Under the Shade of Gaashe
Biographical sketch of H.E. Dr. Girma Wolde Giorgis President of Ethiopia (2001-2013)
Here is an account of former Ethiopian president Girma Wolde Giorgis whose long and successful life has been marked by an active engagement in civic venture and government service. Curiously, the book is written by an Indian and it took a foreigner to produce this volume. (Though the author acknowledges the role of Abera Tilahun, founder and president of Micros Business College in Ambo in introducing him to the former president and financing the publishing of the book). The book is written as a series of snapshots. It begins with the author arriving in Ethiopia accompanying his wife who was to take a post at the Ambo University on 2010. Through a series of vignettes illustrating critical moments, the book depicts the life of the man who has been fortunate enough to live through and witness many momentous and significant period of the nation. Ato Girma, who is now in his twilight years of 92, served as president of Ethiopia from 2001-2013, he was member of Chamber of Deputies of the Imperial Ethiopian Parliament, director general of the Ethiopian civil aviation authority for five years and known as an advocate for environmental conservation.
Gaashe introduces us to the world in which Girma spent his childhood and youth. It is a fascinating world, full of contradictions and conflicts, humour and humanity. We learn about Girma’s parents: father whose first name was Dawii, who later changed it to Wolde Giorgis, when he was governor of Debre Berhan because he felt that “a name in Amhara pattern would be suitable for him to easily mingle with and internalize the life and styles of the Amahra people”, (p 32).
The author tells us that Girma was born on 28 December 1924 during the reign of Zewditu. His father was the governor of Gurgahe and later Debre Berhan. Though Girma was a second child, he was his father’s favourite son. Thus Wolde Giorgis, who was an expert horse rider, was a role model for his son who aspired to emulate him and “his exceptional style in handling horses and majestic horse rides.” (p. 40).
When Girma enrolled at Teferi Mekonen School, he was to meet another figure who was to significantly influence him in his future life. This was the teacher at Teferi Mekonen, the strict disciplinarian monsieur Costre, father of the well-known Ethiopian athletic coach, Dr. Wolde Meskel Costre.
Girma soon became “an ardent disciple to Masseur Costre who would carry young minds to worlds of diverse knowledge” and instilled in the minds of his pupils “the belief that the world is open for anyone who wants to develop.” (p. 41). It was from him that Girma learned to study and to behave himself while he was about it.
The books tells us of another influence on the young Grima who was none other than the famous Ethiopian patriot, Shewareged Gedle, who was an aunt of his mother. “Shewareged was a young beautiful lady with a brave heart. She fought fiercely against the Italian forces. She led the native force in Addis Alem and contributed considerably in ousting the foreign invaders. She stayed in Addis Alem until the town was bombed by the Italians.”
During breaks, we are told, Shewareged used to visit Girma’s home. Shewarged’s visits were a matter of elation for the little boy. “Major reason for this was she will be usually coming with packets of caramels.”
The proximity of Girma’s school to the site of the then airport at Jan Meda was to leave an indelible imprint on the mind of the little Girma. As the author tells us, “Girma would spend long time, keenly watching the flights taking off and landing.” (p. 41), an early harbinger of his later life as an airman.
However, the Italian invasion disrupted his schooling and was taken by his father from the bustling capital to a tranquil village in sodo, where airplane gazing was replaced by cattle herding. Girma’s father took part the war at Mecho against the fascist and had an untimely death at the age of 48, when Grima was 12 years old.
As the invasion was over, a fateful incident happened which was to bring young Grima back to the capital, when Ethiopian soldiers camping near Bantu are were celebrating the victory, with merry making and celebratory shooting, a stray bullet hit the 15-year-old boy’s left leg and he was taken to a military hospital at Tulu Bolo. The book charts the choices Girma made to move away from there toward the Addis Ababa city, the capital which kindled his dream of flying.
In Addis Ababa, he met Seifu Mutama who provided him with shelter. Eager to earn his keep, Girma was soon employed as an assistant to Mario Duraski, an Italian who ran a business of paving floors with linoleum. The young man’s diligence was noted by his employer giving him enough money with which he bought a bicycle.
Girma then joined the army with the British military mission for Ethiopia and became a sergeant at an age of twenty enrolling at Holeta Military School for a period of eight months, involving rigorous military training.
When a Swedish colonel, Capt Magnuson visited Ethiopia in connection with tasks with air force, he requested emergency communication assistance, he was directed to Girma and the captain impressed.
Impressed by Girma’s fluency in English, the Swedish captain suggested that he join the air force. Thus was paved the way for transforming his dream of flying into reality. Becoming one of the 18 cadets at the Debre Zeit Air force, Girma became an airman.
(Girma dressed in white with his wife, Salem Paulos)
It was at this time that Girma met his marriage partner, Salem Paulos, daughter of an Ethiopian consular in Jerusalem, Paulos Menamenos. However, trying to knot was not a simple affair. Airforce personnel were not allowed to enter into marriage and Girma had to appeal none other than the Emperor for the law to be bent for him. Though Girma did not get imperial blessing for his marriage, he remains “immensely indebted to the Emperor who though hadn’t given a final approval, behaved kindly.” (p. 73).
