The Practical Challenges of Replacing Birtukan Midekssa

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Birtukan Midekssa has resigned from her post as the head of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) for health reasons, according to her. No question the position exposed her to a very complicated set of political challenges since she took it six years ago. The turmoil that is politics in Ethiopia is indeed quite familiar to Birtukan. She had been in front of it, both as a judge and political figure. Prior to her political career, Birtukan was renowned for resisting political intervention in the court case against then Defense Minister, Siye Abraha, where she was the presiding judge.

Charges against the former minister and prominent rival of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi were politically motivated. Subsequently, in the year 2002 her decision to acquit the Mr. Seye Abraha was overturned by authorities and resulted in her removal from the bench. Mr. Seye would spend the next six years in prison. According to her personal testimony, this experience was one of the factors that pushed her towards politics, initially running as an independent candidate, and later as a key opposition leader in the notable 2005 Ethiopian election, which was rigged by the ruling EPRDF party. Following violent crackdowns by the government, she was forced to flee the country few years later.

Besides her political experience, Birtukan has built reputation for legal and intellectual rigger, professional integrity and independence. It will be difficult to find a better candidate to lead the NEBE, an institution she was able to reform despite its history of being a tool for the ruling party. Her appointment as head of the NEBE was indeed recognized as a key first step towards democratic transition in Ethiopia. Despite disagreement by some MPs and political figures about her impartiality given her role in opposition politics, parliament overwhelmingly approved her nomination.

NEBE chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa during a press conference following the 2021 national elections in Ethiopia.

Prior to Birukan’s appointment, the NEBE had remained a controversial body – overturning the 2005 election results, blatantly declaring a 98% and a 100% victory for the ruling EPRDF party in the 2010 & 2015 elections, respectively. The challenge of reforming the NEBE and building public trust in its impartiality and efficiency was an enormous undertaking. In her appointment, Birtukan stated her vision to build a “transparent and trustworthy” institution, a promise which many believed she did her best to deliver despite the gravity of the challenges.

Birtukan guided the NEBE through a difficult period, marked by what can only be regarded a an unconstitutional insurrection by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which staged unlawful regional elections in the northern Tigray region on September 8, 2020. This act of defiance would later precipitate conflict with authorities in the Tigray region. Despite complicating factors due to continued instability in the country, in June 2021 NEBE oversaw national elections that were relatively the most open in Ethiopia’s history, according to the preliminary report by the African Union election observation mission.

Throughout 2022 and 2023, the NEBE oversaw tense regional referendums in the southern districts, with lasting impacts on the country’s democratic and constitutional future. in spite of opposition to these referendums, they were able to resolve outstanding political deadlocks democratically, and more importantly peacefully.

It is quite the turn of history to see Birtukan as head on the NEBE. The one time victim of the state-captured NEBE herself (for which she and many others were jailed, persecuted, sentenced to death and exiled in the early 2000s), Birtukan primarily strived to bring independence, and a backbone to an institution that long withered under party control. Nonetheless, she was not spared fierce criticisms by those who have objected:

  • the process of re-registration for previously outlawed parties;
  • the permits or refusals of local referendums;
  • the dismemberment of the EPRDF and reregistration as a new political party (Prosperity Party) in the middle of the five years electoral cycle;
  • the invalidation of TPLF’s unauthorized regional election and its subsequent loss of legal personality (following the parliamentary designation of TPLF as a terrorist group); and
  • the board’s refusal to recognize TPLF as a political party post the Pretoria Peace Agreement.

And now that she has officially resigned, there has been no hint as to who is proposed to replace Birtukan as the chairperson of NEBE. But one can tell for sure – finding a credible replacement will present a challenge for Prime Minister Abiy’s government.

The first practical challenge associated with replacing Birtukan is related to experience/expertise, institutional knowledge and technical competence. Her political experience and understanding of the law has uniquely allowed Birtukan to navigate the many nuances of politics in Ethiopia. This has been a great asset to both the board and the nation. Added to that, she had accumulated a remarkable experience and expertise particularly in organizing and overseeing elections, referendums and related tasks while serving as the head of the NEBE.

Birtukan’s departure exposes the board to a series of practical challenges in the effort to maintain the public trust she managed to build. It shouldn’t come as a shock if questions regarding the board’s impartiality and independence resurface after her departure. She certainly has raised the bar higher for her replacement, who will be expected to be as impartial, credible and competent by stakeholders – including international observers.

The new chairperson will no doubt face significant challenge in gaining the same level of public trust – especially given the complexity of TPLF’s reregistration as a political party, upcoming national remedial elections, unceasing requests for local referendum, and the potential referendum on constitutional amendment – if by any chance such initiative is to be presented to and be approved by the House of People’s Representative & House of Federation.

Moreover, NEBE being an important institution under ongoing reforms, change of leadership at this stage is an unfortunate disruption to its institutional stability and continuity. Birtukan’s departure will lead to a temporary period of readjustment and potential delays in decision-making and overall performances until a replacement is put in place, and the new chairperson manages to fully understand the intricate institutional, culture & bureaucracy of the board. Thus, her replacement and the process of transition to a new leadership should be cautiously planned & managed to mitigate the effects of any disruption of pending or planned voting procedures (if any) and reform initiatives by the NEBE.

Both the Prime Minister and the House of People’s Representatives are expected to tread carefully and deliberately on the political sensitivities and considerations of replacing the key figure at the NEBE – especially in a political environment, where election results are frequently contested. Both the candidate (to replace Birtukan) and the selection process should uphold the principles of fairness, transparency, inclusivity and neutrality – considering the importance of the role and the need to maintain the integrity and credibility of the board in Ethiopia’s democratic process — a process that has never been void of challenges and constant disruptions. That said, replacing Birtukan Midekssa is an uphill battle and her replacement is set to determine Ethiopia’s democratic future.

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