A former judge and leading opposition figure have been sworn in as the head of Ethiopia’s electoral board.
Birtukan Mideksa is the latest significant appointment of a woman to a key public official.
Ms. Birtukan returned to Ethiopia earlier this month after seven years in exile in the US.
She was among dozens of opposition leaders jailed after the disputed elections of 2005 that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
Emmanuel Igunza in the capital Addis Ababa says she faces a key challenge in restoring faith in an electoral board that has constantly faced accusations of being manipulated by the state – and will oversee elections in May 2020.
There is currently not a single opposition MP in Ethiopia’s parliament.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has carried out wide-ranging reforms since coming to office in April.
These include making peace with neighboring Eritrea after two decades of conflict, freeing political prisoners and welcoming back armed opposition groups from exile.
The 42-year-old leader has also given half of the government’s 20 ministerial posts to women and last month the parliament chose Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president, a ceremonial role.
Recently he was commended for appointing renowned human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi – whose efforts to tackle the underage marriage of girls formed the basis of an Angelina Jolie-produced Hollywood film in 2014 – as the country’s most senior judge.
Studied law, becoming a federal judge – some of her rulings displeased the government
One of the founders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) coalition, which did well in 2005 elections
But accused of treason after post-poll violence and was among opposition leaders jailed for life
Seen as a heroine at the time, attracting widespread sympathy as a single mother separated from her baby daughter
Released after 18 months in July 2007, but her pardon was revoked in December 2008. She spent a further 21 months in jail, at times in solitary confinement
Before her second stint in jail, she set up the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party
Freed in October 2010, four months after the government’s landslide election victory
She resigned from politics in 2011 and went to the US, studying at Harvard
Returned from exile in November 2018 to become head of the election board
After her appointment, Ms. Birtukan said she felt her career as a judge would help resolve the conflicts and differences that were likely to arise in her new role.
But she said that Ethiopians across the board had shown they were ready for a change.
“The Ethiopian people are ready to build the democratic system they want and to hold the government accountable – and they have shown us that by paying the sacrifice needed,” Ms. Birtukan told journalists.
“So, I believe that that public readiness is one good opportunity.
“Even though there’s still a lot to be done, we are seeing many institutional reforms in many directions. These are good opportunities.
“And I believe the fact that this government has proved its commitment for a genuine and true democracy is another good opportunity.”
Can Birtukan Mideksa restore faith Ethiopia’s electoral system? The answer from many Ethiopians so far seems to be, “Yes.”
She has earned a reputation both locally and internationally as a hardworking, honest, sharp and passionate lawyer and it’s no wonder that the country’s new prime minister has turned to her to head the electoral body whose reputation is in tatters.
It oversaw the bitterly uncertain polls in 2005, which led to the killings of more than 200 people, and the elections 10 years later that saw the ruling coalition sweep all seats in parliament.
Since then the opposition has been demanding that the country’s electoral laws be amended, the board disbanded and talks started on how to reconstitute it into a credible and independent body.
It’s a challenge that Ms. Birtukan says she’s willing to take on, but the task ahead is not easy with much at stake for the country’s future stability.
Hundreds of exiles – many of the opposition figures – have come back into the country since Prime Minister Abiy took office seven months ago. Once-banned opposition groups have been welcomed back, with all of them seeming to be ready to participate in making Ethiopia a democratic state.
Mr. Abiy has promised that 2020 vote will be free and fair, and that will be thoroughly tested in what promises to be the country’s first real competitive election in 15 years.