By Neamin Zeleke — Two or three decades ago , every Ethiopian from each imaginable sector of society would have been grossly offended by the utterly sad spectacle of the brave Birtukan Mediksa, a defenseless woman, a mother of a child, paraded in public and forced to undergo televised self humiliation and public shame. Birtukan Medkesa’s ineffable inner turmoil and agony are, perhaps, best captured by Eskinder Nega’s acute observation when he wrote: “… Birtukan shook her head sideways as I spoke: ‘We are proud of you,’ I told her. ’You are our hero.’ There was pained expression on her face. Something is visibly bottled up in her, pushing to explode …” Then he poses the apt question: “…What kind of heartless men would threaten a woman with indefinite imprisonment until their demise unless she admits to ‘deceiving the nation and the government?’ Where is their moral compass?” The answer to Eskinder is that they have no moral compass. They never had one, nor will they ever care to have one. It should not be expected from sadist criminals who have savoured every bit, second and minute of the pain and agony they inflicted on an entire Ethiopian nation and millions of our people for the past twenty years, at every turn and interval.
It is known that the fundamental line of demarcation that separates dictatorship from constitutionally liberal democracies is the respect accorded in the latter for the sanctity and dignity of the human beings. Individual liberty as expressed by the concepts and practice of the rule of law and due process is at the very foundation of democracies. The glaring differences among the two political systems are the way they treat their citizens as subjects on the one hand, and autonomous individuals with dignity and humanity on the other. In democracies the weakest members of society—prisoners of war, convicts, and the mentally ill—are treated humanely and in accordance with the rule of law. The laws protect the personal dignity and liberty of the human individual. The Geneva Convention and other norms and laws of international nature are also meant to guide the behaviours of states and non-state actors alike on ways in which “enemies” are supposed to treat and deal with each other. In democracies, the laws and norms of society do not permit a prisoner to be paraded for a televised public humiliation, like what Meles Zenawi and his thugs imposed on Birtukan.
Even convicted felons, jailed for murder, express themselves and testify in public only if they agree to it. Nothing is as much a nemesis to the supreme and cherished values of liberty and human dignity as to have to speak against one’s self interest leave alone to engage in an act of forced self-humiliation. Indeed, watching Birtukan give the interview the way she did, under apparent and tremendous duress, violates the core of our essence as Ethiopians. Where the actual shame lies is in fact in the coercion against a defenceless woman like Birtuakn.
But what were the purposes of shaming and subjecting a harmless and powerless woman to public humiliation by parading her on national television to utter the words she did? Is the target only Birtuakn, the woman and the mother, the political leader, or does it have a further reaching objective beyond the public and televised rape of her humanity and individuality? The intended effect of crushing one’s self esteem in this case is also meant to crush the self–esteem of her supporters: The millions of Ethiopians who advocated for her release, held vigils, went to demonstrations and rallies, put her picture high in public places from US to Europe, from New Zealand to South Africa. In his lust for vengeance, that is what Meles Zenawi had masterminded.
What, indeed, happened to Birtukan during those lonely days and nights over the stretch of two long years? What was it that sapped her ability to speak her mind as before? What horrors, physical and psychological, was she subjected to break her sense of self? What cruelly creative methods did her tormentors use to cause all the unspeakable effects of physical torture in ways that wouldn’t leave visible signs on the outside when she steps out of the prison cell and among the Ethiopian people? What toll did complete and total deprivation of information and communication with the outside world, supplanted by constant infusion of government propaganda, exact on her spirit? In his lust for vengeance to punish Birtukan for her act of speaking truth to his power, Meles Zenawi subjected her to the unspeakable and the unthinkable, to coerce her in front of the television camera, and designed such a heart wrenching spectacle to humiliate the millions of supporters of Birtukan by parading her on national television while millions watched the chilling scene in angst.
