The Ethiopian Air Lines Saga By Berhane Kidane
Since its inception, the Ethiopian Air Lines has been the pride of all Ethiopians. The Ethiopian Airlines is one of the best Air Lines in the world. Its employees do not just consider their job as a place where they only get paychecks. They take enormous pride and consider the airlines as their own. This has been the long history of the Ethiopian Airlines. In 1991, when the TPLF took power, there were speculations about the future of the airlines. In fact, some suggested that the TPLF was thinking of handing over the airlines to the EPLF; it was also speculated that the regime was going to merge the airlines with Djibouti, Sudan, and Eritrean airlines. During that period, Eritrea did not have its own airlines. Regardless however, the speculation continued. When Seye Abraha was the chairman of the Board, he took measures that angered several employees at the airlines. When the employees complained about the change that was taking place at the airlines, he reportedly said that “I will be happy to fire every one of you and replace you with foreign workers.” As the foremer employee of the airlines, I can tell you that I have never witnessed any one as bully as Seye Abraha in the airlines. That was then.
Since the TPLF took power, the major change in the Ethiopian airlines was the logo. The Lion that gave the plane its grace has been removed and we only have the Ethiopian flag on our planes; in addition, the written word where it said Ethiopian Air Lines is removed and replaced by “Ethiopian”. These are may be cosmetic changes that did not affect the operation of the airlines. Since I was a former employee, I still consider the airlines as part of my family. I take pride not only as a citizen but also as someone who contributed something for its growth. Because of my attachment with the airlines, I always seek to know what is going on in the airlines. I have good friends who are still working there. By measuring their “temperature,” I know the health of the airlines. When Mr. Girma Wakie was the CEO, I seldom hear complaints. Mr. Girma was appreciated by labor as well as the management. The former Ethiopian Airlines Trade Union Chairman described Mr. Girma as the “modern father” of the airlines. Mr. Girma cared only about the employees’ ability to perform. He never cared about anyone’s ethnicity or political affiliations. I believe it was the “Reporter” newspaper that wrote few years ago stating the only government institution that has not become the political wing of the ruling party was the Ethiopian Airlines. That was true then, but that truth does not hold water today.
After Mr. Girma retired from the airlines in 2011, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) became the CEO. Whether it was by merit or by political affiliation that the former COO is elevated to be the CEO, this writer can’t say. What is apparent however is that Mr. Girma was brought to the Ethiopian Airlines in 2003 from the Gulf Air; he was an outsider, and he was not affiliated with any political entity. He was given a free hand to do as he liked in conducting the airlines’ business. He was well respected by the former Chairman of the Board, Mr. Seyoum Mesfin, as well as by Mr. Meles Zenawi. No one interfered in Mr. Girma’s decision. Mr. Girma got down to business as soon as he took office. He worked with labor and management as a team. He did not alienate employees. He took his job at heart. He charted a new and bold plan. He hired the locally based Ernst and Young team to be his advisors. He devised a five year strategic plan which he followed to the letter: the strategy that he dubbed “Vision 2010” was launched in 2005. He listened to the complaint of his employees and raised their salary by 40/%.
Even before Vision 2010 was implemented, the airlines grew by about 20/% in 2004 alone. This was an impressive start, and a spring board for the five year plan that Mr. Girma devised. Although the initial deal was for Mr. Girma to work as the CEO of the airlines for five years, his contract was extended and he led the airlines for more than seven years. By the time he retired from the Ethiopian airlines, the Ethiopian airlines became the second largest airlines in Africa. The airlines profit grew from 269 million Birr to more than 1.3 billion Birr. The number of passengers has tripled under Mr. Girma. He changed the dynamic between labor and management, the employees and the country took enormous pride. Under Mr. Girma, the Ethiopian Airlines began flying to North America. I believe, one of the advantages for the success of Mr. Girma was that he was a professional and cared little about politics. Any one at the Ethiopian airlines would tell you, Mr. Girma did not tolerate any attempt to make the airlines a political hub by any party. Although some TPLF leaders like Sibhat Nega were not happy, politics had no place at the airlines during the tenure of Mr. Girma.
