“My years as a president were pleasant and a happy one. I don't remember any incident that made me feel sad or bad,” President Girma Woldegirorgis
President Girma Wolde Girorgis became the second democratically elected President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 2001, and has now been serving his second term as president since he was re-elected in 2007. The President became a member of the House of Peoples' Representatives (HPR) after winning election in the Becho woreda constituency, West Shewa Zone of the Oromia state, as an independent candidate in the second round election in 2000. As Head of State, President Girma has continued to champion humanitarian causes, environmental development and livelihood security as well as critical issues of development and democracy.
His second term as a president will come to an end in this new Ethiopian year with the opening session of the parliament. According to Article 70 sub article 4 of the Ethiopian Constitution, a president cannot run for a third time. The Ethiopian Herald held an exclusive interview with the veteran politician and departing President about his political career and personal life.
Early childhood and school days
Girma Wolde-Giworgis was born in 1924 to Oromo parents in a place called Bantu, in Becho woreda, West Shewa Zone of the Oromia State which is located some 81 km form Addis Ababa. When he was a toddler Girma attended Church school and later he went to Teferi Mekonnen School in Addis Ababa where he attended his education until the Italian invasion. He then joined Genet Military School in Holeta, and graduated in 1944 with a rank of lieutenant. He also studied Air Traffic Management and Control in Sweden and Canada before he became an instructor in Air Navigation and Flight Control in Ethiopia in 1948. Girma was one of the first few Ethiopians who made it to the Ethiopian Air Force which was dominated by American technicians. He also tried to inspire Ethiopians to join the aviation industry.
President Girma and his wife, who is now well over sixty years, have six children but two of them have passed away. The President also has one granddaughter.
“My father was a Judge in Menze. The name he was given at birth was Dabi, a typical Oromo name. However, when he was appointed as Judge he had to change his name to Wolde-Giworgis- a name given when he was baptized-, because at the time it was not easy to have such a name and be appointed for such big post. When the Italians invaded Ethiopia I went back to Bantu and was herding my parent’s cattle. Two years after the invasion my father died. I came back to Addis after victory and joined an Italian school. While I was in school I used to support my parents with the money I earned by doing part-time jobs. Every weekend I used to go to my home village riding 81 kilometres and visit my mother buying the things she needed with the money I earned. On my return to Addis Ababa I used to bring some eggs and sell them to teachers. So, I was busy in my schooldays.
When I was young I never dreamed to be a president; nor did I have any notion that I would be one, one day. My parents were ordinary citizens, not ‘blue blooded’, however, I always wanted to fly, and that became a reality when I joined the Air Force and later the Ethiopian Civil Aviation.” According to him, he had a chance to travel to many parts of the world and seen many places and diverse cultures. As a result of his extensive travelling and exposure to many different cultures President Girma speaks seven languages: Oromiffa, Amharic, Tigrigna, Italian, English, French and Swedish.
Under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, President Girma served different institutions from the Ethiopian Air Force to the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority to parliament in various capacities. As a parliamentarian he served as president of the lower chamber for three consecutive years. At the same time he was actively engaged in a farming business in Jimma. After the overthrow of the imperial government, he served during the Derg' regime as a member of a Peace Commission which was set up to solve Eritrea’s question for sovereignty. He was also president of the Red Cross Society in Eritrea. Upon returning to Addis Ababa in 1990, he became Board Member of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and Head of its International Logistics Department.
“My political career started when I ran for parliament representing Ledeta and Kolfe Qeranio consistency. My election happened following my powerful rhetoric I made at General Wingate school on how to change the Parliament. I was invited by an individual to make the speech. The debate following my speech took more than six hours,” President Girma remembers. He still has a fresh memory of his famous concluding statement which earned him a winning ticket with 800 votes. “ I said, ‘If you want to change the parliament elect me; but if you want the kingdom of God elect Memere ( priest) Zewde because he has the key to heaven.’ My contestant, Memere Zewde was an Ethics teacher at General Wingate school.
The office given for me was situated below the then premier, Akilu Habtewold. To me the office arrangement was an insult to the people I represented. As people’s representative, I felt that my office should have been situated at the top not below. So, I refused to take the office and told the administrator that I would instead park my car under the oak tree found in the compound and make my office there. Later the Senate President, Prince Asrate Kassa heard about the issue and intervened. When I went to work on the next Monday morning the offices were rearranged. The Prime Minister’s office was made below mine. The Oak tree is still there. My struggle for the people’s right started then.”