After all, for these millions and for us all citizens–men, women, mothers, fathers, children, and the youth alike–Birtukan represents the struggle of the Ethiopian people for liberty and justice. She embodied their dreams and aspirations, for all those who watched her, the millions of Ethiopians longing for justice, equality, and liberty. Two years ago, Birtukan stood in defiance of the regime and its unjust demands. In “Qale”, a testament of her moral courage, she was defiant against an oppressive and unjust order of her captors and tormenters. During the nearly two years of languishing in jail she had to endure the torment of a solitarily confinement, and so much more by way of physical and mental terror, to exact a heavy toll on her mind and soul, until Birtukan was made to engage in an act of public shame and humiliation.
There should not be a shadow of doubt that this basest of acts, such barbaric and heartless act was done with the calculated agenda of killing the ideals of liberty and justice she championed for the people of Ethiopia; it was done to murder the noble ideals to whose height Ethiopian humanity has aspired to reach; and it was done to stampede over the millions of Ethiopians hungry for freedom, equality and democracy. By desecrating and discrediting the messenger, the embodiment of our aspirations, with her own words in an orchestrated televised interview, those universal values of freedom, liberty and justice are also put to public shame and humiliation.
No lingering doubt should be nagging the mind of any sane citizen. The aim of the cruel drama is clear and loud: Meles declares once again, we can break your leaders; we will make them bow and cow to our will; we can humiliate the pan-Ethiopian identity Birtukan represents. Derivatively, we can, at any given time, take away your self esteem, your dignity and your self-respect as Ethiopians. We can make you shiver with fear; turn you into a sheepish subject that can only function under our will and whim. In her essay on Courage and Resistance, Susan Sontag wrote: “…Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example–for courage is as contagious as fear and fear disperses them…” It was Birtukan’s moral courage that was the target, in an attempt to replace it with fear. Fear of the power of Meles Zenawi’s state, an unjust power. Fear pervading the human individual and society, the Ethiopian people at large, as has happened in the near totalitarian police state of Meles Zenawi’s ethnocentric dictatorship.
Surely, the inhumane acts of public humiliation and forced confessions of course have their precedents where totalitarian dictatorships have reigned. As is well known, during the former regime of Col. Mengistu, under the spell of its Marxist Stalinist ideology, people were forced to conduct the so-called “self criticism”, admitting guilt or an alleged “crime” in public, if not televised, and engage in an imposed self incrimination. It is a practice that has its origins from Joseph Stalin’ s infamous show trials and self-incriminating confessions of Bolshevik leaders, his onetime comrades—Zinoviev, Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, “the golden boy” of the Bolsheviks, and many many others. A practice that became the norm on the dark side of the Iron Curtain, whose millions of dissidents found themselves in dungeons in Siberia, known as Gulags. Prisons and solitary confinements that were designed to crush the human spirit in freezing Siberia and other desolate places that also meant to desolate the human soul and break the will. Human spirits whose stories are embodied by such renowned Russian dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. The award for which Birtukan is nominated bears the latter’s name. Brutal dictators of our most recent times including Sadam Hussein of Iraq and Idi Amin Dada of Uganda employed similar practices as well.
Not coincidentally, the regime of Meles Zenawi has its roots in the Stalinist-Albanian brand—an ideology he and his TPLF comrades espoused during their formative years. But even more, the Meles and TPLF Stalinist mode of thinking was born and reared with another quasi ideology — a vehement hatred of Ethiopians and Ethiopiawinet. Such a worldview was at the core of TPLF’s ideological outlooks starting from their early days when it championed its original agenda of the secession of Tigray from Ethiopia and the formation of the Tigray republic. Meles Zenawi and his friends saw the universe and the problems of society through the prism of ethnicity or “nations and nationalities”. Society’s prime contradictions had their basis in the “question of nationalities”. And the prime agenda of its struggle? That of ushering in a society in which “nations and nationalities” are the core organising principle of identity and society. In contrast, the human individual’s sanctity and dignity, liberty as well as moral values that sustain society, values such as self realization, a higher spiritual and attainment and the realization of a truly free being of the human individual, do not figure whatsoever in this worldview.