This however is not true now. The political and management culture at the airlines has changed. When Mr. Tewolde took office, instead of building on what Mr. Girma left him, he picked a fight with the airlines trade union. He angered employees by violating the collective agreement; threats and intimidation became mode of operands in the airlines. Within a month after taking his position, Mr. Tewolde prevented Technicians from leaving the country, he angered the cabin crew by changing their pays. Leaders of the Trade Union were threatened. In fact, the chairman of the trade union fled the country fearing for his life six month after Mr. Tewolde became the CEO. The new chairman and the leaders of the trade union were threatened by the CEO and forced to sign a collective agreement that harmed the employees. TPLF/EPRDF cadres found an open filed to recruit members from the airlines with threats and intimidations. Mr. Tewolde demanded that employees work one day a week for free. Employees will tell you that you are not even allowed to stand in a group in the airlines compound. Witnesses have been seen employees taken by security officers from cafeteria, employees lounge room, and employees club. Ethiopian Airlines employees are leaving the institution in alarming rates. Some are leaving not only the airlines also the country fearing for their lives.
Recently, an employee who fled to Kenya told me that the former first lady, Azeb Mesfin, is playing a significant role in the airlines. By law, the cargo and ground operation in Ethiopia has to be conducted only by the Ethiopian Airlines. Recently however, a company called International Cargo Service (ICAS) has taken the ground handing and cargo service at Ethiopian airports. The employees who saw the business shift from the Ethiopian airlines to ICAS complained to the CEO. Instead of investigating how that was possible and stopping ICAS’s operation, the CEO lambasted the employees. Some reports indicate ICAS is owned by Sheik Mohammed Alamudi and that Azeb Mesfin is a partner in this operation. It is not clear whether Azeb is a partner as an individual or as a Chairwoman of EFFORT. In Less than two years since taking over the airlines, Mr. Tewolde has managed to alienate the union, none union employees, and some in the management. Employees will tell you that moral is low; and employees are frustrated with the management style of the CEO. It is not by accident that Addisu Legesse was appointed to be the Chairman of the Ethiopian Airlines Board when Mr. Tewolde became the CEO. Addisu cannot challenge the TPLF in any capacity.
It is not clear what the future of the Ethiopian Airlines is going to be. What is clear however, the CEO’s political affiliation with the ruling party is having a profound effect in the operation of the airlines. Employees who do not support the ruling party and who refused to join the EPRDF are living in fear. Any statement an employee makes could be interpreted as anti government statement and could be used against the employee. No one knows how the power of Azeb Mesfin is going to be curtailed or contained as a result of Meles Zenawi’s death. Like most Ethiopian civil servants, the Ethiopian Airlines employees are under assault. The pressure either to be a member of the ruling party or to quit their jobs is mounting. Is there a plan to control the Ethiopian Airlines by the ruling party? The answer seem to be yes. Anyone would tell you that the face of the airlines is changing fast. Instead of merit, ethnic or political affiliation is the one that get you a job at the Ethiopian airlines under Mr. Tewolde. I hate to inject ethnic politics, but the fact is the airlines is hiring more Tigryans now than at any time in its history; not just Tigryans, but Tigryans loyal to the ruling party. As one employee said to me, it seems the TPLF shadow is hovering everywhere over every aspect of the Ethiopian airlines operation.
What is sad is, the Ethiopian airlines spends thousands of Birr to train an employee. It is after months of rigorous training and well designed education that one becomes a permanent employee of the airlines. In fact, the expense to train and educate an employee is so outrageous, if you quit your job from the airlines, you are required to pay the money for your training and education. Now, the well trained employees are leaving the airlines because the airlines management implicitly or explicitly has made it difficult to do their jobs. It seems that unless you become a loyal member or supporter of the ruling party, you have no place in Ethiopia now days. Is the trend going to change because of the new prime minister? It is unlikely. So far, the new PM has shown he will stay the course. I hope that the management at the Ethiopian airlines will open its eyes and see the damage that it is doing not only to the airlines but also to the country. The CEO has laid out his vision as we all have read on various news accounts; the Ethiopian Airlines has purchased new cargo and passenger planes. This is all good; however, the CEO vision will not materialize unless he relied on professionals to do the job. Unless the CEO changes his hat from TPLF operative to the one that makes him the CEO of the airlines, the saga of the Ethiopian airlines would be a sad one instead of pride. It is time for the Chairman of the Board, the PM, and other responsible parties to see what is going on in the Ethiopian airlines and rectify the problem.