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EPRDF elected 77 year old Girma Wolde-Giorgis President of Ethiopia on Monday, October 8, 2001. His presidency did not start on a good note as after just four days since taking his seat as the head of state, he was admitted to the Defence Force Hospital for what appeared to have been a serious medical problem. At that time, many said his illness could very well be associated with his age. But no official statement was issued by the government regarding the matter.
Girma is charming and outgoing; many say he is easy to converse with. During his days as the Head of state, a post he will soon leave, some might say he has shown two different sides.
On one side, he has been agreeable to the government and whatever his activities have been. The majority of the time he was not seen as being assertive or challenging. Many people have criticized him for being a yes man, eagerly approving of whatever his government does. But there are those rare instances where he spoke up or made decisions that were considered controversial by some.
On two notable occasions, the president has been part of controversial decisions regarding government strategy and policy.
One of these occasions was when he wrote a letter in opposition to an agricultural investment that was to be made by Verdanta Harvests PLC. in Gambela Regional State. In his letter addressed to the Minister of Agriculture Tefera Derebew, the president demanded the license of the investors, who were from India, be revoked or direct their investment to another location in view of protection of the environment.
In the past few years, the Ethiopian Government had considered huge commercial farms investments, even though it created a lot of resistance from the international community and opposition for fear of land grabbing, deforestation and the displacement of local farmers from their fertile land in order to transfer the land to rich foreign companies for large scale farming.
At the time he wrote the letter, the president’s main concern was deforestation. He had had received a complaint from the indigenous people of the densely forested area in question. However, the Ministry of Agriculture and the area’s regional officials ignored the president’s concerns.
In the end, it was discovered that the Indian company that was to invest in the area was rather interested in the production and sale of timber, which finally led to its license being revoked. This instance showed the environmentalist side of the president who had had experience in the environmental protection sector.
Another instance that maybe labelled as controversial happened a year ago, when Girma again wrote a letter to Abune Merkorios to come back from the US to Ethiopia to lead the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) after the death of the Patriarch Abune Paulos. It is said that he did this in a reconciliation effort between two EOTC synods. Again his efforts were futile, as the EOTC elected its leader from candidates back home.
He has had a colourful career in the government. In 1941, he was enlisted at the Ethiopian Military Radio Communication set up by the U.K. Then in 1944, he graduated from the Oletta Military School as a Sub-Lieutenant and after a couple of years joined the Air Force and took various Air Management courses, later becoming an assistant teacher in Air Navigation and Flight Control.
In 1955, he became the head of Civil Aviation of the Federal Government of Eritrea which at the time was federated. After that he assumed the post of Director General of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Board member of Ethiopian Airlines in 1957. Then in 1961, he became a member of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the Imperial Ethiopian Parliament.
He served as Deputy Commissioner of the peace program drawn up in 1977 by the provisional government of Ethiopia (Derg) to settle the Eritrean problem peacefully. In 2000, Girma became a member of the House of Peoples’ Representatives of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) after winning in the BechoWoreda constituency in the west Shewa Zone of the Oromia Region as an independent candidate.
In 1983, he launched an environmental protection association called “Lem Ethiopia” in which he still serves as Vice President.
Now at age 93, the president will officially leave his Head of state seat on October 7th, a day where Ethiopia will witness a new president.