There was good news from Ethiopia as former opposition leader, lawyer and judge Birtukan Midekssa was named head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Following years of almost completely closed political space, Ethiopia’s government continues to institute an important series of reforms. The appointment of a highly respected – and crucially, independent – new elections chair is another step in the right direction.
The NEBE, like many of Ethiopia’s supposedly independent institutions has been regularly criticized for being controlled by the ruling coalition and political interference in party and candidate registration has been a long-standing problem.
Birtukan understands all too well the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) stifling political control. Following the 2005 elections, she was sentenced to life imprisonment on politically motivated charges. After receiving a pardon in 2007, she founded and became the chair of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. But in 2008, she was again detained and only released after the 2010 elections, when the EPRDF won 99.6% of parliamentary seats. Birtukan had been living in exile ever since.
Birtukan’s nomination is also another win for women’s rights in Ethiopia, following a number of appointments of women to senior government positions, including Sahle-Work Zewde to the post of President and Meaza Ashenafi to head the Supreme Court. Dr Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister who came to power in April, has now achieved gender parity in his cabinet, which used to be made up almost exclusively of male party loyalists.
But Birtukan has her work cut out for her. While there have been many positive reforms since Dr Abiy took power, Ethiopia still faces enormous challenges. The last seven months have seen a rise in violence and ethnic tensions in many parts of the country, contributing to the displacement of some 1.4 million people from their homes between January and June. This is compounded by a growing breakdown in law and order and increasing flows of firearms. Birtukan will oversee crucial and potentially volatile local elections scheduled for 2019 and national elections scheduled for 2020.
Creating an environment where Ethiopians have faith in the electoral process and in institutions like the electoral board is critical, and Birtukan’s appointment is a step towards creating that reality. But whether much needed reforms to electoral laws will be made and she will be given the tools to create a more inclusive elections system will be another test of the government’s true commitment to reform.