The former opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa who has been at odds with the ruling government has been chosen to lead the controversial and perhaps one of the most important democratic institutions in Ethiopia– the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
On the nominated of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR), in its regular session held on Thursday, has endorsed Birtukan’s appointment with a majority vote replacing Samia Zekaria, former chairwomen of NEBE.
As PM Abiy’s administration continues to implement a slew of reforms in both the political and economic sectors, Birtukan, former politicians herself, is expected to face huge challenges in undertaking the upcoming National poll scheduled for 2020.
Birtukan, who has recently returned from exile, joins the league of women who have been appointed to top offices in the country.
Her appointment to head the country’s election body came as the country prepares for a free, fair and democratic election in 2020 as promised by the prime minister.
“We are appointing her considering her knowledge of the constitution and the law of the nation,” Abiy told MPs.
“She might have her own opinions and sayings like anyone, but we believe she will act according to the constitution,” he said after several MPs questioned her impartiality given her role in opposition politics.
Birtukan, a former judge, is also the most senior former opposition figure to assume a high government post in recent history.
Her political career began in early 2000 while she was working at the Arada Division of the Federal First Instance Court. She caught the public eye when she made a famous ruling against the government in 2001 in the trial of Former Minister of Defence, Seye Abreha. The so called the Seye case saw the then ruling party heavy weight indicted for corruption and placed under custody. Birtukan, a presiding judge over the case took a bold step to grant Seye his bail right and released him from prison. Her decision led her to be at odds with the then administration and eventually she left her judgeship in favor of private legal practice.
Yet again, Birtukan’s political career even went to higher level in the wake of the disputed elections of 2005, where she joined a formidable opposition party-Coalition for Democracy (CUD). In the aftermath of the election-related protest that was suppressed after the killing of 193 people by security forces, she was jailed and served time prison in connection to the crisis. After spending time in and out of prison since 2005, Birtukan decided to go into self-imposed exile in the US in 2010.
While explaining his nominee’s career and experience to the House, the premier praised the Chairperson, describing her as “a woman with an unwavering conviction of fairness and justice, in no way willing to compromise these in deference to authority, be it government or anyone else, and one who demonstrated her commitment in practice, in full view of the public paying a heavy price for the cause she held dear.”
Encouraged by the political reforms announced by Abiy since he took office in April, Birtukan returned earlier this month. The two have also met in the US recently.
“PM Abiy Ahmed’s nomination of Birtukan as Chair of the NEBE realizes his promise in facilitating electoral reforms & bears testimony to the political will, strengthening an independent election board ahead of the 2020 elections,” Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement hours after her swearing-in event took place before the lawmakers.
“My new job, in some sense, is similar to being a judge,” Birtukan said after her appointment.
“What Ethiopians endured have prepared us to ask the right questions, including through the ballot box,” she told journalists after her swearing in ceremony.
Upon her nomination today, concern about Birtukan’s neutrality was raised by a parliamentarian as she was a member of the well-known opposition political party (CUD).
Asked to respond to the question raised at the parliament, Birtukan told journalists that she had officially resigned from the party about seven years ago. She underscored that she will work to nurture a transparent and fair election system in the country.
She also recalled that she had joined the political party to help bring about change, including recognition of the rule of law and full respect for the implementation of human rights.
Birtukan said that the “Ethiopian people are ready to build a democratic system and they want to hold the government accountable”.
“We, the officials, have to pay the necessary sacrifice for democracy and good government system.”
The former judge and founder of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), Birtukan attended Addis Ababa University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Law. She received her Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University in 2014.
Furthermore, Birtukan was awarded the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy in 2011.
The National Electoral Board is accountable to HPR and is an independent and autonomous organ for conducting elections having its own legal personality.
The Board has nine members who are nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the HPR.
Under Abiy, Ethiopia has in recent weeks attained a 50 percent female cabinet, with women also serving as President of the country and President of the Supreme Court.