Girma: President, Environmentalist, Dance Lover
The late Girma WoldeGiorgis might have been Ethiopia’s longest-serving president, with a political and military career that spanned almost eight decades. He was down to earth, loved nature and had a soft spot for music and dancing. Most uniquely, he cared very little for goats and Eucalyptus trees.
Girma wanted to see a greener Ethiopia, evident is his contributions to get the Climate Resilient Green Economy plan off the ground, and he believed that goats and Eucalyptus trees were antithetical to that.
He thought goats favoured eating saplings of trees and shrubs, devouring green life and depriving the earth of its vegetation cover. Eucalyptus trees, in particular, fared badly in his eyes.
“He thought they were selfish, because they didn’t allow other plants to thrive underneath them,” says Solomon, one of his five children.
Girma was replacing all the Eucalyptus trees growing at his house in Tor Hailochwith indigenous trees.
Just as endearing to his family and friends was his cheerful disposition, and he rarely missed an opportunity to dance. A fan of the popular artists Tewodros Kassahun, Tilahun Gessese and Rahel Yohannes, Girma never let his age, size or presidential decorum hold him back from having a good time.
Good times he had, even at a state dinner in Jubilee Palace, where he is rumoured to have joined the dancing, as attested by Constantinos Berhe Tesfa, a longtime friend and co-founder of Lem Ethiopia. Lem is an environmental and economic development association launched by Girma and Constatinos in 1992.
Born in Addis Abeba on December 28, 1924, he was one of few young privileged men to receive a modern education at the nation’s premier public school, Teferi Mekonnen. He was a young teenager during the Italian invasion of 1939 and was 17 by the time liberation arrived in 1941. Girma came of age in the post-Italian occupation era of modernity in Ethiopia with Addis Abeba leading the way with commercial centres, flowing tap water, hot baths, flushing toilets and paved roads.
Girma’s highest political achievement might be his two-term presidency between 2001 and 2013. But his six decades of public service, since his graduation as a cadet from the highly regarded military school, Holeta Genet Military Academy, speaks to the breadth and width of his experience.
After training and studying abroad at Canada’s Air Traffic Control Management and at Sweden’s Air Traffic Management School, he returned home to an assignment as head of Civil Aviation in Eritrea, following the unification of the former Italian colony with Ethiopia in 1952. Four years later, following the annexation of Eritrea into the empire, he was appointed director-general of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority.
His experiences crossed over to the economic sectors, where he also worked at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry & Planning; as a member of the board of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce; and manager of the Import & Export Enterprise.
In the early 1960s, he transitioned to lawmaking, joining the lower house of the imperial government, known as the Chamber of Deputies. He was elected speaker of the house, serving in that position for three years.
But the nation changed following the fateful 1960 coup d’état, the ensuing unrest of the student movement, and peasant revolts that culminated with the 1974 dethronement of the emperor by a military junta.
A fate that befell high imperial government officials and army officers under the military junta, Dergue, did not visit upon Girma. Three years into the rule of the Dergue, he served as the deputy commissioner of a peace programme to settle the intense conflict with the Eritrean liberation forces peacefully.
The programme proved unsuccessful given that a civil war was raging between the army and the rebel forces which lasted until 1991 when a rebel force defeated the Dergueand Eritrea subsequently gained its independence in 1993.
It was one of Girma’s defining moments, however, a position he took despite his past service for the imperial government; and despite his own daughter’s, Genet, involvement with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, against which the Dergueunleashed the Red Terror campaign.
The period also signaled Girma’s increasing involvement with civil society, working for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society’s Eritrean branch, and helping establish a leprosy treatment centre in Asmera.
“He had a great negotiating skill,” says Constantinos of his work at the Red Cross. “At a time when the Ethiopian army couldn’t get into war-ravaged areas, we were making deliveries.”
He continued his engagements with civil society organizations after the fall of the Dergue, co-founding and serving as a patron of Lem Ethiopia.
The end of the Dergueera also paved the way for the position he is most recognised for, the office of the Ethiopian presidency. It all began in 2000 when he run and won a seat as an independent in the federal parliament, representing a constituency in the Oromia Regional State.
Following the end of Negasso Gidada’s first term as president, Girma was elected in 2001 by his fellow parliamentarians to succeed Negasso.
“It was the proudest and happiest occasion for him,” says Solomon.
Although largely a ceremonial position, the president represents the nation as its head of state. Girma served in that position for 12 years, stepping down in 2013, when he was succeeded by Mulatu Tehsome (PhD). He remains the only president to have served two terms under the current constitution.
Girma has had some health scares while in office. Shortly after his inauguration in 2001, he was hospitalised for a brief period. There were also rumours of his death in 2012 after he sought treatment in Saudi Arabia.
He has sleep apnea syndrome, which is related to him being overweight. His heart was also functioning with the help of a pacemaker for the past 16 years.
He passed away past midnight from pneumonia on December 14, 2018, after having been hospitalised for two weeks at the Nordic Medical Centre. On Tuesday, December 18, 2018, his remains were returned to his home from Hayat Hospital, where it had been kept after his death.
The next day, Wednesday, December 19, 2018, the nation honoured him with a state funeral, and a procession that began at his home in Tor Hailochto the accompaniment of police and military brass bands, and an entourage that included his family, friends, acquaintances, diplomats, public officials and citizens.
His remains were carried to Millennium Hall, where his son Solomon and the current President, Sahleworq Zewde, delivered eulogies. Girma was interned at the Holy Trinity Church with a 21-gun salute.
He is survived by three of his five children. His wife, whom he married in 1948, passed away a year and a half ago, following the death of his two other children, Hirut and Samson. Those were the saddest moments in his life, according to Solomon.
“He was more than an optimist,” Solomon said of his father. “Even under the worst of circumstances, he was a man able to see the underlying silver lining.”