During his tenure as a parliamentarian, he helped the Ethiopian Parliament to win a seat in the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) ,and he attended IPU conferences in Switzerland, Denmark and the former Yugoslavia and was elected as Vice President of the 52nd Meeting of the IPU.
“Even though the two parliaments (the one which existed during the time of the emperor and the current one) are both bicameral (two-chambered) they are entirely different. The Imperial constitution favored and bestowed all power upon the Emperor and was written to serve the system. It was obvious it needed amendment but the amendment was late and resulted in radical revolution and the change of government. Today the parliament is the highest authority of the Federal Government and is accountable to the People. The State Council is the highest organ of State authority and responsible to the People of the State.
The popular demand for the political system change during the Imperial time was mainly on the abolishing of serfdom, the amendment of laws, equality, among others.”
His aviation days
“During the time of the Emperor I was assigned to work for the Civil Aviation office in Eritrea. At the time Eritrea was under the British protectorate and the Civil Aviation was run by International Airways. I didn't like that and I said to myself Ethiopia has to take over now and run the Aviation sector, not a foreign company. So, I petitioned the case to the then Transport and Communication Minister, Dejazmach Zewde. As a result, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation took it over from the International Airways, meaning we nationalized it. I was appointed as its head and ran it for three years. Then after, I went back to Eritrea during the Derg regime and stayed there for 20 years.
I was also Deputy Commissioner of the Peace Commission on Eritrea and Ethiopia. At that time Eritreans living in Ethiopia were pushing the government to improve the situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia. So, I went back as Deputy Commissioner of the Peace Commission together with Abune Paulos (who was living in Jerusalem) and the late Amede Lemma. When that Commission phased out I became Director of Transport and Communication as well as Natural Committee coordinator.
I don't have personal regrets. When I face a problem I always overcome it. But I wish one thing to have happened.
When I was a Director of the Civil Aviation, I frequently traveled to Montreal, Canada. It was the time that the construction of Bole International Airport was completed. As a result the old Airport would be out of use or empty. International Airways had two training facilities that train African pilots: one for the Anglophones in Arusha, Tanzania and one for the Francophone in Ivory Coast. Language was not a problem since both English and French are used. The diplomatic language was mainly French and there were many young students studying in the French school, Leyeses G/Marim. We could have accommodated both without any extra effort. I asked British Airways and it agreed. The facility was to be built at the old Airport and be used as a training field. But for the agreement to be effective the Ethiopian government had to ratify it. When I came back with the proposal to Addis the reverse awaited me. What happened was I was fired and my position was taken. The reason was ‘I constantly was fighting with the Americans and they de-professionalized me’, which stopped everything for me. I was sad not because I was de-professionalized but because I couldn't do what I planned to do. It took them six months to find my replacement. There were many adept Ethiopians that could fill my place but they were looking for someone they could manipulate and who would agree with everything they would say. The question was 'Does he like America?' not professional competence. They made the Emperor agree with them too.
Days as President
Girma, no stranger to the country's political trials and tribulations, was elected as a president unanimously by both houses of parliament on 2001 for a six-year term then re-elected in 2007. The departing President said, “My years as a president were pleasant and a happy one. I don't remember any incident or a challenge that made me feel sad or bad. As a person, I am a doer. If a task is assigned to me I won't rest until it is completed or accomplished. So ,I don't face much challenges. The palace is clean, with fresh air, pollution-free, comfortable place to live. I enjoyed my stay.
I don't know who will be elected the next president or have no clue. There are many qualified and competent Ethiopians who can do a better job.”
As champion of the environment
“My passion as an environmental protection advocate is to promote sustainable development, and natural resource management, urban waste management and livelihood security, among others. Environment has strong linkages with livelihood security and natural resources sustainment and is key for survival. So, environment protection needs rigorous work and commitment with special attention given to environmental education and awareness interventions that target school children, teachers, farmers, urban dwellers, men, women and development practitioners to bring the desired change.
Tremendous success is registered through the expansion and strengthening environmental protection schemes as well as wider public participation in conserving and protecting the environment. I am happy to see the intensive awareness to teach the public about the importance of conserving the environment bearing fruit. Through the public active engagement millions of tree seedlings were planted all over the country.
