the struggle for democracy is an inward struggle. It is not about the EPRDF.” In other words, our own failure to organize and respond effectively allows the EPRDF to act with such impunity. Indeed, in light of the indignation and surprise expressed here and there at the arrest and the revocation of the pardon, it is good to remind people that the direction of the struggle is not to expect but to impose change on the EPRDF.
Where I am less inclined to follow Dessalegn is when he implies that Birtukan could have retracted the remarks she made about the pardon without damaging herself. He writes: “on the face of it, there would be nothing wrong with a calculated retraction,” all the more so as her continuous activism is necessary to accomplish urgent and more important tasks. What ruled out this option, so Dessalegn seems to say, is that such a retraction would have been viewed by the Ethiopian diaspora and most people in Ethiopia as another betrayal.
My view is that a retraction would have been harmful, not because the Ethiopian opinion would have failed to understand its merits, but because the EPRDF would have accomplished the three mentioned objectives with flying colors. When the now defunct Kinijit leaders were released from prison following the so-called presidential pardon, I wrote that the purpose of the whole drama of pardoning them after the court’s guilty verdict was to humiliate them. The intent to humiliate is not only a personal vendetta; it has a clear political goal as well. It creates a pernicious fissure between the people and its would-be leaders on the ground that leaders, who are not ready to sacrifice their comfort and even their life, if necessary, do not deserve to be leaders. The purpose of humiliation is to demean would-be leaders in front of the people they claim to defend.
The elementary reality is that a people without leadership is a people unable to organize and resist, and so doomed to submission. We all wonder why Ethiopians remain so passive when the consequences of the Woyanne policy have such disastrous impacts on their daily life. We all expect the people to rise up and oppose continuous resistance. And we know from recent experience how well the Woyanne regime understands the language of resistance, as illustrated by its precipitated pullout in the face of a growing Somali insurgency. Look closer: the Somali resistance is fuelled by the committed and stubborn leadership of Islamic fighters.
Since the rise of Ethiopia’s modern state, the various groups that controlled the central government have all worked toward one major goal, namely, the dismantling of all autonomous societal organizations so as to create a completely fragmented and flattened society. To undermine resistance, dictatorial regimes pursue the dissolution of autonomous centers of leadership through a systematic policy of atomization. This systematic decapitation went so well in Ethiopia that all forms of autonomous organizations have disappeared with the exception of the apolitical organizations known as edire. One catastrophic consequence of the atomization of social life was the promotion of ethnicity as the sole principle of organization with some potential for autonomy and anti-central state activities.
The decision to arrest Birtukan clearly belongs to the general arsenal of dictatorial regimes, which is to never allow the emergence of an autonomous leadership. But this policy backfires every time that dictators arrest or kill those who rise to leadership. The very act of silencing or eliminating them is how they earn that leadership. Hence the policy of humiliation designed to show that the so-called leaders back down whenever they are confronted with the prospect of losing their comfort.
It seems to me that Birtukan’s arrest as a result of her refusal to retract her statement does not prove that the EPRDF “has all the power and that Ms. Birtukan has none.” On the contrary, her sacrifices shows the only way out, that is, the path of resistance. She is no longer talking about resistance or elections; she is demonstrating the refusal to submit by her own example. She is thus pointing to the means that destroys dictatorships more than any violent uprising, to wit, the refusal to comply, the withdrawal of cooperation.
With her in prison, we can still continue our old way of life, but we can no longer pretend that we don’t hear her exemplary exhortation. Birtukan is now inside all of us; she has become our conscience, and as such our inspiring and admonishing leader. Her sufferings under inhuman conditions of detention are haunting voices inside us. The question is: Are we ready to respond to the appeal?
I hope that the shimagle will intervene, but this time with a determined and genuine goal of achieving a compromise, which alone opens the democratic path. But no conciliatory effort is likely to succeed if the Woyanne government is not pressured to compromise by means of sustained and wide protest. In particular, the Tigrean community can play a decisive role by openly showing its disagreement over the imprisonment of a leader whose commitment to democracy and peaceful struggle can hardly be doubted.
The appearance of two articles pleading for the release of Birtukan on Aiga Forum is an encouraging sign even if the writers justify their stand with phony reasons. The obvious truth is that, with the release of Birtukan, everybody wins, including ethnonationalists, the jailers, and their supporters. Otherwise I don’t see how one can prevail over those who increasingly urge for violent confrontation, the outcome of which is unpredictable and probably not good for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. So let us all rally around the common cause of obtaining Birtukan’s freedom.