July 9: Ethiopia ends its state of war with Eritrea, which had been going on for decades. The decision will “promote close cooperation in political, economic, social, cultural and security areas”, according to Yemane Gebremeskel, Information Minister of Eritrea.
October 16: The Council of Ministers, Ethiopia’s cabinet, is reshuffled – 10 of the positions, reduced from 23 to 20, are now occupied by women, making women a 50 percent of the executive body.
October 25: The Ethiopian parliament approves former president Mulatu Teshome-Wirtu’s resignation, and appoints Sahle-Work Zewde in his place, making her the only current female head of state in Africa, and the second one in Ethiopia’s modern history.
The position, albeit not as high in terms of power as the Prime Minister, holds a very important ceremonial, symbolic and influential role. These recent changes in the Ethiopian political landscape have created hope and pressure amongst both citizens and politicians equally. So where do these decisions come from, and where are they going?
These recent changes in the Ethiopian political landscape have created hope and pressure amongst both citizens and politicians equally.
Sahle-Work Zewde studied in France, and speaks English, French and Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Zewde is not a new voice in African diplomacy conversations: she has worked as an ambassador for Ethiopia in African and European countries, promoting non-violent peace, as well as a representative of the United Nations in the African Union, being the first woman to hold this position. The Council of Ministers, which only kept four of its previous ministers, is not without its merits either.
One of its members is Muferiat Kamil, who had previously held the position of Minister of Women’s Affairs back in 2008, and had been a parliamentary speaker as well. She has now been appointed as the Minister of Peace, the head of a new reformed Ministry that encompasses the divisions of the intelligence services and information security, as well as being in charge of overseeing the federal police. Other female ministers include Aisha Mohammed as Head of Defence. The decision elevates women, who had been relegated to minor positions only, to positions like the Ministries of Science, Labor, Culture, Revenue, Trade and Transport.
These are not the only changes that Ethiopia has been undergoing lately, though: earlier this year, thousands of political prisoners were freed, including leaders of the opposition to the hegemonic party. The end of the war with Eritrea in early July, though, can be seen as the main catalyst for Ethiopia’s vertiginous shift towards a more liberal political model.
Nevertheless, it is a process that has not happened all at once. It started with Ethiopia handing over the territory that both Ethiopia and Eritrea had disputed for so long, back in June, followed by the meeting between the Eritrean president and the Ethiopian Prime Minister in July, where a peace agreement was signed. The decision was sealed with the opening of the land border that both countries share, as well as a series of measures to develop new ports, restart airline activity and resume phone connections.
The decision elevates women, who had been relegated to minor positions only, to positions like the Ministries of Science, Labor, Culture, Revenue, Trade and Transport
And, as much as President Zewde is the symbolic focus of Ethiopia’s future reforms, the face behind all of these measures, pacts and actions is a man that has been often talked of as feminist: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ahmed was elected in late March, and is from the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country. This might explain why he has gained so much popularity in the last year, despite being fairly young for a politician: at 41-years-old, he has already been a Minister of Science and Technology, served in the military, got a doctorate in Peace and Security and served as a United Nations peacekeeper, amongst others.
Abiy Ahmed has been leading Ethiopia towards change at a hectic pace, and the appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde and the new, gender-balanced cabinet has been viewed as his crowning achievement. His messages and speeches, which bring relief to a country too often destroyed by violence and uprisings, often talk about building bridges, working together instead of killing each other and stabilising a country by finding what it is that unites everyone instead of focusing on what is different between them.
Some seem to be skeptical: Aklile Solomon, a female rights activist, told Al Jazeera that despite viewing Zewde’s appointment as positive, “Ethiopia has a history of female government ministers, which in practice have done little to advance female rights and equality”. Others have pointed out how Abiy Ahmed’s new Ministry of Truth sounds admittedly Orwellian, both in terms of what it entails and when it comes to its name. Comparisons have often been drawn between Ethiopia and China, in terms of the authoritarian government model they promote: they both have exercised censorship over private media outlets in the past, as well as establishing a state-centric economy and suppressing political dissent in various occasions.
the Prime Minister’s feminist plans might potentially have a bigger impact than planned on the rest of the world.
It has only been recently that the African country has pushed for a switch to liberal ideologies and non-violence. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Ahmed seems to be succeeding, if we are to judge from the Ethiopian population’s opinion, as well as the response of most of the international community. It could be said that he has been the spark of that change, in a way. Ethiopia, a country with a deeply-rooted patriarchal system, has always suffered of a lack of gender equality, and the emphasis put on the equality of genders gives hope to many. In addition, the new cabinet solves problems of representation of minorities: out of the 10 women, two are Muslims – giving a voice to the one third of the country that identifies as such. Other representation includes long marginalised ethnic regions, who have finally found a way to speak up and potentially have a say in the new country that Ahmed is directing them towards.
In Ethiopia, even a symbolic role can change a lot. But Sahle-Work Zewde, Abiy Ahmed and the 10 female Ministers have already said in many an occasion that they will not stop there. Zewde’s willingness to “emphasise women’s roles in ensuring peace” and the Prime Minister’s feminist plans might potentially have a bigger impact than planned on the rest of the world. Perhaps that glass ceiling is not as hard to break as we thought it was.