Sahle-Work Zewde, a veteran of the United Nation and the diplomatic corps, made history Thursday by becoming Ethiopia’s first female president.
While the position is ceremonial in the East African country (executive power is vested in the office of the prime minister), the appointment is nonetheless deeply symbolic and indicative of a larger shift in Ethiopia’s government. Last week, a new cabinet was announced — and half of the ministers are now women.
In remarks Parliament after she took her oath of office, Sahle-Work emphasized the importance of respecting women and the need to build a “society that rejects the oppression of women.” She also promised to work for peace and unity in the country.
“In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life,” tweeted Fitsum Arega, the prime minister’s chief of staff and de facto government spokesman.
Parliament accepted the resignation of Mulatu Teshome, who had served as president since 2013.
Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in April, has initiated a whirlwind of reforms, releasing political prisoners, inviting back exiles and making peace with the country’s chief opponent, Eritrea, after two decades of hostilities.
Abiy has also publicly declared the need to promote women in what has been a largely patriarchal conservative society.
A woman now heads one of the most powerful ministries in the country, the Ministry of Peace, which controls the intelligence agency and security forces. Muferiat Kamil, the former speaker of the house, heads the ministry, which aims to tackle the widespread ethnic unrest that has erupted in the country since the easing of the authoritarian control.
Amid these progressive moves and reforms, however, the government has been criticized for failing to contain the ethnic unrest in the countryside and for the arrest of thousands of people in Addis Ababa, some of whom then spent time in reeducation camps.
Sahle-Work becomes modern Ethiopia’s first female head of state, though in the country’s history there have been empresses who wielded great power.
Sahle-Work, 68, was previously the special representative of the United Nations secretary general to the African Union. Before that, she headed the organization’s Nairobi office with the rank of undersecretary general.
She began her diplomatic career as ambassador to Senegal in 1989 with responsibilities in neighboring African countries and later went to Djibouti before eventually serving as ambassador to France, where she had previously studied.
Among her many roles with the United Nations was head of the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic until 2011.
According to Ethiopia’s constitution, the president is the head of state, but the office’s powers are ceremonial and include opening Parliament, appointing ambassadors following the prime minister’s recommendation and receiving the credentials of foreign envoys.