The ethnocentric driven quasi ideology which Meles Zenawi’s TPLF erected as the edifice of the current Ethiopian state has become the alpha and omega and the standard bearers against which all and sundry policies, activities, and ideas are measured. Of course, sooner rather than later, the hidden agenda behind the official ideology of the state, and the attendant hodgepodge “Revolutionary Democracy”, proved to be a façade to mask ethnic minority domination and the all too pervasive hegemony of the ethnocentric elite of Tigray over the rest of the Ethiopian people. (The term here is used to differentiate the latter from the non-ethnocentric and democratic elite of Tigray). The current reality in Ethiopia reminds one of the proverbial Orwellian dictum found in Animal Farm that “some animals are more equal than the others”.
As argued in the preceding sections, when the cruel sadists chose to savour watching such a sad spectacle of a defenceless woman being paraded on national television, they surely have a dual pronged evil agenda. In the process, the tens of millions of Ethiopians are humiliated too; they are made to feel that they are powerless, and indeed are made to feel the pangs emanating from the mighty power of Meles Zenawi, at the helm of the ethnocentric dictatorship. The purpose is none other than exacting submission, subservience, and fear by the populace. Let us recall what was done to Tamrat Layne. The erstwhile prime minister of the TPLF/EPRDF regime was forced to confess his alleged crime in front of the so-called parliament, and the public watched him, dumfounded, on national television. The rest is a well known story of Meles Zenawi’s one time comrade in arms serving prison for several years on corruption charges.
One is hard pressed to pose the following question. Is it then only a coincidence that the only two high profile cases during the reign of the TPLF/EPRDF regime of Meles Zenawi’s ascent to state power who were made to endure the agony of public humiliation and shame happened to be non-Tigrayans? This line of reasoning and claim is not without a foundation. A glimpse can be offered of the thinking behind Meles Zenawi’s and that of his associates in the TPLF and their stooges in the so-called EPRDF. In the Aftermath of Birtukan’s release, the prime website of the Woyanes in the Diaspora wrote the following about a TPLF cadre known as Amora and in whose honor they produced a film: “Let us hope lessons have been learned here by every one! By now we should all know, after watching the story of Amoraw and others, if there is injustice and repression Ethiopians do know how to fight till the last drop so to speak. Amoraw died because he did not want to blink even when faced with certain death to save his life let alone a warm jail! He fought till death and brought about the current constitution. The constitution must be respected. The Government must be respected for it is the government of the people! And these are the lessons we hope Birtukan and others have learned, that no one is above the law!” So goes the editorial posted on the said Woyane Website. The message of is clear, only the TPLFites can endure pain, torture and death.
Be that as it may, for any one person who has any lingering doubt, what has emerged once again is further proof of the baseness of the characters at the helm of the Ethiopian state: Brutal, cruel, sadistic, and low life scum of the earth. A bunch of cold blooded thugs that have no moral compass whatsoever, as the prominent journalist Eskinder Nega tried in vain to find one. Today, such are the people claiming to rule over the eighty million plus Ethiopians, claiming to be the “government” of Ethiopia worthy of respect, acceptance legitimacy by the citizens of the Ethiopian nation. If there is a single soul who is not utterly outraged at the multiple crimes committed on Birtukan by the Meles Zenawi, it is telling as to the lowest depths we have sunk as Ethiopians. It is also telling of the degradation of our essence as human beings devoid of all moral values–compassion, empathy, forgiveness, respect and empathy for the weak and powerless—which have been the pillars of functioning societies throughout the ages.
We have seen our nation our people subjected to all forms of agonies; we have witnessed in agony piles of skeletons; we have carried heaps of humiliations against our humanity and Ethiopian identity until this very day by the Meles Zenawi’s regime. The people of Ethiopia have no choice but to redouble the resolve to fight and remove this sadist group of criminals from power by all and any means necessary. Let us then resolve and fight until the end to bring about a truly democratic political order, where the dignity and sanctity of human beings and the freedom of the individual are held the paramount values in our ancient land.
One bard stated some time ago: “I believe in aristocracy, though, if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure” The power to endure all trials and see the inevitable triumph of humane and just Ethiopia over cruelty, injustice, and dictatorship. No doubt at all, we shall overcome indeed!