Reflection on Mrs Birtukan’s Re-arrest!!
To be honest, are we fully aware of the very difficult situation the political parties are facing in Ethiopia? Wouldn’t it be right to say the Diaspora should not have asked questions that would put Mrs Birtukan into a tight corner? If the Diaspora were after the truth, all the information is in the public domain and wasn’t necessary to corner the good lady! If the intention was to confront the regime vis-à-vis Mrs Birtukan, they should have thought over the matter twice since they were running a great risk of exposing Mrs Birtukan to unnecessary danger over a ‘moot’ issue.
I said it is a moot issue since everybody knows that Kinijit leaders were thrown into jail for winning the election and at the time it was felt that there was no a better choice other than securing their freedom at any cost to restart the stalled struggle.
True, we, in the Diaspora, are living in Western ‘safe havens’ and we have a luxury to ask such questions. But for those who struggle at home under the close scrutiny of the regime the modus operandi is totally different.
The Diaspora needs to understand that those who opted for peaceful struggle at home are placed in a very unique position. It is not as easy as some in the Diaspora think. They need to navigate through the minefield while trying to build their constituency and sell their vision to bring about a democratic and peaceful transition. Engagement and confrontation on trivial issues and egoistical bravado serve no purpose to the party official or the vision they want to promote.
Of course, they are fully aware of the implications of waging a peaceful struggle in an oppressive system. At times it may seem futile to exercise caution and a price has to be paid over a worthy agenda. Nevertheless they still need to exercise caution and their cautious move should not be hastily interpreted as fear at all by the Diaspora and they should not be forced to take part in a collective delusion to prove that they are neither “lady surrender” or a “sell out”. Exercising caution at such a difficult time is not a sign of weakness but a political wisdom. It should be applauded and interpreted as political prudence and foresight than encourage them to take a tangential flips to please the Diaspora’s appetite for bravado.
On Mrs Birukan’s part, her inexperience in handling the Diaspora might have contributed to such an end. It could have been better if she had evaded the question in the first place. True, she may have been cornered and she may have been even branded as “lady surrender” if she didn’t live up to the expectation of the Diaspora rhetoric, but she could have saved herself to re-organise her support base back at home for the peaceful struggle. Going to prison on legalistic interpretation of what a pardon means should have been left for academicians.
I do not think it was right to pick a fight with the regime particularly over a ‘silly’ and an academic interpretation of the meaning of a pardon. What purpose does it serve? As it stands now, there are massive problems on the table to solve. The opposition has to primarily focus on itself and put its home in order. Compared to the run into and immediately after the May/05 election, no one can sensibly deny that the opposition was in disarray. Once again political apathy is at its peak and the public has lost trust of politicians. Most importantly the opposition first has to work hard and invest a lot of energy to transform itself so that it can be perceived as viable alternative. To the extent possible, reaching out to the public and re-organising the public for positive change have to be a priority compared to confronting the system on agenda that has barely any relevance to the struggle.
In light of this background, I argue, it could have been better if she was not drawn into this controversy. The party she is leading is a very young party. Her youthful energy should have been better spent in organising the party. There is no doubt that her party would have been better off if she remained outside prison. But this is not the case now.
Finally her party leaders should learn a lesson from past mistakes. After the arrest of Kinijit leaders, the struggle was wholly reduced to securing the release of the detained leaders. The demand to respect the people’s vote was thrown out of the agenda!!! The release of the detained leaders by itself was taken as an end. The danger in such a strategy is that it will essentially degenerate the people’s struggle into a campaign to release prisoners and lose sight of the bigger picture. Who knows it may be a calculated act on the part of the EPRDF to reduce the agenda of the opposition into a movement of releasing the imprisoned leaders. If the opposition has to succeed, it needs to think first and then act, not react to events or chase agendas set by others; be it by the regime or Diaspora.
In the Ethiopian context, ETA can and should be taken as a good case study and example of a peaceful struggle. ETA was vigorously campaigning for the release of their leader, Dr Taye, at the same time advancing the causes of the teachers. They never lost sight of advancing their Trade Union movement. ANC did also the same thing. While campaigning for the release of Mandela, they were intensifying their struggle against the apartheid regime. Mrs Birtukan’s party needs to learn the lessons.
In conclusion, the Diaspora should be sympathetic by taking into account the unique position of political parties engaged in peaceful struggle at home. Those leaders at home should also think twice the implications of their actions when dealing with the Diaspora. UJD should also act wisely by not reducing its political agenda to a single issue of the release of Mrs Birtukan. Of course, the party should do whatever it can to get her released. But, they should never also lose sight of the bigger picture. The party needs a fine balancing act.
Lastly, Mrs Birtukan is in prison now. She is paying the ultimate sacrifice. She was the only bread winner of the family supporting her old mother and her small daughter. While losing her to prison is big enough by itself to her family, going through economic hardship as a result of her arrest is heart breaking. I believe the public at large has a moral duty to look after her family financially and emotionally. Above all, those who argued in the Diaspora that Mrs Birtukan should face prison than apologising to the regime should put their money where their mouth is.