As he breached the rule of the air force, Girma could not continue working there and he had to find another job. It was at this occasion that his fluency in English came in handy. He was employed as translator for the British council in Asmara. Yet he has still to face severe punishment in the form of court martial for being illegally wedded and for desertion of duty. It was only the mercy of the Emperor that allowed him to return back to his job. Eventually, he was promoted to head of navigation and civil aviation, a post whereby he was to go overseas for training first in Holland and Canada.
(Grima with his children Mena, Solomon, Genet, Hirut, unknown in Asmara in the 70’s)
When Taffara Deguefe left the post of Director General of Civil Aviation, Girma took over and he found himself faced with a case that required a decision of what to do with the airport project to be financed by the World Bank. Impatient with the procrastination of the council of ministers who were foot dragging the project, he decided to go all by himself. He ordered his officers to go to different towns to conduct the field studies seeking possibilities for establishing airports.
“This provoked many conservative superior officers. It was a bullet directly hit at their hegemony. Their reciprocation to Girma was immediate. At least for that they did not procrastinate!
The provoked officers reported to the emperor that Girma was working against the government. Naturally Girma was summoned to the palace. Gaashe says: “It was an ugly kind of summons. Pressure was mounting around me. There was every chance that they would put me in jail to vent their displeasure on my action.
Bold hearted, Girma appeared before the Emperor. “Behind the Emperor was a group of people who were eager to see that I’m duly interrogated, warned of behaving as super officer and punished for a jail term.”
Emperor asked: “Are you doing against the government?”
“Your Majesty, it’s your order that I’m implementing”
“Yes, Your Majesty! It was the credentials signed by you that have been produced before the World Bank. It was your statements that consequently availed our country the loan from the World Bank. So I earnestly believed that being a responsible servant, I’m liable to carry out the work according to the stipulated timeframe, due to imminent spell of rain.”
Girma’s articulation made an impression. The Emperor turned back and asked the men who stood behind: “Are you accusing him for doing his job?” then he looked at Girma and said “God bless you!” (Page 92-3)
(Girma 4th from right to left, standing with his parliamentarian friends.)
However, Girma who was always looking for new ventures was not content to be bureaucratic functionary and decided to make a foray into the world of politics into parliament. He began to contest from Lideta Kernaio constituency in Addis Ababa and eventually reached the apex of his career by becoming president of the parliament of the four year term of which he completed three years. Girma’s description of the then parliament is interesting as well is revealing. “At the time there was no political parties. Instead, the competitions were between opinion groups. The imperial government set this up: Emperor at the apex, a Senate and a House of Representative below him. Senate is constituted by those who are nominated by the Emperor. House of Parliament was the place for opinion group members, who reach there after winning elections.”
About his tenure as Member of Parliament under the Emperor- the King of Kings, the Conquering Lion of Juda, Girma recollected, “Emperor was elected by God. I was in his parliament, as representative elected by the people,”
The book points out some of the progress brought by the parliament in introducing initiatives like protection of forests and environments, the anti-corruption law, the military service law and the controversial sentence against lashing.
While Girma was President the Parliament, he made the country a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In the final years, he was demoted to being a member. He explains the reason for the demoting with disarming frankness, “Later my arrogance must have displeased many.”
After leaving parliament, Girma returned to his agricultural venture with three like-minded people, cultivating Virginia Tobacco, maize and banana.
With the coming of the Derg, Girma was assigned to Eritrea as deputy Commissioner for the Peace Making Delegation, which was a fitting task for a man with long attachment with Eritrea. Yet the five member delegations chaired by an Eritrean named Dr. Yakob Eyob, who could not nurture unity among them members, failed to achieve the desired results. Girma was invited by the government for “a meeting as to how the government was to be formed and the constitution could be formed”.
He crowned his long time career with becoming the president of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, along with the premier Meles Zenawi whom he describes as “very intelligent, who shifted his personality as gallant warrior to a seasoned statesman quickly. He could do that only because he had a strong desire to establish a democratic Ethiopia.”
Girma had no delusion about his role, a non-executive president with largely ceremonial functions. Yet he was the person who convinced the then prime minister Meles Zewawi to grant mercy for 23 Derg officials who were sentenced to death. “Many doubted Meles would retaliate. But Meles didn’t object,” Girma was quoted. During those times, Girma continued with crusade for environment campaign for afforestation and preventing desertification. He formed Lem Ethiopia Environmental Society, which today has chapters along some 400 high schools.
In the course of his work, the author has had many long talks with Girma and accompanied him on a number of official errands. The book is filled with anecdotes about his family (including the story of his daughter Hirut Girma, “a girl of versatile talents” who unfortunately committed suicide at the age of 29) and the men and women who worked for him and helped him shape Ethiopia history for a decade. It’s also a book that tends to be politically partisan for long stretches. Sivakumar is not a critical interviewer and he rarely poses a difficult question to Girma. As the introduction makes abundantly clear, the author is a fan. Yet he succeeds in showing us the thinking of an organization man, a sense of duty sharpened by ambition, arranged by idea and theme, instinct. It is concerned to communicate the experience of growing up, of expanding horizons, of watching change. It hardly suggests greatness, but this is, after all, a book of reminiscences in pace of a man who saw a lot. Under the Shade of Gaashe is not long at 194 pages, indexes included. The images in Girma’s book not only help to illustrate the text, but are also compelling images that speak for themselves, and represent moments in Ethiopian history which are gone.
(Except the first photo taken by the Ethiopia Observer, the three others photos were provided by the former president Girma. Neither of them were included in the book.)