Sahle Work Zewde: The first female President of Ethiopia

On October 24, 2018, H.E Dr. Mulatu Teshome resigned from the presidency


Sahle Work Zewde is the 5th and first female President of Ethiopia. A career diplomat, she was ranked as the 93rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2019. On October 25, 2018, the Federal Parliamentary Assembly elected Sahle Work Zewde, making her the sole serving female head of state in Africa at that time. Today, we take a closer look at the life of one of Africa’s most remarkable women and trace her journey to prominence.

Background and Early Life

Born on February 21, 1950, in Addis Ababa, Sahle Work Zewde is the eldest of four children. Though little is known about her early life and family, her educational path began at Lycée Guebre-Mariam in Addis Ababa, where she completed both elementary and secondary schooling. Her educational pursuits took her to France, where she studied natural sciences at the University of Montpellier. Upon returning to Ethiopia, she continued her studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Jimma University in 1980, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Adi Baba. Finally, in 1995, she obtained her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin.

Early Career with the Ministry of Education:

Sahle Work Zewde’s success was not handed to her; she pursued her goals with determination and persistence. Her journey commenced as a professional teacher, advancing from an elementary school principal to a high school principal. She also served as a lecturer at Jimma University from 1989 to 1994. Later, Sahle Work Zewde became an associate professor at Addis Ababa University, holding the position from 1994 to 1997. Between 1998 and 2003, she served as the deputy headmistress at the Ethiopian Teachers College before becoming its headmistress. In 2005, she was elected as the President of Ethiopia’s Teachers Association (ETA).

Diplomatic Journey

In 1988, Sahle Work Zewde embarked on her illustrious diplomatic career. Starting as the Ambassador to Senegal with additional accreditation to Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and the Gambia, her diplomatic service extended to roles such as Ambassador in Djibouti and Permanent Representative to the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In 2009, she joined the United Nations (UN) and made history as the first woman to serve as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peace-building Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA). She later became the first dedicated Director-General of the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON) and, in June 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed her as the Special Representative to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union (UNOAU), marking her as the first female to hold those positions.

Her Presidency

On October 24, 2018, H.E. Dr. Mulatu Teshome resigned from the presidency, having served since October 7, 2013. This paved the way for Sahle Work Zewde, who was unanimously elected as President by the Federal Parliamentary Assembly. She is anticipated to serve two consecutive six-year terms.

While her role holds largely ceremonial significance, Sahle Work Zewde’s election marked a historic milestone as Ethiopia’s first female President. As of 2023, she remains one of only two female heads of state in Africa, the other being Samia Suluhu of Tanzania. Sahle Work Zewde’s journey is a testament to hope, hard work, and determination. Her rise from an elementary teacher to the head of state is an inspiring narrative that will resonate for generations. Her ascent to leadership serves as motivation for all, proving that gender and background are not barriers to success. By working diligently and giving your best, the realm of possibilities will inevitably open before you.



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