Ethiopia chooses dissident to head vote board as PM presses reforms

Birtukan Mideksa

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia chose a former exiled dissident to head its election board on Thursday – part of a dizzying shake-up by the new prime minister that has brought rebels back into the political mainstream and curbed the establishment.

The job went to Birtukan Mideksa just weeks after she returned from the United States under an amnesty announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and 13 years after she was jailed in the violent aftermath of contested 2005 elections.

Birtukan, once one of Ethiopia’s most high profile prisoners, will now lead efforts to organise the next vote scheduled for 2020 – the latest top position to go to a woman after SahleWork Zewde was named president and Abiy chose women to fill half his cabinet posts last month.

“We are appointing her considering her knowledge of the constitution and the law of the nation,” Abiy told parliament.

“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 raised concerns about her impartiality given her role in opposition politics.

Birtukan, who founded the opposition UDJ party, promised to make the election board’s work “transparent and trustworthy”. “What Ethiopians endured have prepared us to ask the right questions including through the ballot box,” she told the state-affiliated Fana news agency.

PRISON, PARDONS

The former judge was convicted of trying to overthrow the state after crowds took to the streets accusing the government of rigging the 2005 vote. Security forces opened fire, killing dozens of protesters.

She was pardoned in 2007 after Amnesty International, other rights groups and some Western powers pressed for her release. But the pardon was revoked and her life sentence resumed a year later, until another pardon in 2010.

Abiy came to power in April and quickly turned national and regional politics on its head by making peace with neighbouring Eritrea and reining in the powerful security services.

He allowed members of outlawed opposition and separatist groups to return and promised to promote multi-party democracy – all of the seats in parliament are held by his EPRDF coalition.

After parliament overwhelmingly approved the nomination, Birtukan was sworn in by Meaza Ashenafi, a women’s rights activist who was appointed president of the Supreme Court three weeks ago.

“(Birtukan is) overseeing not only an election but a transition, from an authoritarian state to a democratic one, a transition to an accountable government,” Addis Ababa-based political analyst Hallelujah Lulie said.