The relationship Lady Birtukan has with the Prime Minister...

January 11 , 2020

A few months from what will be the most anticipated national elections, one of the weakest links in the hope for a transition to a democratic order remains the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), gossip observed. Not surprisingly, it is an institution at the centre of controversies in the bitter contestations for political power, in a culture where the loser loses it all.

It is baffling to see the chairperson of the Board, Birtukan Mideksa, the iron lady who once was on the receiving end of the Board's partisanship, choose to be ambiguous over her manner of running the show. She has chosen to remain mute on the date the national elections will be taking place, a crucial piece of information for various actors, from voters to candidates and observers, says gossip. Nonetheless, her spin doctors are busy shooting down any attempt to shed light on the preliminary schedule on which her staff members base their operational activities.

Many in the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Ethiopia's development partners are getting frustrated lately, but they remain unable to determine whether her's is an issue of competence or lack thereof, gossip claims. They do not see the Board matching the urgency of time or developing operations of national scale, claims gossip.

Abiy was hailed so much for installing strong-willed ladies to head constitutional institutions indispensable for power contestations, gossip recalled. As part of the reform agenda, he let them restructure these institutions to step up to the game, including the rewriting of the electoral and political party law, legislated by parliament in October 2019.

The relationship Lady Birtukan has with the Prime Minister, and some of his closest political allies, may not be one described as cordial, claims gossip. They see her as someone stubborn, unwilling to cooperate even when the stakes are high, such as in the delicate case before the announcement of the referendum for the Sidama Zone, claims gossip.

It has been over a year since Lady Birtukan assumed the heavy burden of seeing through credible elections in Ethiopia. Only four months from the time national elections traditionally are conducted, she has yet to decide when voter registration will start and convene political party representatives eligible for contestations to consult them on the date. It is only two weeks ago that a directive to this effect was issued, gossip says.

Of the over 110 political parties known to exist, it is only a little over half of them that have been registered with the Board so far, although they are required to field their candidates with the Board three months ahead of the election's D-Day.

Living off of a public salary (not even amounting to 500 dollars), a fraction of what she had to give up from her work in the United States, Lady Birtukan had to hire the head of the secretariat, Habtamu Wudineh, with a pay package four times higher than her's or any of the board members now working on a full-time basis, gossip disclosed.

With a background in the public health sector and experience as a real estate manager for BGM Real Estate Plc before his employment with the Board, Habtamu is paid by an international donor, the Open Society Foundation, a private organisation supporting political reform in Ethiopia with a 24-million-dollar budget, gossip revealed. The Foundation will also pay for the salaries of close to four deputies, who will have to be hired to serve under the other members of the Board, says gossip.

Open Society is only one of the many international partners who are determined to support the Board. Mobilised by the UNDP, close to 11 donor countries are putting up 40 million dollars to pay for the elections, in addition to the 3.9 billion Br the federal government has budgeted for the Board. Nicknamed SEEDS - Supporting Elections for Ethiopia's Democracy Strengthening - the UNDP has placed two million dollars of its money in the coffer but is still footing the bill for several other expenses, claims gossip. Despite the unusually large resources at her disposal, many have come to see that it is unlikely for Lady Birtukan and her Board to put its act together to do what is most essential for the country, on schedule, says gossip.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 11,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1028]

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