Birtukan Midekssa is a former federal judge and leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Ethiopia.
Hailed as the Aung San Suu Kyi of her country, she was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections. After eighteen months in prison, she was pardoned in 2007 following a series of high-level negotiations. Upon her release, she founded the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) and was elected its first chairperson. In 2008, she was rearrested for allegedly having violated the terms of her pardon and remained in prison for almost two more years. In 2010, she was shortlisted for the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Prior to entering politics, Ms. Midekssa served as a defense attorney and federal judge, rendering numerous court decisions in support of the rule of law and in defense of fundamental constitutional liberties. She drew the ire of the Ethiopian government when she presided as a judge in a high profile corruption case involving the former defense minister, Siye Abraha. Ms. Midekssa released Abraha for lack of evidence, but the government immediately rearrested him and sent him to jail for seven years. The government’s contempt for the rule of law helped motivate Birtukan Midekssa to become active in politics.
She was selected as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow for 2011-2012 at the National Endowment for Democracy and as a Scholar at Risk Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University for 2012 - 2013.
When I tried to, you know, pass this kind of message for a dissident probably who is still suffering or, you know, going through a very difficult time, I recognize, you know, how, you know, challenging and, you know, difficult that journey could be, you know. But I would like to remind them that, you know, they are engaged in something, which makes life worth living and worth fighting for. And I just would like to remind them they are fighting and they are standing for, you know, an idea, which is, you know, the major interest like – and in the life of ours as human beings.
And actually I would like to remind them that, you know, we may not see the happy ending like just, you know, approaching, you know, in the foreseeable sight and – but, you know, always there is progress towards, you know, a life of freedom and a dignified life and towards democracy and the rule of law and the arrow of time and the dynamics of maybe the universe. It’s on our side. And even we can look back to our history that we had as a human race, you know. Even if you look into the brutality people are subjected to today and if you looked at the brutality people were subjected years back, you might – you can see the difference. You know, still it’s disappointing. You know, still that those values we know are not governing or dictating the whole world as they should be. But there is progress.
There is progress here, even in our countries, which might seem very frustrating, very daunting. But you know – but there is progress in the minds of the people, in the heart of the people, you know. So that’s what I can say to them.
With a population of nearly 85 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. The population includes some 80 ethnic groups, with the largest being the Oromo and the Amhara. The majority of the population is Christian, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, but there is also a significant Muslim minority.
The Ethiopian economy is based primarily on agriculture, with a growing services sector and one of the largest GDP growth rates in Africa in recent years. Main industries include food processing and textiles, and the most important export goods are coffee and gold. While unemployment is high and the country has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world, the current government has instituted economic reforms and begun a process of privatization of state enterprises.
Until 1974, Ethiopia was a monarchy, ruled by a dynasty that traced its roots to the 2nd century B.C. Unlike most of the African continent, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power and has long been recognized as a sovereign country.
The downfall of the monarchy led to the establishment of a socialist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Mengistu regime received significant aid from the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. Ethiopia suffered a series of internal and external conflicts, calamitous droughts, massive famines, and refugee crises during the 1970s and 1980s. The Mengistu regime was a harsh dictatorship with little tolerance for dissent. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 10,000 people died under what has been called the “Red Terror,” although the exact number is unknown.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, opposition groups united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They ousted the Mengistu regime in May 1991. A new constitution and political reforms led to the first multiparty elections in 1995. Over time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF tightened their grip on power by promoting ethnic federalism through which power is given to regional and ethnically based authorities. The 2005 elections were deeply troubled, with violence and widespread accusations of fraud. A number of prominent opposition leaders were accused of inciting violence and held as political prisoners for calling a general strike and boycotting the new parliament.
The flawed 2010 elections resulted in an EPRDF landslide, with only 2 seats going to the opposition. A crackdown on opposition parties, civil society, and the media prior to the elections further limited political space in the country. Since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn has served as prime minister.
Freedom House describes Ethiopia as “not free,” with both the civil liberties and political rights given a rating of 6, with 1 regarded as most free and 7 as least free.