Birtukan Mideksa’s party, UDJ (aka ANDINET), made headlines, when its leaders surprised everyone by turning up at Kaliti prison gate, on March 27/’10. It was accompanied by reports of their confrontation with the Prison officers. Then, followed up by, their vow to challenge the restrictions on visitation in a court of law.
Of course, the Ethiopian government and the US Human Right Report also made surprises in the Ethiopian Month Megabit. Those eye-catching events and their implications are discussed in (Betting on Birtukan Mideksa – I), and (‘Betting on Birtukan Mideksa – III’).
Regardless of your viewpoint on the Birtukan Mideksa agenda if you care enough to examine the news from UDJ, you are bound to be puzzled. That is, at least, on a couple of issues.
The Media Circus
Their turning-up at the prison gate is a surprise. The idea of visiting Birtukan Mideksa didn’t occur to them for sixteen months since her arrest on Dec 28/’08. If what had hold them back is the news of the restrictions on visitation, then the same reason should have also kept them home this time. What is changed now? They alleged their visit is prompted by recent reports about her health. However, such reports had been on the media for weeks, including the US human right report.
In fact, it took UDJ leaders weeks after her arrest to make a press statement, but only then to distance themselves from her case. They gave a qualified backing for Birtukan’s denial of the legality of the pardon; i.e., the pardon granted, on mid-2007, for former CUD leaders including her and most of the current UDJ leaders, to waive the effects of the guilty verdict for the post-poll violence of election 2005. Her statements alleging the pardon as legally invalid resulted in the revocation of her pardon, as she refused to retract. In the press conference, the UDJ leaders stated that her statements are correct as far as her case is concerned, while affirming the legality of the pardon in their own case. That was not all.
The ‘tense confrontation’, as VOA put it, with the prison officers is also puzzling. There could have been no reason to make a scene, however. The UDJ leaders were aware of the restrictions long before that morning. In fact, it has gotten better recently. Moreover, they know the matter is well beyond the authority of the officers, as the Premier endorsed it as recent as a week before. Even technically speaking, such a power lies at the Commissioner’s office, if not at the higher organ ‘the Federal Prisons Administration Commission’. Not to mention, none of them would be available on a Saturday morning.
Why Seye Abraha, of all the UDJ leaders? Seye Abraha, the newly appointed v/President of UDJ, took the center stage in the event, which VOA sensationalized as ‘Tense confrontation between Seye Abraha and Kaliti officials’. Had it been for intimacy, the others would top him, at least they had known her for about three years, in prison and in UDJ. Nor is there a political bond that he exclusively shares with Birtukan, if not to the contrary.
Yes, of course, he reiterates the 2001 courtroom event, to hint his unique attachment. That is when, the then judge, Birtukan boldly released him on bail, despite he being at odds with the ruling party. It is better to overlook such an ‘attachment’, for his own sake, as that opens Pandora’s Box. Because, in that case, how much indebted would be he be to those with whom he spent seventeen dire years?
Their vow for legal action, which allegedly took the executive committee to decide, is also baffling. For one, access to visitors is a right of the prisoner not that of the visitor. Let alone a political party, it is doubtful if the family of the prisoner can bring a legal action in their own name claiming a right to visit. This is a matter unintelligible to UDJ leaders, who are accustomed to the legal drill by either schooling or experience. But, that is not what reveals the hollowness of their vow.
Do they really expect to win the case, even if they manage to carry the legal action through? As the Prime Minister asserted, a week before that, the prison administration is admitting visitors according to a list she provided. That is seconded by credible reports of visitation by a few of her friends and even supporters. Moreover, predictably, the prison administration would bring up, the ‘Federal Prisons Commission Establishment Proclamation No. 365/2003’ as a defense. Article 29 of which, titled ‘access to Visitors’, reads:
“Prisoners shall have the right to communicate with their spouses, close relatives, friends, medical doctors, legal counselors and religious leaders. Particulars shall be determined by the Directives to be issued by the Commission.”
Highly improbable that any court would disregard this law. Since Ethiopia’s Constitution adheres to British styled parliamentary system, a court cannot reverse a law issued by the parliament. But, that is beside the point. As the similarity between this provision and the relevant provision of the Constitution, Art.21, leaves no room for maneuver on grounds of constitutional interpretation.
Climbing Into the Bandwagon
A short-lived surprise, though. It was simply a publicity stunt after all, as subsequent developments revealed.
At the time, when the media was reporting their Kaliti showdown and vow for legal action, the UDJ leaders were packing for their first trip to the Ethiopian Diaspora since the arrest of Birtukan Mideksa. A trip that is taking place in the name of the coalition -�MEDREK. Curiously, Seye Abraha is on the team, whom the Diaspora media accuse for having fondness, if not secret ties, with his former comrades, at the ruling party. Moreover, UDJ is still under fire from its hardcore supporters for neglecting Birtukan Mideksa, for joining the coalition -�MEDREK, for including former members of the ruling party, and for diluting its political program by accepting group rights. In fact, these issues are the rallying points of the breakaway faction led by Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam.
Indeed, the sensationalized media coverage of ‘the tense confrontation’ was a well-dressed prelude, as it smoothen their encounter with the diasporas. In fact, the diasporas media went further to establish a connection between Seye’s showdown in Kaliti with his former post in the ruling party, apparently intended to give the impression that his involvement in the opposition as an advantage. It worked and, reportedly, earned Seye Abraha a warm reception, at least in some of the cities. Likewise, it facilitated the team’s mission. As the weekly Amharic newspaper, Awramba-times, remarked the Birtukan Mideksa agenda has been the only shared agenda with most of the attendees of the meetings they held with the diasporas.
Evidently, Birtukan Mideksa was simply their ticket, as it has repeatedly said by the breakaway faction of the UDJ, led by Prof Mesfin Woldemariam. It appears they found it convenient to jump into the bandwagon by conducting a few media circus. (In fact, the media circus can also be a prelude to a likely post-poll violence. Read: The Making of Post-election Crisis in Ethiopia)
Rewarding may be a climb into the bandwagon, albeit in the short-term.� It may turn out efficacious in terms of cooling down internal dissent, getting favorable coverage by t
he opposition media, enhancing�diaspora donations, and, even, earning more votes at the polls. Of course, the UDJ leaders hope to harness such an emotional support into a solid base. That would have appeared a sensible plan, had it been not a tried and failed strategy.
If the leaders of UDJ/MEDREK took any lesson from the fate their previous party CUD (‘KINIJIT’), as they claim they did, this should have been the first. No serious observer fails to note the peril of galvanizing through emotive plea. In fact, in the last two decades, almost all opposition parties have attempted to build a social base employing this same method, which can be summed up as “Rally them by any means, solidify it later”. However, party after party, it has been learnt that such an emotively galvanized support base hardly grows out of it. To the contrary, it remains prey to more sensational and confrontational agendas and personalities.
That will be detrimental not only be to the growth political culture of the nation and the continued growth of the party, but also to the personal political venture of the concerned politicians. Because, they will always have to jump on the trending bandwagon to appease the mob, regardless of their own values and beliefs. Lest, they face a backlash from the mob. That would be disenchanting to any visionary politician.
That is, of course, with the exception of those whose sole motivation is seizing power and/or settling scores with EPRDF, by any means whatsoever.