In a surprising turn, Birtukan Mideksa, the highly esteemed chairwoman of the Ethiopian National Election Board, has officially tendered her resignation, citing health reasons. While Birtukan's leadership garnered widespread respect during her tenure, concerns have emerged regarding the voluntary nature of her resignation, with critics questioning potential political manipulation and highlighting unfulfilled promises of reform.
Having assumed the position in 2018, Birtukan successfully oversaw the coordination of Ethiopia's controversial political elections and played a pivotal role in conducting three crucial referendum elections, leading to establishment of a regional state. However, her decision to step down from her leadership role was driven by the pressing need to prioritize her health and secure long-term rest, according to her statement on social media.
Birtukan shared a statement on her official Facebook page, where she announced her voluntary resignation, which she communicated to the Speaker of the House of Representatives office on June 12, 2023. In her announcement, she pledged to fulfill any pending responsibilities during her remaining time in office, ensuring a smooth administrative transition.
Birtukan's journey has been marked by resilience and determination. Following the disputed elections in 2005, where her party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, achieved unprecedented seats, she faced imprisonment and was eventually sentenced to life. After being released from prison, Birtukan Mideksa formed a new political party, leading to another round of arrest. When she was released again, she sought refuge in the United States in 2010 and spent seven years in exile before returning to Ethiopia in November 2018. Her unexpected appointment as the chairwoman of the national election board by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received widespread support, with a resounding endorsement from a 745-seat parliament, with only four votes against and three abstentions in the House of People's Representatives.
The Human Rights Watch praised the Ethiopian government on the day of Birtukan's appointment for implementing crucial reforms and emphasized the significance of having an independent and highly respected elections chair. They stated, "Following years of significantly restricted political space, the appointment of a new elections chair represents another step in the right direction."
Prior to her political career, Birtukan served as a federal judge but chose to leave the judiciary due to executive interference in the courts. Notably, she became the first female leader of a pro-democracy political party in 2005. Her impactful tenure as the chairwoman of the national election board played a crucial role in advancing Ethiopia's democratic processes, solidifying her reputation as an esteemed and influential leader.
The referendum in the Wolaiyta Zone of Southern Ethiopia and TPLF's request was the major assignments Birtukan handled during the last days of her stay in office, without mentioning the smooth transition she promised. NEBE's refusal to reinstate TPLF as a political party, citing the absence of a legal framework for outlawed parties, has drawn criticism. The Board banned the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) for engaging in violence against the federal government. Even though TPLF claims to have resolved the issue through a peace deal in Pretoria, the Board denies its reinstatement, stating that it will consider TPLF's request for reinstatement if the party follows the procedures outlined in the Political Parties Code of Conduct. The Tigray Regional Interim Administration and TPLF have urged NEBE to reconsider its decision to reject TPLF's reinstatement as a political party, arguing that it undermines the Pretoria peace deal and lacks a legal and political basis.
While Birtukan received widespread gratitude for her exemplary tenure and commendable leadership, doubts have been raised regarding the voluntary nature of her resignation. Observers have questioned whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed orchestrated her departure to consolidate power for his newly formed party, the Prosperity Party (PP), while failing to deliver on promised reforms. Moreover, critics argue that the actions of the Board she chaired may have inadvertently contributed to the growing rift between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the leading party at Arat Kilo, leading to a bitter, bloody war in northern Ethiopia that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands.
As Ethiopia navigates this transition and reflects on the direction of its political landscape, the fulfillment of promised democratic reforms remains a pressing concern. The resignation of Birtukan Mideksa raises essential questions about the future of Ethiopia's electoral system and the potential impact on the country's journey toward respecting the people's will.