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Former Ethiopian president Girma Woldegiorgis dies

The nation paid its respects to the man was Ethiopia’s president for more than a decade and a respected environmental activist, Girma Wolde-Ghiorgis, who died on Saturday, during a state funeral Dec. 19 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. For those who knew him well and for countless people across the country whose lives were touched by his dedication in conservation movement, this was a time of mourning but also a time to celebrate his life. Here is my reflection about the giant man that I’ve had the privilege to know and work with.

On March 1992 a close friend, Dr. Desta Mebratu invited me to attend an important meeting to discuss some issues of environment and conservation. Dr. Desta and I had many common passions such as concern for environmental and social issues, as he was an environmental protection professional and I had more than a nominal interest in the subject that dates back from my Boy Scout years.

A plan for environmental organization inspired by the concepts of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation was in the making and the meeting was intended to materialize that. All of the participants, experienced and dedicated people in the field discussed the issue in length, and I was privileged to be among those who established Lem Ethiopia and involved in for a number of years.

The movement had a long-term vision, puts future generation as its defining tenet and being part of it was a satisfying experience for me.

Among the initiators and active participants was an elderly figure easily visible because of his dignified presence and the prowess of his size. That person, Lieutenant Girma Wolde-Ghiorgis was not just the oldest in the crowd, he was the groups’ centre of gravity. In the course of several meetings, I came to find out Girma stood out for his humanity, the warmth of his personality, his intelligent viewpoint and insights. His inputs to the meetings during discussions were peppered with wit, anecdotes, observations from his vast experience and retentive memory, understanding of local context. He was interested in absorbing the views of others as much as he vehemently expressed his own. Lem Ethiopia’s projects focused mainly on public mobilization and empowerment initiatives, planting trees, expansion of clay technology (constructing houses out of clay than wood) and cow manure and biogas development, especially in schools. Though other board members followed the projects too, Girma made a point of visiting the project’s chapters in different parts of the country, despite his physical circumstances and poor health.

He was no tone to let much inconvenience in his commitment, as I have well witnessed in my interaction with him. I do recall one occasion, afternoon, we had a board meeting in the office which was located on the third or fourth floor in what was called Bedlu Building. Lieutenant Girma and I arrived at the same time. Because of the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, he walked with beads of sweat shining on his foreheads till he reached the building from his car, and then we walked up a fleet of stairs.

The elevator was not functioning. I suggested asking the participants to move the meeting to another venue. But he declined and started walking up the stairs and made it to the office. It was not that easy for him.I couldn’t help but admire his vigour.

And here’s another story. A public meeting was organized in 2001 for the preparations ofthe national election and in that televised event, I presented a paper representingthe business community on demands and expectations from candidates. On the nextday, Lieutenant Girma, who had watched the event on TV, proposed a meeting. We had lunch together at a restaurant, true to his habitual consideration, he complimented me for my presentation. He said he agreed entirely with the observation. He also confided to me that he would be running for a parliament. Stunned, I showered him with questions, which party would he be representing, if he really felt that the election would be fair and free. He told me that he would be standing as an independent and his reason was one and only one-just to advance environmental issue. At this age, he said he wanted to try, whatever the inconvenience, hoping to bring people around to the cause by dint of example and argument. I was impressed by his commitment and his sense of mission.

It was obvious that after entering the palace, his activities were restricted. That must have caused him some trouble for someone who enjoyed connecting with like-minded people. At some point, he pointed out to me that setting daily schedules and agenda was beyond his control. Even then, he would invite me to see him from time to time. He talked openly, speaking animatedly of his experiences and his views on society and state. The account of his life at times sounded like a novel. I guess his life was more relaxed and serene once he left office. 

Before I was forced to quit my country due to the regime’s plot, leaving my post as president of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce, President Girma came to attend the closing ceremony of an exhibition held at Chamber and he made a speech. I used the occasion to thank him for his contribution and activism for environmental causes.

The last time we talked was some 14 years ago when he came to US and looked for my number through common friends and reached me by telephone. I was hoping to visit him upon my return to my country.

Main Image: Funeral ceremony of President Girma at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in AddisAbaba. Courtesy of Radio Fana

Article translated from Amharic into English by Arefaynie Fantahun.

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