Somalilandsun- Sahle-Work Zewde, a veteran U.N. diplomat, on Thursday became the first woman in Ethiopia’s modern history to be named president by the country’s Parliament. Sahle-Work has been working as the U.N. under-secretary general and as a special representative of the secretary general to the African Union.
She succeeds Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, who unexpectedly resigned as president on Wednesday. In Ethiopia, the role of president is a symbolic one; the prime minister holds all of the executive power, according to Reuters.
Nonetheless, Sahle-Work’s appointment to the presidency was welcomed by government officials and everyday Ethiopians alike, with many celebrating the “historic” turn of events on social media. In addition to becoming president of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work is now the only woman head of state on the entire continent of Africa, according to the BBC.
Speaking to Parliament after she was approved as president and sworn in, Sahle-Work said, “When there is no peace in country, mothers will be frustrated. Therefore, we need to work on peace for the sake of our mothers.” She added that she plans to make gender equality a top priority and cautioned any members of Parliament who thinks she’s been talking about gender issues too much already that she’s just getting started.
Sahle-Work also said promoting peace would be a key part of her agenda. “I urge you all, to uphold our peace, in the name of a mother, who is the first to suffer from the absence of peace,” she told Parliament.
Her ascension to president comes a week after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced his cabinet, which has a 50-50 female-male split, and was also welcomed as a progressive step in a nation that has not historically nurtured women. Ahmed’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, addressed the significance of Sahle-Work becoming president in a series of posts on Twitter. “In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalizes women as decision-makers in public life,” Arega said in one post.
Sahle-Work’s prior government service has included being an ambassador for Ethiopia in Senegal and Djibouti and she has worked as the head of peace-building in the Central African Republic for the U.N.