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Leadership — Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO Ethiopian Airlines

BY: Brig. Gen. Dan Frimpong (Rtd)
Tewolde GebreMariam —   former Ethiopian Airlines CEO
Tewolde GebreMariam — former Ethiopian Airlines CEO

For professional journalists or writers such as Elizabeth Ohene, Ajoa Yeboah-Afari and Nana Kwasi Gyan Apenteng, as well as amateur hobbyists like me, feedback is always necessary for improvement.

An area which appears to have gone down well with my readers has been on leadership and personalities.

Thus my recent articles on Chancellor Angela Merkel, General Colin Powell and Nana Prah Agyensaim VI of Assin-Kushea, as well as earlier ones were all well received. Like Oliver Twist, some readers have asked for more.

New kid on block

Fortuitously, the new kid on the block and a hitherto unsung hero of a leader, Tewolde Gebremariam, came in handy when on a “BBC” interview on Thursday, March 24, 2022, the interviewer asked why all airlines in 14 African countries that had run airlines had either collapsed or were operating on life support. The only exception is Ethiopian Airlines.

This was after the CEO for Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, on March 24, 2022 announced his retirement on health grounds after being at the helm of affairs since 2011.

In all, he did 37 years at Ethiopian Airlines, having started in 1985.

Ghana Airways

On September 18, 2002, I left Ghana on board Ghana Airways DC-10 aircraft for New York, USA to establish the Office of the Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of Ghana to the United Nations.

Captained by a senior colleague, a retired Air Force officer, it was a memorable 10-hour non-stop flight from Accra to New York.

Sadly, during my stay, Ghana Airways folded up, making Ghana one of the “failed states” in the field of national aviation business.

MILADs’ Field-Trip

In New York, we the Military Advisers (MILADs) Community of Officers from about 40 countries were enjoined by UN Headquarters to undertake annual field trips to a conflict area with UN troops after which we were to submit a comprehensive report.

In 2004, we planned going to the East African Missions of UNMEE (Ethiopia-Eritrea) and MONUC (DR Congo).

The choice of which airline to fly on became an issue. After a competitive bidding by the airlines, although Ethiopian Airlines was the least expensive, some of my non-African colleague MILADs felt uncomfortable flying an African Airline all the way to DRC and back.

They preferred the more expensive non-African Airlines. Eventually the decision was taken to go by Ethiopian Airlines.

When we returned to New York two weeks later, the most pessimistic about using Ethiopian became the converted Saul on the Damascus Road (to Paul).

They were full of praises for Ethiopian Airlines.

Tewolde Gebremariam

Gebremariam may not have been the CEO at the time of our trip in 2004. However, under him, Ethiopian Airline’s fleet grew from 33 aircraft in 2011 to 130 in 2022, when he resigned. In the process, he grew Ethiopian Airlines from relative obscurity, not only to Africa’s best airline, but into a world-class airline ranking fourth in the world.

Deservedly, he was highly praised on “BBC” for his exemplary leadership which was truncated by ill health and thus his early retirement.

He has been described as a visionary with a flexible mind who changed the focus of the airlines when COVID-19 struck, from passenger to freight.

An aviation expert said this about him, “Ato Tewolde was a game-changer in African Aviation…His agility was apparent in Ethiopian’s stunning quick turn once the pandemic decimated passenger traffic, by quickly converting passenger aircraft into freighters, earning the awe and admiration of business leaders worldwide.”

Observations

Asked what made Ethiopian different from other African airlines, the interviewee replied, leadership and “non-interference by government!”

Indeed, the success of Ethiopians has been humorously described as “capitalist success in a Marxist economy!”

Gebremariam selected an all-Ethiopian team based on qualification and proven ability. He insisted on merit and strict quality control of both personnel and equipment for Ethiopian Airlines.

The bane of many African countries in running airlines has been that of leadership and government interference.

Indeed, the story is told of an airline which 15 minutes into a flight was ordered to return to base to pick a government official who reported late.

With a full load of fuel for the six-and-half-hour flight, the pilot had to jettison fuel to reduce weight for a safe landing!

Unqualified “connected-loyalists” with no knowledge about aviation get appointed to run airlines, a situation which does not augur well for any aviation industry.

In recent times, the thought of starting a new airline for Ghana has come up. Chatting with experts in aviation, they opine that, much as having a national carrier may be good for national pride, it is not a priority worth considering now in light of more basic infrastructural needs such as hospitals, schools and roads.

Some day when we have solved basic problems, we can upgrade to a national airline, hopefully with no political interference and with a leader like Ethiopian Airlines’ Tewolde Gebremariam.

Leadership, lead! Fellow Ghanaians, wake up!

The writer is Former CEO, African Peace Support Trainers Association, Nairobi, Kenya & Council Chairman, Family Health University College, Accra. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.