If you live in the U.S., your newsfeeds are currently filled with passionate #midterms debates. Healthcare. Immigration. Education. Equal Rights.
Ethiopia’s top issues are also health care, immigration, education, equal rights
Now imagine you live in a country, Ethiopia, that has no organized health care system and limited access for many. Girls as young as ten are forced into marriage, often leading to problems with fistula.
Imagine you live in a country that hosts almost one million refugees, primarily from South Sudan and Somalia, along with another 1.4 million internally displaced Ethiopians due to ethnic violence. This ethnic violence is in many ways fueled by a decades-long system of federalism that gerrymanders itself along ethnic lines rather than party lines.
And if too many people complain, the government just shuts off the internet (still).
2018 has ushered in a wave of democratic reforms in Ethiopia
These are daunting social issues to tackle, and the primary drivers for the radically political reforms Ethiopia has implemented this year.
News of Ethiopia’s first female president emerged suddenly, only about a day before the formal announcement and immediate inauguration. That’s because in Ethiopia’s system of government, a federal parliamentary republic, the president is nominated by the House of Representatives, and confirmed by a two-thirds vote in both parliamentary houses. Her role is somewhat limited, with executive power resting primarily in the prime minister.
“Government and opposition parties have to understand we are living in a common house and focus on things that unite us, not what divides us, to create a country and generation that will make all of us proud.”
– Sahle-Work Zewde, preside of Ethiopia during her inaugural address
Ethiopia welcomes first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde
Among diplomatic circles, President Sahle-Work is well-known and respected, having formerly served as the Ethiopian ambassador to France, Djibouti and Senegal, and most recently as special representative to the African Union and head of the United Nations Office to the African Union.
Before attending university in France, President Sahle-Work attended Lycée Guebre Mariam, a French international school in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Lycée is commonly regarded as being among the best schools in Ethiopia, and it boasts an impressive roster of successful alumni, professional women—including my mother-in-law Genet and aunt Yechi.
In under 50 years, Ethiopian government has transformed four times
Each born during the 1950s, President Sahle-Work, Genet and Yechi grew up in Addis Ababa during the last decades of the reign of Haile Selassie, last emperor of Ethiopia.
In their lifetimes, they have experienced their country ruled as an empire, by the military, as a socialist regime, and as a republic—albeit a semi-authoritarian one.
From an American’s perspective, we take for granted that our enduring Constitution of more than 230 years will continue to be the framework for our democracy regardless of the heated political disputes within that framework.
For President Sahle-Work, Genet and Yechi, lifting and enforcing the rule-of-law is a lifelong pursuit. Recent years in Ethiopia have been met with deadly ethnic tension, which I wrote about recently in The story I haven’t shared about beautiful Ethiopia and Keeping up with Ethiopia: What these seeds of hope mean at ground zero.
If the Ethiopian constitution were a person, it’d still be in college
When the republic form of government took hold in the mid-1990s, it tried its best to mirror some of the best aspects of other successful democratic governments.
For example, Ethiopia is divided into nine states, with some powers authorized locally among these states, with others reserved for the federal branch, similar to what we are familiar with in the United States.
Ethiopia’s fatal flaw, however, many years ago, was to divide those states along the boundaries of major ethnic groups. At the time, it was attempting to generate cohesion among extreme diversity. After all, the land identified as Ethiopia today is really just a collection of 80 different ethnic groups that banded together to fight colonial—and later, military—rule. The result, of course, has been Orweillian.
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April, he has sought to undo Ethiopia’s authoritarianism from within its existing constitutional framework, encouraging diversity of thought and collaboration among Ethiopians of all ethnicities. It will take time for these new behaviors to trickle down to the provincial governments, where citizens are impacted every day, and it will require a delicate balance of maintaining strong federal leadership without assuming authoritarian demands.
While ethnically Amhara, because President Sahle-Work grew up in Addis Ababa, which does not belong to any of the nine states—similar to the way Washington, D.C. does not belong to any of the 50 U.S. states—she is somewhat ethnic-neutral. This, combined with her diplomacy experience, may position her well to negotiating peace among these divisive internal conflicts.
In her inaugural speech, she said, “Government and opposition parties have to understand we are living in a common house and focus on things that unite us, not what divides us, to create a country and generation that will make all of us proud.”
That’s sage advice for us Americans as well.
Feature image photo credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images
Sahle-Work Zewde (L) walks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) after being elected as Ethiopia’s first female President at the Parliament in Addis Ababa on October 25, 2018.