The exit of Liberia’s Mrs Ellen Sirleaf Johnson after a successful two-term as President earlier this year appeared to have drawn down the curtain on prospects of African women providing political leadership for their countries.
However, last week’s appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde, a veteran of the United Nations and the diplomatic corps as Ethiopia’s first female president may have rekindled hope that the African woman can still rise to the topmost in the political ladder.
Ethiopia’s parliament approved the appointment in a unanimous vote showing the popularity of Zewde’s nomination and the respect she commands in the male dominated parliament.
By Ethiopia’s laws, the post of president is ceremonial since executive powers in the country’s political leadership are vested in the office of the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, Zewde’s appointment is symbolic that Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country after Nigeria with numerous complexities would find a woman for the role. Her appointment compliments the pro-women of the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who had a week earlier reschuffled his cabinet appointment half of the members as women.
“In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life,” said Fitsum Arega, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff in a post on his tweeter handle.
Women in Ethiopian society suffer frequent violence while they are not recognized for leadership in the rural communities since the society is built along patriarchal lines. It is hope Zewde’s appointment will help change all or at least part of that ugly side of Ethiopia’s reality.
Born in 1951, Zewde comes on the job with a rich career background as a quintessential Diplomat having served as Ambassador to Senegal with concurrent accreditation to Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, gambia and Guinea from 1989-1993.
“From 1993 to 2002, she was Ambassador to Djibouti and Permanent Representative to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). She later served as Ambassador to France, Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and accredited to Tunisia and Morocco from 2002 to 2006. Zewde served as Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peace Building Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA). Previously, she also held a number of other high level positions including as Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and as Director-General for African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia. In 2011, Zewde was appointed to the position of Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. She was the first person to hold the post at the level of Under-Secretary-General. “
Until her appointment she was UN Under Secretary-General posted to the AU in Addis Ababa.
It is significant that Ethiopia’s successive presidents are coming from the foreign affairs background. Zewde’s predecessor, Mulatu Teshome, 63 who resigned Wednesday, was also a diplomat and once served as Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Turkey.
The career backgrounds of both Teshome and Zewde show that Ethiopia is on the path to launch herself to the mainstream of international relevance. The country’s Airline, Ethiopian Air, easily the most successful national crrier in Africa by any country is one evidence Ethiopia’s message that it is arriving the world scene.
From Zewde’s rich career background, its clear that her choice was not based on gender per se but more on her suitability, qualification and experience. It however, does not remove the fact it signposts great things for the African woman and should serve as a lesson for Nigeria where a woman has never risen to any of the top three political positions in the country.
The first remarks of Sahle-Work Zewde after she took her oath of office gave even more hope to the African woman as she said her appointment underscored the “importance of respecting women and the need to build a society that rejects the oppression of women.” The new president also promised to work for peace and unity of her country. She promised to speak even more about the rights of women in her country.
“Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in April, has initiated a whirlwind of changes, releasing political prisoners, inviting back exiles and making peace with the country’s chief opponent, Eritrea, after two decades of hostilities. Abiy has also publicly declared the need to promote women in what has been a largely patriarchal, conservative society.
“A woman now heads one of the most powerful ministries in the country, the Ministry of Peace, which controls the intelligence agency and security forces. Muferiat Kamil, the former speaker of the house, heads the ministry, which aims to tackle the widespread ethnic unrest that has erupted in the country since the easing of the authoritarian control,” wrote the Washington Post on the latest political developments in the East African country.
The emergence of Zewde has raised prospects of changes in the country’s constitution and administrative structure where the president will no longer be entirely ceremonial. Zewde is expected to use her influence, goodwill and experience on compliment the Prime Minister’s strides in engendering peace locally and with neighbouring Eritrea, with whom he recently reached rapprochement.
Under the present constitution, Zewde’s role as Ceremonial Head of State is restricted to “opening Parliament, appointing ambassadors following the prime minister’s recommendation and receiving the credentials of foreign envoys.”
But given her experience, all that may change, pundits on Ethiopia politics reasoned.