“My next mission will be to make peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea...”

Post Lij Eyasu Ethiopian history is his biography. He has witnessed how Ethiopia evolved into what it is today and involved in a number of its major undertakings. Though a military man at his core, he has held important civil offices that range from being director of the national civil aviation authority and president of the upper house of parliament during the imperial era to being a two term president of FDRE (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia). He has been a farmer, business man, soldier, politician and statesman. He has represented his country in different international arenas with unwavering commitment to safeguard its interest. He has served under three different governments, with intimate knowledge on the policies and the leaders of these distinct establishments. In this exclusive interview with Amanyehun R. Sisay, executive editor and Mikias Merhatsidk editor-in-chief of Ethiopian Business Review Girma Wolde-Giorgis, former President of FDRE talked about his presidency, Ethio-Eritrea issues and environmental concerns. Excerpts:

 

What are your biggest accomplishments in your two term presidency?

I don’t think my job should be evaluated as a personal accomplishment. What I can say is I am lucky in general. I have witnessed the problems of the country being solved. Massive socio-economic developments are underway. And I am happy that I am part of these changes.


Can you mention projects that have been given priorities while you serve as president and become successful?

My active involvements are mainly confined to environmental protection and green projects like afforestation. Recently I am involving in initiatives that are underway to revive Lake Haramaya. Fascinating studies have been made on the issue and hopefully they will be implemented.


What do you think about the economic path that the country is following?

Well, the development path that the country is following is really good and impressive. Of course it may have been even better. But the good thing is there is a growing consensus among the general public about the need for economic growth and development. And green as the way to go. So I believe the country is in the right track.


In the 1970s, you were part of the commission that was established to solve the Eritrean problem peacefully, why didn’t it work? Do you have any regrets on the issue?

There was a call for peace by the Dergue to solve the Eritrean problem peacefully in the early 70s. There was a belief that the Eritrean problem can be solved peacefully. And I was sent to Eritrea as deputy commissioner for that mission. Attempts were made at the time. But the problem was that Dergue became unpredictable in its character. So without achieving any meaningful results with the mission, Dergue went in to another direction. Then come ‘organization of the people’ (Yehizb Dirijit) and the commission phased out. I can’t say we have achieved a meaningful accomplishment in the process. But there was an attempt.

The Eritrean issue went out of track earlier. Hadn’t the Emperor abolished the federation, the Eritrean problem would not have been exacerbated. The people of the two countries would have lived happily under the federation.

In fact I was a federal officer as head of the Aviation Authority in Eritrea. Things went wrong when the federation was abolished. Many people went out for the armed struggle. Then again General Aman [Andom] had tried to find a peaceful solution, but the military junta didn’t like his attempts. Finally it became one of the causes for his death. After that it became hard to correct it.


When the commission was established, was it already too late to turn around the Eritrean issue?

We cannot say that because at the time we haven’t reached the majority of the Eritrean society yet. And Eritreans are wise and reasonable people. So we haven’t worked with the public closely and we haven’t really engaged them and we cannot know what could have happened had we done that. Then there was no time because the commission was no longer there. But it was not hopeless when we started it first.


Do you think the people of the two nations will live together again?

I don’t think the two nations will be united again. But I can’t see any reason why the two nations can’t be friendly neighbours. The people of the two nations are brothers. They have a similar culture. We are intertwined with each other. We can be very good neighbours with Eritrea as we are with Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti. It doesn’t matter whether we are in one government or not but I strongly believe we shall live as very good neighbours. I would like to work for the realization of this idea in the time I am left with. I will try to make peace between the two people in the rest of my days.

Is there anything that you have already started on the issue?

Well there is this path that we can find a common ground with, and come to reconciliation. Why would we live as foes? Why would we close our borders? Why wouldn’t we live together in peace and friendship? There are ways we can answer these questions with. We have to exhaust these opportunities. A Norwegian religious organization has tried it in the past. People from Ethiopia have been to Eritrea. Similarly some Eritreans have been here for same. From the six Eritreans who came here, four of them were my close friends. They were emotional when we meet after such a long time.