‘Two seedlings for the 2000’ was a scheme launched in 2007 in a bid to create a wider public mobilization at the time of the Ethiopian Millennium celebration. But the continuous awareness campaign since then paid at last in creating an active public participation. The farmer is doing a good conservation work without asking payment, and actively planting seedlings as well as conserving the environment.
In my youth the whole country, even Addis Ababa and its neighboring areas were covered with thick forests. The country was almost denuded and areas covered by forest dwindled to less than 3 percent because of rampant clearing of forests and tree cutting for farming and fuel respectively. In Ethiopia the yesteryear unsustainable resource use coupled with a high population growth rate has been putting increasing pressure on the country’s limited resources.
Taking into consideration the magnitude of the problem and the imminent threat problem as a result of which he launched an environmental protection society by the name of 'Lem Ethiopia' in 1992 and started his extensive awareness campaign to teach the public. Since its establishment Lem Ethiopia has been operating in almost every region to address environmental problems, using schools as major points of intervention.
“After the launch, a remarkable task has been accomplished because of the high level of awareness created through the various activities. For instance, the establishment of environmental protection clubs in 400 schools is worth mentioning. Now the country's forest coverage has reached over 10 percent.
I am very much committed to combat desertification as well as drought and I have been working with stakeholders for the same goal. If the current effort is strengthened, Ethiopia will overcome the threat, and it can be a chosen place for human habitation.”
President Girma also noted that the society as owner must bear the great burden and contribute its share towards the success of building green economy.“ Identifying and recognizing the good initiative and ideas of environmental actors in the country will encourage and motivate the public to do better in the future.
To date, President Girma is serving as Patron and Vice President of the Lem Ethiopia Board. He is also patron of Green Award Program, 13 months Green Ethiopia Project established by universities. Moreover, is patron of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and chairs the National AIDS Council.
“What I can tell you about myself with confidence is that I am an accomplisher. If a task is assigned to me, I will see to that it is done. Generally I am a happy person with a happy disposition. I take things as they come. I can't say there are personal things that make me sad or challenging. I like dancing, Azmarie (traditional music) and get together with friends. I like to have a good time. From books I don't have any particular favorite. I like 'Fikir Eske Mekaber' of Haddis Alemayehu and Mengistu Lemma’s poems. I love to read Readers digest, Times, also Del Carnegie, and the like.
Finally, I wish all Ethiopian a happy and bountiful new year!”
The President received many awards and honors. The most notable ones are the awards given to him in recognition for his efforts for environmental protection. These include:
In April, 2013 Always Be Tolerant Organization (ABETO) Africa provided ABETO Africa Peace Award 2013 to the President. The award was given to the president taking into consideration his outstanding contribution to peace and to fight environmental degradation and protection using his energy, resources and skills.
ABETO Africa Peace Award based in Uganda, has been presented to several distinguished leaders in Africa including President Nelson Mandela, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and President Salva Kiir Mayardit, among others.
Ambo University on November 2012, bestowed honorary doctorate degree on the President in recognition of his outstanding contributions in environmental protection and natural resource conservation.
The President’s lifelong service in years
1941: Enlisted at the Ethiopian Military Radio Communication set up by U.K.
1944: Graduated from the Holetta Military Academy as a Sub-Lieutenant
1946: Joined the Air Force in and took various Air Management courses
1948: Became assistant teacher in air navigation and flight control
1951: Became Director General of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Planning at its establishment
1955: Became head of Civil Aviation of Eritrea (Eritrea, at the time, was federated)
1957: Assumed the post of Director General of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and was Board member of the Ethiopian Airlines during the same period.
1961: Became member of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the Imperial Ethiopian Parliament
Elected speaker of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the Imperial Ethiopian Parliament for three consecutive years.
Served as Manager of the Import and Export Enterprise (IMPEX).
Served as deputy Commissioner of the Peace Program drawn up in 1977 by the provisional military government of Ethiopia (Derg) to settle the Eritrean problem peacefully.
Non-Governmental services between 1965 and 1974:
Board member of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce
Representative for Australian Trade Mission in Ethiopia
Founder and Director of the Ghibe Agricultural Association
Founder and Director of the Keffa and Illubabor Timber Processing Industry
While in the then province of Eritrea before 1990:
President of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society- Eritrea Branch (Asmara)
Board President of Cheshire Home
Managing Director of Leprosy Control Organization
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