Ethiopia’s first female president can be a force for reform

President Zewde is in a unique position to help change the lives of Ethiopia’s long suffering women for the better.

Zewde Reuters
Newly elected President Sahle-Work Zewde addresses the House of Peoples' Representatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia October 25, 2018. [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

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, yet it soon became clear that this was yet another meticulously planned move by Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The very same morning, seasoned diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed the country’s fourth president under EPRDF rule, an era which began in 1991. With this appointment, Zewde also became the second woman in the country’s modern history to serve as head of state. Ethiopia’s last female leader before Zewde was Empress Zewditu, who had governed the country between 1916-1930. 

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. When the military regime was overthrown two years later, most government ministers and high-ranking public servants were either purged or arrested, with most Ethiopian diplomats serving the country abroad requesting 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 new 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 has helped the UN in its peace-building efforts in the Central African Republic.

Zewde’s final role at the UN, however, was arguably 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. On October 16, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he 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, but it was partially clouded by the fact that cabinet appointments are not always based on merit in Ethiopia. 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, for some these appointments were not as important a victory for Ethiopian women, and Ethiopian people in general, as they’ve been trumped up to be.

However, this appointment is unquestionably momentous and groundbreaking. In spite of the fact that, in parliamentary 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 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 six months ago and the changes its new leadership promised to make to achieve better governance and democratic improvement are slowly materialising. However, the country is still carrying the wounds of a devastating civil war, years of oppression and ongoing ethnic tensions and conflicts. And the burden of all this 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, problems within the country’s education sector such as the meagre level of access to education in rural Ethiopia 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 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 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. The fact that the current head of government, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is a feminist reformer will likely help her in this journey.

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.

Only time will tell whether President Zewde will be able to live up to their expectations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.