Guiding light

Shock exit of Girma Wake raises questions over Ethiopian Airlines’ future

By Nelly Fualdes

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Posted on June 12, 2023 15:04

 © Girma Wake addresses a news conference at the company’s headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa January 26, 2010. REUTERS
Girma Wake addresses a news conference at the company’s headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa January 26, 2010. REUTERS

Girma Wake, the emblematic face of the African airline industry, is no longer chairman of the board of Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s leading national carrier, which he led for many years.

Wake’s replacement was unveiled on 11 June, when the Ethiopian press reported the appointment of Air Force General Yilma Merdassa – already a member of the Ethiopian board – as chairman of the board of directors. However, the decision has been effective since 8 June. 

The Ethiopian government, which owns 100% of the airline, has not commented on this sudden decision, nor has Wake, who is still in good health at almost 80. 

This week, Wake will be in Nairobi for AviaDev Africa, an annual event devoted to aviation development on the continent, in his capacity as patron. An annual award is presented in his name at the event – this year it will go to Rodger Foster, CEO of the South African airline Airlink, for his “outstanding contribution to the development of routes in Africa”.

Strong presence on international scene

Manager of Ethiopian Airlines since 2018, Wake was appointed chairman of the group in March 2022, when the airline’s iconic boss Tigrayan Tewolde GebreMariam had just resigned “for health reasons“.

Wake is very active on the international scene, and gave the position of chairman a visibility that none of his predecessors had achieved

However, according to Mesfin Tasew, Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO, the two men each had their own duties, with Wake’s being confined to “certain international issues”. 

“He does not interfere in the day-to-day management of the company, which is 100% in the hands of the management team that I lead,” Tasew said last March.

Driving force

Wake had an initial phase with the airline from 1965 to 1993 before opting for exile over political reasons. 

After 11 years with Gulf Air, including two on secondment to DHL Mena, he was called back to Addis Ababa to take over as CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, driving its accelerated development policy and tripling its turnover and passenger numbers in four years (from $300m to $1bn in turnover, and 1 million to 3 million passengers between 2004 and 2008).

His retirement in 2011 did not prevent him from serving as chairman of the board of Rwandair from 2012 to 2017, and from acting as an advisor to the Togolese Head of State Faure Gnassingbé.

In addition to the rise of Ethiopian Airlines, Wake has always championed a strict separation between politics and airline management. His replacement by a military officer at the head of the company has generated rumours and some concerns about the future management of the airline.

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