On October 25, a special joint session of both houses of the Ethiopian parliament accepted President Mulatu Teshome Wirtu’s letter of resignation. The much-respected president’s resignation was a surprise to many, On October 16, the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had decided to fill 50 percent of his cabinet with female ministers. Ahmed’s decision to have a gender-balanced cabinet was applauded in Ethiopia and beyond.
Ethiopia appointed a seasoned diplomat Ms. Sahle-Work Zewde as the President. With this appointment, Zewde also became the second woman in the country’s modern history to serve as head of state. It is worth noting that Ethiopia’s last female leader before Zewde was Empress Zewditu, who had governed the country between1916-1930.
President Zewde has a successful public service career spanning decades. Her first ambassadorial appointment in service of her country was in 1989 to Dakar, Senegal with additional accreditation to Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Guinea.
During that time, Ethiopia’s brutal military-socialist regime was still in power and Ethiopia’s civil war was at its peak., Therefore, most government ministers and high-ranking public servants were either purged or arrested, and most Ethiopian diplomats serving the country abroad requested political asylum in the countries they had been residing in. However, even during this tumultuous time, Zewde chose not to abandon her post and continued to serve the regime. She quickly gained the trust of the new leadership with her diplomatic competence and managed to stay in the ranks of the foreign service.
Since then, Zewde served Ethiopia as an ambassador in many countries across Africa and Europe. Eventually, she moved on to serving the international community at large, especially through her work at the United Nations. With her extensive experience working across conflict-prone nations in Africa, Zewde helped the UN in its peace-building efforts in the Central African Republic.
Zewde’s final role at the UN, however, was reportedly the most important. She was the first woman to be appointed by the international body as special representative to the African Union and head of the United Nations Office to the African Union, a role she served at the level of Under Secretary-General. Zewde’s appointment as Ethiopia’s new president came on the back of another surprising, but very welcome development.
In this country, prime ministers are inescapably hostage to a culture of coalition politics, where party interests triumph over the interests of the people. Thus, despite the symbolic importance of the realisation of a gender-balanced cabinet, because some these appointments were not as important a victory for Ethiopian women, and Ethiopian people in general.
However, this appointment is unquestionably momentous and groundbreaking. In spite of the fact that in parliamentary system of government in Ethiopia, the office of the presidency is very much ceremonial. Most Ethiopians respect and look up to the President. Anyone who serves in that role gets the opportunity to build a personal legacy, and leave their mark in the country’s history.
Moreover, the office of the president is reportedly a bully pulpit that allows its holder to have direct access to the country’s prime minister and gives them an opportunity to comment and offer advice on political events. The head of state also presides over special parliamentary sessions and delivers speeches on the parliament opening sessions where he or she presents what the priorities of the government should be.
Having a woman take over such a revered office is undoubtedly going to inspire millions of Ethiopian women. However, the ways in which Zewde’s presidency is really going to affect the condition of women in Ethiopia will be determined by the causes she is going to champion and prioritise throughout her tenure.
Ethiopia embarked on a reform process and the changes its new leadership promised to make to achieve better governance and democratic improvement are slowly materializing in the country. However, the country is still carrying the wounds of a devastating civil war, years of oppression and ongoing ethnic tensions and conflicts.
The conflicts has been felt the most by Ethiopia’s women who, on top of losing their husbands, sons and brothers in conflicts and being displaced from their homes, also had to navigate their lives in a highly patriarchal society. For example, problem within the country’s education sector such as the meager level of access to education in rural Ethiopia which is still affecting women more than men. Beyond all this, Ethiopia still suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Although there have been promising improvements, to this day, most Ethiopian women reportedly give birth at home.
In light of all this, Ethiopian women desperately need a heroine who can be their voice and allow them to be heard clearly and loudly by the leadership of the country. This heroine can and should be the country’s first female President Zewde. To achieve this, she needs to make the empowerment of women the priority of her presidency.
Zewde has already implied in her statements that she is willing and eager to take on this duty during her acceptance speech before the joint session of the parliament. At some point in her speech she even joked: “If you think I am talking a lot more about women, well, I have not even started.”
President Zewde is now in a position to help implement important reforms that would significantly elevate the life quality of the most under-served and most well-deserving segment of the country’s citizenry: women.
Ethiopian women are undoubtedly happy to see a woman in one of the highest offices of the land. But beyond providing mere inspiration, what they expect from their new President is to actually change their lives for the better. Analysts say that only time will tell whether President Zewde will be able to live up to their expectations.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.