Ethiopia has chosen an opposition leader, who recently returned from exile, to head its election body – part of the African country’s efforts to bring former rebels into the political mainstream.
Birtukan Mideksa was named the head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia on Thursday, weeks after she returned from the United States under an amnesty announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The announcement came as the African country prepares for a “free, fair and democratic” election in 2020, as promised by the reformist prime minister.
“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 questioned her impartiality given her role in opposition politics.
Birtukan, a former judge, is the most senior former opposition figure to assume a high government post in Ethiopia’s recent history.
She is also the latest among several women appointed to high-profile posts in Abiy’s new administration.
Birtukan rose to prominence in the wake of the disputed elections of 2005, which sparked protests that were brutally suppressed by soldiers, leading to the death of 193 people.
She was jailed in the aftermath of the protests and spent time in and out of prison before fleeing into self-imposed exile in the US in 2010.
Encouraged by the political reforms announced by Abiy since he took office in April, Birtukan returned earlier this month. The two also met in the US recently.
“My new job, in some sense, is similar to being a judge,” Birtukan said after her appointment.
“What Ethiopians endured have prepared us to ask the right questions, including through the ballot box,” she told the state-affiliated Fana news agency.
Under Abiy, Ethiopia has in recent weeks got a 50 percent female cabinet, with women also serving as president – a ceremonial post – and head of the Supreme Court.
Abiy’s recent reforms also include dissidents released from jail, a peace deal with long-time foe Eritrea, the return home of armed opposition groups and the gradual loosening of the military’s grip on the country.