Girma Woldegiorgis, former president of the republic for twelve years, turned 91 last December. His illustrious career path has seen him work under three distinct regimes. Girma graduated in air-traffic management and control in Sweden and Canada in the 1940s and has served his country at the helm of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation. But Girma, who has been enjoying his retirement since he left the presidential office, which is located of Menelik II Avenue, in October 2013, is far from being finished. From his government-rented villa located at Tor Hailoch in front of the Embassy of Holland, the former president still keeps himself occupied with issues of interest to him. Chief among them are an effort to reconcile the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea, where he has worked for 21 years, and forest development initiatives. Henok Reta of The Reporter sat down with him to discuss these and other issues at his office and residence. Excerpts:
Girma Woldegiorgis: It has been very good. I am happy especially because there is no more protocol to observe. Now, I am free to meet anyone I want to.
Is it true that you were the one who introduced dancing to the palace during the imperial regime?
There was no dancing in the imperial palace back then. When the emperor (Hailesilassie) was celebrating the 25th coronation anniversary, everyone was told to put on a “frackwear” (white tie). I did not have to buy because I had one I brought from Spain [Girma was director general of Ethiopian Civil Aviation at the time]. At the ceremony, me and my wife performed waltz and rock and roll. His majesty was very pleased and sent three bottles of Champagne to my table. Thanks to my performance, the guys at my table drank a Champagne.
So, that was the first time when you were introduced to a palace?
Yes. I never thought I would enter a palace [as president]. At the time you cannot even imagine about one day becoming a king. Your bloodline has to descend from the Solomonic Dynasty. You would have to be the son of the king. There was no other shortcut.
You must have had a flashback when you entered the palace as president in 2001.
Well, not the day I danced in the palace. I was not feeling well the first day I was to enter the palace. But I did not want to skip the first day of work. It was exciting because it was not something I ever imagined. And 12 years as president cannot be taken lightly.
You have seen three regimes. What is your assessment of the path the country took over those years?
If you look at it from the outside, it is a normal course. A transition from a despotic imperial regime, where there is no room for criticism, is bound to create madness like the Derg. What came after the demise of the Derg is beyond expectation. It is a process and the changes were necessary.
Let me take you back to 1991 when the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power? Where were you at the time?
I left Asmara (Eritrea) and came to Addis Ababa three months prior that. I left Asmara [Girma was head of the northern division Ministry of Communication and Transport at the time] because I had a disagreement with my boss, who was a TPLF [Tigray Peoples Liberation Front] fighter. He even threatened to arrest me, so my bosses in Addis told me to come. When the fighters entered Addis there was little resistance. And they set up an all-inclusive transitional government. The process was good and I knew it would go well. The reason I admire Meles Zenawi is, at a time when it was feared the country would disintegrate, he created a federal system where regional states administer themselves.
Let us talk about the issue of Eritrea. What was your feeling when Eritrea became independent?
Eritrea was not part of Ethiopia at the time. Under the United Nations initiative, Eritrea was federated into Ethiopia during the imperial regime. That was a good arrangement. But some groups decided to do away with this arrangement and wanted to unify Eritrea to Ethiopia. I [Girma was elected member of Chamber of Deputies at the time] was opposed to that. I was of the view that the people should, at least, be consulted. No one heeded to that. So the federation was dismantled. The intention behind the dismantling of the federation was not as such bad. But it did not go down well because it was made under the direct order of the emperor. We were opposed to that in parliament as well. We wanted the peoples’ blessing. But that was not to be and it was a big mistake. That created a rebel group. Things got really messed up after that. The people were made to believe like they would be choosing between freedom and slavery during the referendum [in 1993]. Meles was also at wrong here. I do not doubt his nationalist attitude, but he was wrong to allow that. For example, Assab belongs to Afar. It became Eritrea’s after a landlord leased the port for an Italian merchant which was then included to the Eritrean mainland. The same with the islands of Dahlak and Halib. These territories should have been under the Afar regional state. We will see what the future brings.
