Ethiopian 50% Female Cabinet: Neither Authoritarianism Nor Tokenism

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Ethiopia is at a watershed moment. Its survival as a peaceful and prosperous nation depends on its willingness and ability to adopt fundamental reforms in many areas. One such area is reining in the patrimonial culture and empowering women. This is critical particularly in a period of conflict because women are favorably predisposed toward compromise resolutions. They are an indispensable part of the process of peace-building and transitioning to democratic governance.

On October 16, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a 20-person strong Cabinet. The Cabinet included 10 females, elevating a critical mass of women to positions of power and influence.

Two noteworthy appointees were Aisha Mohammed, the first woman in our history to oversee the Ministry of Defense and Muferiat Kamil, the Minister of Peace whose oversight includes, among other things, the National Intelligence & Security Service (NISS).

The announcement met with wide applause. There were also sporadic critics. Some censured the decision as tokenism smacking gimmickry. Others questioned the wisdom of appointing a woman as the Minister of Defense.

The most stinging criticism, however, came from the United States in the Washington Post on November 23 in an article titled “Sometimes autocrats strengthen their power by expanding women’s rights.” The authors, Daniela Donno and Anne-Kathrin Kreft, attributed the Prime Minister’s 50-percent female Cabinet to an ulterior motive to “solidify his hold on power.”

Their conclusion is rooted in two false premises borrowed from unrelated research findings. They suggested that “dictators undertake high-profile gender reforms” with the aim to “improve their country’s image, hoping investors and lenders will look more favorably on a ‘modernizing autocrat.’” They further asserted “Certain kinds of autocracies more actively invest in gender reforms — because by doing so, they win a larger base of support that helps them stay in power.”

The authors’ unfortunate effort to fit Ethiopia’s current realities into the realm of unrelated research findings is akin to forcing the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Their attempts to portray the Prime Minister as an autocrat and represent the newly minted women Cabinet members as pawns in his presumed game of political gamesmanship is misguided to say the least.

Since he came to power in April 2018, the Prime Minister has rolled out drastic changes that have reshaped the nation’s political contour and changed its trajectory. Reuben E. Brigety II, an adjunct senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to the African Union, is one of the witnesses to note this. He observed that the Prime Minister “is connecting with local people in ways no Ethiopian leader in two millennia of history has ever done, in a way that people have been desperately clamoring for.”

In September 2018, five months after he assumed power, The Financial Times heralded that “The ‘Abiymania’ that greeted the prime minister’s rise to power has not yet bitten the dust.” It went on to state, “These days, it feels like New Year in Ethiopia every day,” with polls suggesting the Prime Minister enjoying “a 90 percent support rate.”

The accolades he has received both from Ethiopians and foreigners is well deserved. In a short period, he ended the state of emergency and released thousands of political prisoners. Ethiopia, which was labeled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as “the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa,” has no journalist in its prisons today.

Furthermore, under his leadership, Ethiopia has ended the common practice of intermittently blocking the internet to silence bloggers and dismissed all charges against diaspora media outlets. Today, several of the diaspora media outlets have opened offices in Ethiopia.

More importantly, opposition leaders who were labeled terrorists and sentenced to death in absentia have been accorded blanket amnesty. Many of them have returned to Ethiopia and are preparing to compete in the upcoming 2020 election.

The Prime Minister’s impact has transcended beyond Ethiopia’s borders to create regional peace. The protracted conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Eritrea and Somalia that many believed irresolvable have ended abruptly because of his peace initiative. As The Guardian newspaper noted, he has “turned the region’s politics on its head with a string of reforms, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama, and Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Women are neither passive observers of the unfolding changes nor political token. They are at the forefront of the movement ushering in vital reforms. Last week, Birtukan Mideksa was sworn in as the head of Ethiopia’s electoral board. A former judge in Ethiopia’s 3rd District Court and a Harvard graduate, Mideksa is known as much for her uncompromising principles as for her commendable leadership.

It was her uncompromising principles for the rule of law that set her on a collision course with the previous government, leading to her trumped-up charges of terrorist acts and life imprisonment. She was later released under relentless international pressure and exiled to the US. She returned to Ethiopia earlier this month after seven years in exile to reform and oversee the electoral process.

Meaza Ashenafi’s appointment as the President to the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia is another significant decision to put a woman in an influential position. Ashenafi, the founder and executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, is known as a fearless advocate for women rights.

In one court case, she defended a 14-year-old girl who was accused of killing the man who raped her and won a landmark decision; that story was turned into the 2014 Ethiopian film Difret. The film in which Angelina Jolie played a role as executive producer won the World Cinematic Dramatic Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Ashenafi’s role in women’s rights is not confined to the courthouse. She was the co-founder and chair of the Board of Directors of the first women’s bank in Ethiopia, Enat Bank, whose primary objective is to provide women with access to credit. In 2011, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize. She has won several international awards.

These are some of the extraordinarily accomplished and widely regarded women that the article presented as political pawns in Prime Minister Ahmed’s presumed political gamesmanship. The authors could have gained a better sense of the political situation had they studied the reality on the ground rather than frog jumping from misguided perception to a hasty conclusion through a half-assed bench research.