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Ethiopian President: ‘There is Nothing that a Woman or a Girl Cannot Do’

Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde speaks with VOA's Solomon Abate in New York, Sept. 28, 2019.
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde speaks with VOA's Solomon Abate in New York, Sept. 28, 2019.

This interview originated in VOA's Horn of Africa service. VOA Africa Division's Salem Solomon, Andrea Tadic and French to Africa's Thierry Kaore contributed to the story.

Editor’s note: Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde gave an interview to Solomon Abate of the Voice of America’s Horn of Africa service, in New York. She spoke in Amharic and English. These highlights are from their conversation in English and have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sahle-Work Zewde was elected president of Ethiopia by the country’s members of parliament in October 2018. She became the first woman to hold this position in the country’s history. Sahle-Work previously served at the U.N. Special Representative to the African Union and Ethiopian Ambassador to France, Senegal and Djibouti. She also headed the U.N. office in Nairobi.

Solomon Abate: Your Excellency Madame President, thank you very much for your time. I would like to start this interview with yourself. Please tell me a little about yourself, about your family...

Sahle-Work Zewde: I don't know where to start. I grew up in a family of four girls. I'm the firstborn. But I had a very amazing family especially my father, who has always told us that there is nothing that a woman or a girl cannot do. So this has been my motto all my life and in whatever I did, by the way, I was the first woman to do this, the first woman to do that, so I was daring. I was courageous and I had my self-esteem as well.

All this has helped. So I started in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then, no, Ministry of Education, rather, [and] then foreign affairs. I was [an] ambassador of Ethiopia for close to two decades. Too many countries and multilateral as well to the African Union. Then I joined the U.N. as an assistant secretary-general and a special representative of the SG (secretary-general) to the Central African Republic, where my main task was to stabilize the country and work on the peacebuilding for close to eight years. The only United Nations headquarters in the global south which is based in Nairobi as its first dedicated director-general, female or male, that was the first one and the first female of course. Yeah, so with that I'm co-founder Secretary-General. The last posting in the U.N. was to the African Union as a special representative of the SG again to the EU before I joined this office. That's it in a nutshell.

Abate: And congratulations for becoming the first Ethiopian president your, excellency. And my next question would be on the peace and stability of Ethiopia. There are people who are very much concerned about the future of this country. There are people who predict [the] disintegration of that country. [In the] meantime, there are some optimistic views from the public and from the high officials of the country, including the prime minister of Ethiopia. How do you characterize the current situation in the country?

Sahle-Work: First of all, I always see the glass half full. If you don't have that perspective, then it can distort your views. Second, I think we have to think of where we were like two, three years ago. I think we are [on] the right path. I think this is what we should be doing, consolidate. We have a conducive environment. Of course, it can be improved as we move on, but we have the conditions now for everybody to come in and play their role. So if we put the interests of our country first, the interests of our people first, the peace-loving people of Ethiopia because it's the people who have suffered most. So I think we really have to come together to draw a red line not to cross when it comes to peace, because it cannot be used as political expediency. This is too serious of an issue. So, yeah with all this in mind and with the conducive situation in Ethiopia, I think we have a good opportunity to move along.

Abate: Madame President, the situation of women in Africa is one of the greatest challenges. ... Ethiopia, of course, is not an exception. What do you think governments should do to elevate the ability and the participation of women and what should their contribution be?

Sahle-Work: Yeah, I mean, if the history of Africa was written by Africans and by women Africans, I think we would find many unsung heroes. But that's not enough. We know the state of affairs. In Ethiopia, the government has taken a bold decision to bring gender equality and women's empowerment at the heart of what we do. My coming here is a result of that, half of the Cabinet [are women] and so on.

FILE - Ethiopia's newly appointed ministers take their oath of office on Oct. 16, 2018, at the parliament in the capital Addis Ababa.
FILE - Ethiopia's newly appointed ministers take their oath of office on Oct. 16, 2018, at the parliament in the capital Addis Ababa.

Abate: Yeah, you mentioned that in the general assembly.

Sahle-Work: I wanted to test them if they closed their eyes and say, 'Oh, we closed our eyes and we call to the podium the president of...,' they will wake up to say, 'Oh, is it a woman?' Because it's so rare. So, I think we have had two or three female presidents addressing this assembly out of 54. So there is a lot to do, but there is a good prospect in Ethiopia. The job has started, has started in a very big way. It's for all of us now to make sure that the gap is filled that women can grow along the ladder and be selected to any position to have more women in the marketplace. In the job marketplace, [we should] have more women entrepreneurs and so on. There is a huge awareness currently that women should have their place. That they should get their due. So, I think this will help us move forward. But, of course, this will be done also with other countries with similar situations. We have seen some encouraging steps when you look at what has happened in Sudan. We have more females in key positions, so this definitely will have to continue.

Abate: And at last, Madame President, let me take you to the regional issues. The Horn of Africa is always volatile and full of tense situations and at this point, including Ethiopia, we see some ups and downs in the area. What should these governments do and what role can you play to bring these countries together? And how can you picture the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Ethiopia is building now?

Sahle-Work: What is characteristic [of] the current government regarding the region is that it has a bold regional agenda. The government has understood that the progress of Ethiopia could be limited if the Horn region doesn't come together. So we're working hard, you know, we've been heading [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] IGAD, we're still heading IGAD. We have been at the core of the revitalization of IGAD, which might need another revitalization, but nevertheless this is the vehicle that we have currently. So, I really admire this position that the government has that, as much as we think about national, we also think about regional. Our faith is interrelated in any case. We have supported peace processes and in our neighboring countries. But let me tell you something we have to change the narrative about the Horn. If you look at Africa, we had the Horn, which was in a turmoil two decades ago civil war everywhere. Central Africa, which was also very problematic, and the West was relatively calm and we didn’t know what would come. The storm that was going to come. This has changed and we have seen many countries going into big trouble, crisis, in West Africa. And in the Horn, we had peace accord, and so at leas guns have been silenced and political processes have started. I think we have a very good opportunity now to rise from that. We have suffered for too long that we really need to get back on our two feet and work together. Ethiopia is playing its role in order to be a good regional player. A regional player for the positive side of it, a regional player for fast-tracking integration-free movement of people and so on and so forth. So this is what the government is doing. It’s the only way to do it if we want to progress and progress fast. On Egypt, we have a good relationship with Egypt. I can't say otherwise. But the issue of the Nile is to have an equitable and sustainable share and there is a framework, a legal framework for that. So we want those who are not in the fold to come into the fold and agree that this is the way we should be doing things. The prime minister, one of his first trips was to Cairo, to reassure our neighbor. So we are optimistic. The discussion has to continue.

Abate: Do you think the Egyptians trust the prime minister?

Sahle-Work: Well, I don't know why it shouldn't be, why it should be otherwise. But, the principle is not to harm anyone in any case. So, we can't go against it. In any case, this is where we are and we really would like to create a conducive environment for the technical people to work on it and to [provide] evidence-based results so that the politicians decide.