Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bypassing Politics? A Meeting with Ethiopia’s President

Mr. Samuel M. Gebru, CEO of the Ethiopian Global
Initiative and H.E. Girma Woldegiorgis, President of the
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. (Photo: Grand Palace)
Samuel M. Gebru (@SMGebru)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
July 29, 2012

It was an honor to be invited to the Grand Palace on Friday, July 20 to meet with the President of Ethiopia.

Girma Woldegiorgis, born in 1925, is currently 88-years-old and despite his age and health issues, his passion and service for Ethiopia is as young as my college-aged heart.

When I was told that I had an opportunity to meet with Ethiopia’s Head of State, I readily took the opportunity. While most discount the President of Ethiopia as a mere figurehead resembling Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, I would argue that—just like the Queen—the President is what should hold the national fabric together as head of the Ethiopian state.

In 2010, I mistakenly argued that the government should do away with the Presidency because I thought it had no clear purpose. I have come to learn that it is the President who should inspire a new generation of public servants through his/her own merits. And who better than Girma Woldegiorgis for this role?

Sure, he has had his fair share of health issues and at one point was rumored to have died (although I can assure you that he’s alive and kicking!), Girma Woldegiorgis has the resume fit for the Ethiopian Presidency. Beyond his ability to speak seven languages, of which three are Ethiopian (Oromiffia, Amharic and Tigrinya), the President has been a lifetime public servant since his youth.

As I walked into the Grand Palace, built for Ethiopia’s last monarch, I was stunned by the magnificent Judeo-Christian motifs. From the rugs to the ceilings to the President’s desk, formerly the Emperor’s, the Grand Palace was a magnificent display of the ancient ties Ethiopia has to Christianity, Judaism and Israel.

Already briefed on me, the President expressed happiness to receive someone my age. I told him that it was hard for many like me to be taken seriously because of our age and that one needs old age and a title before receiving respect in Ethiopian society. He interrupted me and disagreed. He reminded me that he was 36 when he became Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of Ethiopia’s Imperial Parliament in 1961 and that he was my age when he was called to national service in the Imperial Air Force, earning the rank of Lieutenant. 

In our meeting, I briefed President Girma on the Ethiopian Global Initiative’s vision for Ethiopia. He was very happy to learn that the organization’s core is built of students and professionals ranging from 18 to 35-years-old. I informed him how the Initiative aims to increase its presence in Ethiopia and undertake more programs and projects in healthcare, education, civic engagement and economic development. 
President Girma Woldegiorgis shows CEO Samuel Gebru
his Lem Ethiopia membership card. (Photo: Grand Palace)
President Girma is a noted environmentalist. As Speaker of Parliament, he designed the first environmental legislation in Ethiopia—perhaps one of the first in Africa. In March 1992, he founded Lem Ethiopia (The Environment and Development Society of Ethiopia), Ethiopia’s premiere civil society organization responsible for the protection of the environment. 

What impresses me the most about President Girma is his ability to bypass Ethiopia’s unpredictable political system and work with all governments. His transcendence of the Governments of Haile Selassie, Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi is truly remarkable—and that he has earned everyone’s respect in the process. 

At the end, I asked President Girma what was the best advice he could give me. He said, “Continue what you are doing in meeting people from all sectors and backgrounds and learn more from them. It is only then can you become an effective public servant.”

I look forward to many more encounters with the President and wish him and the First Lady my warmest regards.

Samuel M. Gebru is 20-years-old and the Chief Executive Officer of the Ethiopian Global Initiative.


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