Ethiopia’s political future is female – a short comment on Sahle-Work Zewde

5 mins read

By Marsha Linnartz

It is nothing new, politics depict an image that is male-dominated. In this vein, a UN General Assembly resolution on women’s participation (2011) remarks: “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalised from the political sphere” . Right now, Ethiopia is a country at the Horn of Africa that refutes this traditional norm and shows a meteoric rise and recognition of women in the political landscape. One woman that moves beyond the masculine imagery of politics and climbs onto a public position of power is Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s new president since 25 October 2018. Sahle-Work replaces former president Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, whose resignation came unexpectedly. Ethiopia’s last female leader dates back to the early 20th century, with the governance of Empress Zewditu. Currently, Zewde is the only female head of state in Africa, next to Namibia’s prime minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Ahmadhila, who is the only head of government.

Sahle-Work Zewde is a woman of diplomatic experience . She was the second woman to take over an ambassadorial position in the history of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Amongst others, she served as an envoy to France, Senegal and Djibouti. Not to forget, Sahle-Work was a representative to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and a long list of UN organisations. Eventually, in June 2018, UNSG António Guterres appointed her as the first women to be Special Representative to the AU and Head of the UN Office to the AU. Long story short, Sahle-Work’s curriculum vitae pictures a female diplomatic history at the national, regional and international level throughout three decades. Her appointment does not only give Ethiopian women a voice and set female standards for the future but it also contributes to the normalisation of women as change and decision-makers in public life.

Though, we should keep in mind that Sahle-Work’s appointment was not brought about in a vacuum. It is much to the efforts of Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, himself elected in April the same year (2018), that the country is witness to a progressive agenda of reforms that has come with a rapid pace. It is this political scenery in which Zewde’s position found hold, shortly after Abiy Ahmed introduced a gender-parity cabinet that is represented by ten out of twenty female ministers. Revolutionary, it makes Ethiopia to be the third country in Africa, following Rwanda and Seychelles, to uphold gender parity. Amongst others, the most powerful yet typically male-dominated cabinet position, the Ministry of Peace, and the Defence Ministry are now headed by two women. Women wearing headscarves in the cabinet are strong gesture to the country’s marginalised populations. Together with other female ranks, e.g. the supreme court, the electoral commission or the official spokesperson for the government, they shape Ethiopia’s future as female. This gives hope that greater representation of Ethiopian women in the government leads to more durable peace, while their political participation encourages confidence in democratic institutions. In this sense, Sahle-Work Zewde herself endorses: “If the current change in Ethiopia is headed equally by both men and women, it can sustain its momentum and realize a prosperous Ethiopia free of religious, ethnic and gender discrimination”.

Standing next to prime minister Abiy Ahmed and a long list of female appointments, Sahle-Work’s role as a president only carries a ceremonial value. It is the prime minister that is the main branch of the executive. Nonetheless, her appointment as a woman is of social influence and makes a firm symbolic statement. Not only a symbolic statement towards Ethiopian women, but a symbolic statement that was very much needed in the wake of ethnic tensions. Adiy with an Oromo heritage (the ethnic group that lies at the centre of nearly three years of anti-government protests) and his progressive citizenship politics faces domestic criticism and bursted old wounds of ethnic federalism. As the Ethiopia’s president is expected to be non-partisan, Sahle-Work Zewde turned out to be in the perfect position to stand for unity and mediate between the opposing groups. She remains a relative outsider to the inner politics of the ruling coalition, which prevents ethnic and political affiliations to poison her effective leadership. With this in mind, Abebe Aynete, a senior researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies think-tank, is sanguine that Sahle-Work is a trusted woman that knows the Ethiopian system inside out, which makes her a competent spokesperson for the country’s political reforms on an international stage.

Female rights activist Aklile Solomon, co-founder of the gender equality-focused Yellow Movement, however, reminds us that the applause following Sahle-Work triumph and Ethiopia’s way towards gender equality deserves caution. The country is still highly autocratic, with no constitutional term limit of the prime minister and no functional checks and balances. Critics assume female appointments to be the result of the usual coalition trumps and patronage politics. Under the surface, it is still a long way to go for women rights. Ethiopia is society with a conservative culture that carries deep patriarchal roots. According to Sehin Teferra, co-founder of the feminist Setaweet movement, Ethiopia always finds itself in the top ranks of the gender inequality index. Women and girls suffer from low societal standings. They are strongly disadvantaged compared to boys and men in realms of economy, education, health, livelihoods and basic human rights. A majority of women engaging in unpaid or informal employment is only one example. The lack of access to secondary and tertiary education also holds women back oftentimes, not to deny that it took Ethiopia just a single generation to improve primary school enrolment of girls.

Another symptom of Ethiopia’s patriarchal mindset is the prevalence of violence against women. Such that 46.9 percent of women’s experiences are shaped by ‘substantial levels’ of physical, sexual or psychological violence. Female genital cutting and child marriage as harmful traditional practices are still persistent, especially throughout the large rural landscape. Rural women have the most unequal opportunities, underscores research associate Jason Mosley at Oxford University’s African Studies Centre. In other words, the country’s roadmap for reforms needs to encourage female empowerment from the local level too, up to the highest federal office, where women are appointed despite of their ethnic and group-based ties.

Ethiopian women still navigate their wounds of years of civil war, oppression and ongoing ethnic tensions, while facing everyday social realities in a patriarchal society. The women are yet in a search for a heroine. A heroine that could be Sahle-Work Zewde. Now, it is up to her and what she makes out of her presidency. The steps she will take are of symbolic virtue but also of political advice to the prime minister. Whether she will be a trailblazer will depend on the causes she prioritises throughout her tenure. In a quote that circulated widely across social media, she reassured her resilience: “If you thought I spoke a lot about women already, know that I am just getting started”. Perhaps, Sahle-Work will find herself in the ranks of strong African women that pioneered the public space; alongside Rwanda’s Louise Mushikiwabo, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Amina Mohammed, Senegal’s Fatma Samoura, Cameroon’s Vera Songwe, Uganda’s Winnie Byanyima and not to forget South Africa’s Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka. Hopefully, Ethiopia’s political future is female, too. 

Marsha Linnartz is a postgraduate student in peace and conflict studies here in Uppsala. Her personal interests lie in Eastern Africa, reconciliation, identity politics and migration, women’s and children’s rights amongst others. Outside of university, you will find her in a modern art museum, drinking spiced coffee while reading a poem by Rupi Kaur or doing some kickboxing for her work-life balance.

Illustration: Merle Daliah

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