I have a strong attachment with Eritrea. I have worked for 21 years in Eritrea in various capacities in the aviation, as representative of the Ministry of Communication and Transport and as peace commissioner during the Derg. I know and adore the good people of Eritrea. The situation now, living apart from each other, is not good. It may not be possible to be under one state, but we can be good neighbors. Let us try to be good neighbors. I do not think anyone would oppose that. But how to achieve that is the issue. There is only one man in Eritrea. No national council or any of such things. Unless you find access to that person, you cannot determine how to achieve what you want. I want to create pressure on him.
Some blame the Derg for the souring of the relation between the two countries. What do you say to that?
What did Derg do in Eritrea? I was a peace commissioner in Eritrea during the Derg regime. Derg tried to resolve the problem peacefully. But if it had to fight then it had to fight. When all road access to Eritrea was blocked, we were delivering food and fuel assistance to the people of Eritrea through air transport. I was head of that operation. Now thousands are fleeing their country daily, because Isaias [president of Eritrea] alone could not feed them. This situation could have been avoided. Of course, like any nationalist, Derg was proclaiming ‘our red blood for our Red Sea’.
How about the blame thrown on Emperor Menelik II for abandoning Eritreans during the Italian invasion?
It was attempted before that at Sehatti and Gur’a. There was also an appointee with the rank of Bahire Negash to convey the message that Eritrea is part of Ethiopia. But it never worked. Had Menelik went on to chase Italians out of Eritrea after the battle of Adwa, it could backfire and lose the entire nation. I believe there is wisdom in his decision. We have to recognize the rule of the game and the capacity of the players at the time.
Where do you think the Eritrean question leans?
It leans to unity. But I do not support unity. That is not a long term solution. Let us just be good neighbors. Let us help them sort out their problem. Let us be united as a people, not as a state. And let us have freedom of movement to each other’s countries. We have similar cultures as people. We can build on that and become good neighbors. That can be achieved.
There is an effort you have initiated to that effect. How is it going?
We have not been able to access Isaias yet. Attempts are underway and there are some positive signs. We can decipher the positive from Isaias’ recent interview in which he said ‘our problem is not with the Ethiopian people but with Woyane [a reference to the state]’. You cannot separate our state from the people but we have a solution for that as well.
What have you achieved so far?
Nothing at the moment. It has only been talks. We have friends there who can mobilize the public. The enthusiasm has been great. But unless you have access to him [Isaias] and have him declare something, then the communications will not be smooth. So, nothing concrete so far but the issue is in the air now. We had a volunteer peace commission comprising of religious fathers.
Let us talk current affairs. It is election year and campaigns are underway. What is your view of the fifth general election in light of the previous ones?
This is a tough question. Any incumbent does not want to relinquish power. The odd thing about this election is that it seems the EPRDF is worried. That is probably why they went to their formative years forty years ago to tell us, for three weeks, what they did for the country. I predict they would still win because I do not see a strong opposition party. There is less enthusiasm; it seems the people are content with the EPRDF. I also prefer stability. You cannot reach somewhere when there is instability.
What do you think is the source the highly polarized political landscape in the country, particularly in the opposition camp?
I have not paid much attention to the opposition. But I think it is due to fear or out of frustration that they cannot win EPRDF in the election. Trying is good and we will see the outcome. What is lacking is clear alternatives offered by political parties. If the debates centered on such alternatives, it would have been great.
Let us talk aviation. Are you pleased with the achievements of Ethiopian airlines considering the time it has been in the business?
If I was asked this question some ten years ago, my answer would have been different. But what I see now has exceeded my imagination by far. It is one of the best airlines in the world. The American airlines like TWA (Trans World Airways) and Pan American Airlines who helped us set up and manage Ethiopian Airlines are no longer in the business. It is not only profitable but also flies to many destinations. The training school has grown from an institute that trains hostesses and mechanics to an aviation academy. The one thing I regret the most is the opportunity we lost to set up an aviation academy for the whole of Africa here in Addis Ababa some thirty years ago. I proposed that during the 57th Air Navigation Conference in Montreal. My proposal was accepted pending a government approval. But I was removed from my position soon after and was out of the aviation industry. The proposal was rejected and we lost that opportunity. If that was not the case, we would have been miles ahead in the aviation academy by now. But in general, Ethiopian Airlines is very good. I am not so sure about the civil aviation. I believe it has to go parallel.
