Why Bebe Kebede, 80, is fighting for women’s rights in Ethiopia

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

She is well known as “Auntie Bebe.”

At the age of 78, Bebe Kebede is already Ethiopia’s best-known, and most vocal, politician. She has dedicated much of her political career to ensuring that, after the fall of autocrat Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, she would remain in the line of succession. And so, in the face of violent resistance from the Sufi Muslim Birtukan Midekssa — who was her husband’s nemesis — Kebede does not shy away from claiming her role in securing his execution.

In an interview with AFP Wednesday, she said he was killed in 1999 because “he had proved himself a particularly virulent and dangerous opponent of the regime” when she took him to the president, who agreed to have him killed but couldn’t get permission from army bosses.

Her first orders after becoming prime minister in 2006, she said, were to quickly arrange for Kebede’s burial, which she said had to be done in Ethiopia. She went on to persuade President Barack Obama to visit Addis Ababa and bring the International Criminal Court into Ethiopia.

The EPRDF (the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front) led the military regime against the outlawed Somali Democratic Movement, a separatist movement which had been led by Birtukan — who was also close to the West. In 2005, nearly 70 people were killed in the town of Budeir, when she was made to share power with the EPRDF with President Mengistu’s consent.

But the family maintained her political credentials and her voice at the forefront of many of the forces that helped sweep Ethiopia’s military dictatorship from power. A former nurse and mother of four, Kebede insists that she was unable to avoid her role in the dictatorship’s demise, despite concerns about her role in the international conference that paved the way for the downfall of Mengistu.

“Whatever has been said about me is no more meaningful. People should have seen that it happened through the experience. There was a need to put her on top,” said Kebede.

“I don’t want to take sides in the ego battles. We have given so much to the world and made sacrifices, she was very important in that struggle.”

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