A former judge and leading opposition figure have been sworn in as the head of Ethiopia’s electoral board.

Birtukan Mideksa is the latest significant appointment of a woman to a key public office.

Ms Birtukan returned to Ethiopia earlier this month after seven years in exile in the US.

She was among dozens of opposition leaders jailed after the disputed elections of 2005 that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

The BBC’s Emmanuel Igunza in the capital Addis Ababa says she faces a key challenge in restoring faith in an electoral board that has constantly faced accusations of being manipulated by the state – and will oversee elections in May 2020.

There is currently not a single opposition MP in Ethiopia’s parliament.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has carried out wide-ranging reforms since coming to office in April.

These include making peace with neighbouring Eritrea after two decades of conflict, freeing political prisoners and welcoming back armed opposition groups from exile.

The 42-year-old leader has also given half of the government’s 20 ministerial posts to women and last month the parliament chose Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president, a ceremonial role.

Recently he was commended for appointing renowned human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi – whose efforts to tackle the underage marriage of girls formed the basis of an Angelina Jolie-produced Hollywood film in 2014 – as the country’s most senior judge.

Birtukan Mideksa: A voice of opposition

Birtukan Mideksa in 2010
  • Studied law, becoming a federal judge – some of her rulings displeased the government
  • One of the founders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) coalition, which did well elections in 2005
  • But accused of treason after post-poll violence and was among opposition leaders jailed for life
  • Seen as a heroine at the time, attracting widespread sympathy as a single mother separated from her baby daughter
  • Released after 18 months in July 2007, but her pardon was revoked in December 2008. She spent a further 21 months in jail, at times in solitary confinement
  • Before her second stint in jail, she set up the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party
  • Freed in October 2010, four months after the government’s landslide election victory
  • She resigned from politics in 2011 and went to the US, studying at Harvard
  • Returned from exile in November 2018 to become head of the election board

After her appointment, Ms Birtukan said she felt her career as a judge would help resolve the conflicts and differences that were likely to arise in her new role.

But she said that Ethiopians across the board had shown they were ready for change.

“The Ethiopian people are ready to build the democratic system they want and to hold the government accountable – and they have showed us that by paying the sacrifice needed,” Ms Birtukan told journalists.

“So, I believe that that public readiness is one good opportunity.

“Even though there’s still a lot to be done, we are seeing many institutional reforms in many directions. These are good opportunities.

“And I believe that fact that this government has proved its commitment for a genuine and true democracy is another good opportunity.”



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