I say we can do better than that. It is not an easy task but it has to be attempted. The people of the two nations can make it happen. As I heard, our brothers there are not happy with their situation. Why should such a thing happen while they could have lived better? There is a good market here. They can do business with Ethiopia rather than alienating themselves and live a life that is less than what they should have. We can address these issues.


You have served as a member of parliament (MP) during the reign of Emperor Hailesilassie I. How do you compare it with the present one?

They are quite different. The MPs at that time were directly representatives of the people. There were not parties. The current parliament has parties. There is a ruling party. It is not possible to make comparison between the two. In general the two parliaments are established in different policies and are quite different.

There is something which should have been done during the time of the Emperor. If the emperor had let the parliament to assign an executive, prime minister and had the Emperor gradually evolved to become constitutional monarch the country would have been in a better position. The people would have got the deserved development and civilization. This didn’t happen.

 

Have you had frequent meetings and discussions with the late PM Meles Zenawi? How do you describe him?

Yes we used to meet. He was a unique person. He had his own philosophy. In fact, even though he is a member of his party EPRDF, I don’t think he works for the interest of the party. His main concern was the people. He has sacrificed himself to defeat backwardness and to pull the people out from poverty. I can say he is the engineer of the new reformed Ethiopia.


Similarly, you have served in higher governmental positions during the reign of Emperor Hailesilassie I. Have you had the chance to meet and talk to him? How do you describe the Emperor?

We have met on many occasions. He was a good leader. But he loved his power and authority so much that he never wanted to share it with anyone. That is why; I think he faced all the obstacles. Otherwise He had contributed a lot to Ethiopia. He had good personality. I found him that way no matter how others may see him. He was well reserved and did not talk much.

I would not say he was a dictator. If that was the case, he would have ruled the country without a constitution like his predecessors. He believed in the role of constitution. He was the first leader to bring a constitution into effect. He had brought about the beginnings of a modern state.


You take initiatives in various social activities. What inspires you to take those initiatives?

Starting with my village, I am a member of idir (a community organization of welfare) in my locality. Back in the days we also had organized a group of idirs at a Woreda level. We then created an association of these idirs at a city level. This is during the regime of H.Silassie, when Degazmach Zewdie G.Silassie was the mayor of Addis Ababa, we created a social service society. The mission was to provide social services to the society. Idirs usually were active when people die. We thought of ways where idirs could contribute to people’s lives. Aware Community Service was the first initiative of such kind, then Lideta my locality. I love serving the public. I think my job has always been serving the public. That is what I had done as a President

 

During your presidency, lots of prisoners have been pardoned well before they finish doing their time. What was your role in the whole process?

I remember back in the day, when I was travelling from Gorre to Metu, I saw a line of people along the road. I asked who they were. They said they were prisoners. I asked again where their guard was. They said their guard had gone into the woods giving his gun to one of the prisoners and they were waiting for him to take them to the prison. I was really amazed. This is a public that has imprisoned itself. I reached Metu and talked with the ruler of the area, Degazmach Worku Enqusilassie. I told him what I saw. In fact the people were imprisoned because they could not pay bribes even though they had paid their taxes. Since my comments on the situation, Degazmach Worku had improved lots of things around that area.

When we come to the present, prisoners have been pardoned not only because of my own good intention but because the law of the land permits it too. The law allows such things even though it had never been practiced as such. This is a special power given to the president. I have used this authority to pardon many prisoners and avoid death penalties.

 

There are reports about journalists who have been imprisoned for alleged involvement in terrorism. It has been said that these journalists have been denied pardons despite their repeated requests.

The process of pardoning prisoners has its own procedures. There is a board that handles the process at Ministry of Justice. The application should be submitted to them. They comment on applications and send the documents to us. We make the decision after that. Their applications must have not reached that stage.


You are one of the founders of Lem Ethiopia. What inspired you to take the initiative to establish it? What is your involvement now?

In a way Lem Ethiopia is an off shoot of Red Cross. Red Cross had played a significant role during the draught in Wollo. Dr. Dawit Zewdie was the president of the national association and I was the president of its Eritrea branch. The issue evolved like this: what is disaster in Ethiopia? It is draught. What should be done to prevent draught? Thinking of such things, solutions surfaced: diversifying vegetation, encouraging farming through irrigation and the like. It all started around Ambassel and Bati. And the name of the project was Upper Mille Chelka Disaster Prevention Program (UMCDPP). What had been done then is being harvested now. The trees are being sold. Lake Hayqe in Wollo had no fish in it then. Our Swedish advisor with some background on fishing conducted a study, then we implemented the recommendations, and the water body produced a large amount of fish. Now the area is known for its fish dishes. We had also supported them with cold chain van automobiles to transport the fresh fish to the market.

