Days after approving a gender-balanced cabinet, lawmakers of both the upper and lower houses– the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) and the House of the Federation (HoF) unanimously elected Sahlework Zewde as the first female President of Ethiopia, replacing the outgoing president, Mulatu Teshome (PhD).
Largely a ceremonial role, lawmakers picked the 68-year-old career diplomat as the 4th President of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
The recently elected Speaker of the HPR, Tagesse Chafo along With Kerya Ibrahim (Speaker of the HoF) who chaired the Extraordinary Session presented Sahlework’s nomination along with her biography.
Tagesse explained that Sahlework was picked after a six-month-long research and thorough discussions in order to find the right replacement.
Prior to her appointment, Sahlework has been serving as the special representative of the United Nations’ Secretary-General and the head of the UN Office to the African Union.
In her acceptance speech, the new president expressed her appreciation to her predecessor.
“Mulatu has shown us the way for change and hope. He has shown us that life continues after leaving power. I call on others to heed his example and be ready for change,” Sahlework said in her speech.
Much of her speech’s content included gender equality and peace. She pledged to promote peace stating, “I urge you all, to uphold our peace, in the name of a mother, who is the first to suffer from the absence of peace.”
“When there is no peace in the country, mothers will be frustrated. Therefore, we need to work on peace for the sake of our mothers,” Sahlework told MPs adding, “We have no other option than peace to realize the vision of building a greater nation.”
She further stressed the importance of unity and promised to be a voice for women.
“Government and opposition parties have to understand that we have to focus on things that unite us rather than divide us and create a country and generation that will make all of us proud,” she said.
“The absence of peace victimizes firstly women, so during my tenure I will emphasize on the role of women in ensuring peace and the dividends of peace for women.”
Following the appointment of the first female president in the country’s modern history, various sections of the society welcomed the president’s appointment while others reacted as nothing changed considering the limited role of the president’s constitutional power and functions.
“Ethiopia has been a country of outstanding and capable women. Our chronic problem has been that we don’t see them and give them opportunity. Now we thank God for letting us witness this historic day. I believe that our children will begin dreaming bigger in their country’s future as of today,” Firehiwot Worku, Secretary General of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) told The Reporter.
The Reporter also approached other individuals who closely know the new President and spoke about her competence.
Among them was Mekonnen Ketema – grandson of Ketma Yifru [a renowned diplomat and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia during the time of Emperor Haileselassie I].
“I have had the honor and pleasure of listening to her wise and knowledgeable words. She will certainly make her country and people proud. It is a milestone and probably one of the best appointees of the current government in a long time”.
“The appointment of a competent and consummate professional is a sign that the reform-minded government of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is firing on all cylinders,” he added.
Meanwhile, asking her name not to be mentioned, a communications expert who works for donor organizations here in Addis Ababa, told The Reporter that she wished to see Sahlework in another top post that has more than a ceremonial role.
“I have mixed feelings about Sahlework Zewde being the first woman president of our country: on the one hand, I can’t wait to see my daughter’s feeling that women can be a president of this country, but, on the other, I want to see her as a Foreign Minister as a long-time career diplomat considering her ample experiences in the area. She will be a real symbol but not symbolic,” she said.
In a press statement, the Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Mahboub Maalim, said Sahlework brings to the Ethiopian Presidency an in-depth knowledge of the East African region and will advance her country and the region in all aspects of life.
Sahlework joins the long list of newly minted women officials after PM Abiy decided to create gender balance in the cabinet giving top position to women, including Aisha Mohammed (Eng.), Defense Minister, and Muferiat Kamil, Minister of Peace.
“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,” Sahlework said on Thursday.
In May 2018, she met with Abiy in Nairobi, where he was on an official visit to the country and visited the UN offices, where she was the then head of the Office.
Born in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Sahlework studied in France and is fluent in English, French and Amharic. Her appointment makes her Africa’s only serving female head of state.
Sahlework, who is also a mother of two sons, started her career as Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Education. She has served her country as an Ambassador to different countries, including Senegal from 1989 to 1993 with an accreditation to Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, the Gambia and Guinea.
She was also an Ambassador to Djibouti and a Permanent Representative to IGAD from 1993 to 2002.
In 2002, she was assigned to France as an Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UNESCO while she was also accredited to Tunisia and Morocco until 2006.
From 2006 to 2009, Sahlework was the Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the AU and UNECA and Director General for African affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia.
Furthermore, her diplomatic career further extended when she joined the UN [in 2009] and served as a Special Representative and head of the UN Integrated Peace building Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA), as Director General of the UN office Habitat in Nairobi (UNON).
The last African female head of state was the Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who resigned in March over an “expense scandal.”