Do you still maintain contact with the current president or the prime minister?
On a very limited occasion. I have met Hailemariam on, probably, two occasions when he was chairman of the African Union. I have asked a statue to be erected for Emperor Hailesilassie in the premise of the AU. At a time Africa was divided in three blocs, Hailesilassie along with Ketema Yifru (then foreign minister) and then Prime Minister (Aklilu Habtewold) bridged the gap to unify the continent under one cause. He has also done a lot to build hotels and conference centers to host the Organization of the African Union. A man who has achieved all this has no statue in the AU. Whereas the only statue standing in the premise is Kwame Nkrumah’s who has done little in the unity of Africa. I am still fighting to have the statue erected. There is a panel, headed by Thabo Mbeki, which has recommended the statue to be erected. If approved, it will be erected in front of Africa Hall (inside the UNECA).
Because that is where the emperor built the first headquarter for the continental body. The new edifice is built by the Chinese.
You have worked with the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Can you compare Meles with current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn?
Meles is a very shrewd person who knows his mission. He believes in what he does and is very persuasive. I do not wish to compare the two. In any case, Meles is irreplaceable. To just give you one example, Gadhafi (former Libyan President), in his bid to make his country the seat of AU, promised an entire city of Sirte with infrastructure for the continental body. But Meles with his speech in Lome, Togo convinced fellow Africans to have the AU headquarter remain in Ethiopia. He was humorous too. I remember one time when we held a farewell ceremony for Olympians, Derartu Tulu came and said to him ‘you are quickly becoming bald’ and he replied ‘this post is very difficult. I have lost my hair and he [Girma] has lost his leg’. He respects me and listens to me. He was a born intelligentsia. He is the architect of the new Ethiopia. It is a pity he died at such a young age, 57; he was very young.
The president’s powers and duties under the FDRE Constitution are more of ceremonial. During your time as president, what meaningful power have you exerted?
I do not know what people’s expectations are but the president cannot be a dictator. If it is ceremonial then I would have to do the ceremonial responsibilities and the executive will be in charge of the execution. My only reservation is the law which says the president has to sign a bill enacted by parliament within 15 days from the day the bill is tabled to the office. But then the bill remains to be a valid law even if the president does not sign within 15 days. That nullifies the whole process. I am not saying that actually happened during my time. I have either signed or commented on the bills presented to me within the timeframe.
In all, you are satisfied with what you have done during your time as president?
Very much. Saving individuals from being executed and giving pardon, is not an easy thing to do. I have spared the lives of 23 people in one day. That is not soft power. Those in power know how big that is. There were many who were not pleased with my decision and made a lot of noise. They said the individuals were murderers. But we do not have to be murderers as well. But that did not sway me. I am not a conformist. I go my own way. The problem comes when you have doubts about the decisions you make. You have to be firm in your decisions. I am the same person I was during the imperial regime.
You are credited for your contribution in aviation, environmental and wildlife issues among others. What would you like to be remembered with the most?
I do not particularly care about what I should or should not be remembered with. I will pursue with my forest development initiative. For example, Lake Haromaya, which was dried out, is now replenished. I will not say I did that because I have not done any physical work there. It was wide-ranging effort. We are doing the same in forest redevelopment and ponds. The main goal is fighting desertification and making the country green. Our initiative it called Desert Disaster Prevention Program. The people are doing a wonderful job and the spirit is great. The state is embracing green economy. So we are speaking with the same language with the government. The one time we were in confrontation with the government was when they awarded a forest area in Gambella region to Indian investors.