After doing this, when it was ample time, we established Lem Ethiopia as a body that works on environmental issues. Lem Ethiopia could not do everything on its own. What we planned was to establish environmental protection clubs at every high school. The awareness creation has been sluggish until recently. Through time the office has done good things. Now we do not have to tell everything to the farmers. They do it themselves. We have seen what a mobilized public is capable of doing in the Tigray and Amhara regions. They have prevented floods from destroying their environment. The awareness on environment has improved gradually.


We know that a foundation is under establishment in your honour. How is it going?

Honestly, I don’t know much about that. After their meeting at Ghion Hotel, they were once here seeking my permission to establish the foundation. I have agreed. I don’t know the details; who oversees it or how they are planning to operate.


Tell us your connection and relation with the private sector.

I was a businessman in the old days. I remember during the Dergue regime, I was elected as a member of an advisory committee by the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. Since I became president, I don’t have that much relation with the private sector. It is a respected sector in the economy. I don’t have any relation with the actors in the sector though.

 

Is there any family member that followed your footsteps, joining politics?

I can’t say there is. I can’t say there isn’t either though because one of my daughters is a politician. She lives in Paris. It would have been better if she was based in the country. Her name is Genet Girma. We usually debate over our opinions on politics. She respects my opinions and expresses her love as a daughter. Yet, she has preferred to agree on disagreeing with me. She is among the leaders of EPRP. She was once here for a meeting called by EPRDF. She was arrested for two months before she went back to Paris. They arrested her claiming that she could not participate in a meeting while waging a war on the government.

 

What do you envision for your country?

Ethiopia has become the country that I wanted to see. There is no going back now. The people will be more economically independent; democratically informed and self administrative. My vision for Ethiopia is already in sight.


You have served your country for more than 60 years. What is your message for the youth, regarding this?

What I want to say to the youth, especially to those who are fleeing abroad like they don’t have a country, is that there is no country like Ethiopia. It is possible to work and prosper here. They should know that it is always better to prosper and help their own country prosper along the way.

 

Were there any limitations that may have hindered you from fully engaging the experiences you have acquired through the years during your presidency?

All my experience, I believe, has been well used. There are not many things that I regret for not doing. Few things that have not been done are only because the situation had not allowed them to. I think I am lucky in this regard. Not many people can say such things at this stage. I have served three governments. My concern has always been the public and I have never had problem in serving the public.

 

How is your closeness to technologies, the internet, smart Phones, social media and other technologies?

I am not that much in to it. I don’t want to be addicted to anything. I have a a mobile, desktop and a laptop. I use them whenever necessary. I am not this person who wastes his time sticking on flashy things, however. I don’t have any addiction of whether alcohol or anything. I used to read a lot as a child about the problems that these substances create. My readings have given me enough knowledge about the damages of gambling and addiction. Therefore I have prevented all addictions in my life.


You have been a businessman, a politician and a statesman. Which role do you think defines you better?

I do everything very well. How I do things is what takes me to the next level. If you are successful in what you do, you will be eligible for the next responsibility. I was a farmer. I would still be happy being a farmer. I was successful as a farmer. After my three friends and I opened a farm at Gibe, we were able to minimize the import of tobacco from Zimbabwe. Farming is the most rewarding job. I would still be a farmer if I could.

 

What would you do during your retirement?

There will be organizations I will oversee. I won’t be idle. I also like to work on this project on reviving Haramaya Lake. The Haramaya Lake was once big enough to sink a king. Now it is all gone. We will work on bringing the water body back to its past glory.

 

Have you gone any distance in the attempt of improving Ethio-Eritrean relation?

That is secret for now.

Mikias Merhatsidk

EBR staff writter

1 comment

  • Isabelle

    What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious familiarity regarding
    unpredicted feelings.

    Isabelle Thursday, 01 June 2017 00:47 Comment Link

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