Setting Diplomacy: Ambassador Yodit Imru
Ethiopian women diplomats, like many around the world, have experienced similar challenges and obstacles in the past. Thankfully, there have been numerous important female role models in the field of diplomacy and foreign affairs within Ethiopian society. The first female Ethiopian Ambassador was Yodit Imru. Since then, there have been thirteen other women promoted to Ambassador in Ethiopia.
Yodit Imru was one of the 8 children of Ras Imru Haile Selassie, a close relative of the last Emperor. Her brother Michael Imru was PM of Ethiopia for a short period in the Derg transitional government. Yodit became a diplomat at a fairly young age perhaps wanting to follow her father’s footstep. Ras Imru was a consummate diplomat and a person with the highest integrity and excellent reputation. Yodit was supported to pursue a career in the diplomacy– her interest– and she had the father as a role model.
Yodit Imru was born in Harer, completed her elementary and high school education in Addis Ababa and Jerusalem. She earned a BS degree from American University in Washington DC. A multi lingual and American educated, she says her diplomatic career was meritorious that enabled her to be part of Ethiopia’s outstanding sons and daughters who navigated the maze of diplomacy that helped a struggling sole independent nation in Africa to be a formidable partner of the world.
Yodit Imru started working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1953, in the department of International Relations and worked from Director General to Vice Minister. She was also one of the initiators of the UN Ethiopian Mission in New York. Before she retired in 1979, she served as an Ambassador to the Scandinavian Countries based in Sweden. Yodit Imru served in the MOFA for 25 years. Now in her 80’s she reminisces her long, highly visible and fast paced diplomatic career. Yodit was the first woman diplomat to serve at a senior level during the formative stages of the Ethiopian diplomatic corps.
Ambassador Yodit says she was brought up to speak what felt the truth to her and what she believed…perhaps not helpful for diplomacy that she had to learn the ropes from her father and other seasoned diplomats like Aklilu Habtewold, and shared experiences with her colleagues such as Ketema Yifru, Zewdie Gebreselassie, Menassie Lemma, all monumental figures in shaping the history of Ethiopia’s foreign relations. “I was a young woman so I had the opportunity to become a seasoned diplomat learning from the best that Ethiopia had to offer. At first my father prompted me to join the diplomatic corps; I was given the opportunity and I took it. There were others with better knowledge and skills but I got the opportunity and I took advantage of what I was given and worked hard on behalf of my country. I am more focused on the opportunity given to me than on my contribution”. Asked if that was courage to seek for that opportunity and did well? She said it was more of conviction rather than courage.
Ambassador Yodit started her diplomatic career at the height of Ethiopia’s diplomacy with the rest of the world, the time after the 2nd WW when a sole free nation in Africa felt responsible to be a voice for the rest of them. Armed with a few competent professionals, (the experience earned through the negotiation against the Italian aggression at the League of Nations), Ethiopia set out to assist many African countries in their struggle for independence. The establishment of The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and OAU were major accomplishments that Yodit Imru was part of.
When asked about her accomplishments, Ms. Imru says it was all team effort and she wouldn’t want to claim any of it as her own achievement, however, credited or not, she served many successful years at the UN desk in NY where she held the leadership position. She said “all of us who participated in the establishment of ECA and OAU were dedicated and worked hard to do well for Africa in general and for our country in particular; the many monumental works were because of all who worked relentlessly towards the goal”.
What was gained for Africa wasn’t only the effort of Ethiopia, however. The establishment of the Afro Asian organization played a major role she claimed. Especially the Indian delegates were instrumental to the success. The Afro Asian group was formed as a strategy for most African countries were under European colony hence the need for the two continents to start as a group when UN was first formed.
Yodit started working in the Ministry of Foreign Service since the early fifties including serving as an ambassador before her retirement. However, even after leaving the ministry for good, she served as an advisor and consultant to last, and to certain extent, to the present government. Her experience as an ambassador in Sweden, she says wasn’t much different than what she had done before at the international desk but since she had a sheltered life, ambassadorship gave her space to make decisions on her own. But as everything else she says she found it to be not as active and as engaging as negotiating for peace or forming big institutions such as the OAU. Nonetheless, Ambassador Yodit appreciates the privileges and the experiences afforded to her through the Foreign Service and something she cherishes for life.
Yodit Imru never married and when she was asked why not especially at the time when a woman was pressured to get married and have children, she says she was so busy and couldn’t fit another person in her list of responsibilities. She was so much focused in her position mostly as a spokesperson which was fast paced and needed much thinking and wit. She never gave the idea of marriage much thought but never regretted her decision. “I liked my independence so much and didn’t want to compromise anything else to get in the way of my career” she says.
She considers her father as her anchor. “All the children were very close to him and whatever he did, we thought was the best thing to do and we considered his ideas and suggestions in our lives very seriously. He was wise, patient and a person of compassion. What we learned from him above all was to respect others regardless of their social standing. He believed in the existence of God, the Super Power rather than strictly in the religion doctrine…more of faith and spirituality. That’s life’s guidance, we, the children learned from him…
Her position in the MOFA gave her a chance to be in close contact with important and significant people at the time. She says she learned a great deal. She worked closely with such large personalities and fathers of Independent Africa such as Ghana’s Nkrumah and all his cohorts. Because of Ethiopia’s standing and contribution to the African independence movement, she says she and her team had the ears of most powerful and decision makers on the international scene. “It was an exciting time and the beginning of meaningful and powerful diplomacy”.
Ambassador Yodit is seen as strong-headed but intelligent, generous, curious, and energetic, go getter and very ambitious… “Who knew the trade more than I”? Bragging or not it was refreshing to the listeners. But later in life she said she learned to be quiet, and learned how far to push the button.
She says, however, it was difficult to work with men as a woman. Sometimes they felt I was in the position because of my father and perhaps didn’t merit the whole thing. But I was smart and outwitted any of them. I wasn’t intimidated by them and I had the intelligence and diplomatic skills to show for. She said when they got to know her though, they realized she could be useful especially communicating with the international powers; “I knew how to leverage that and take advantage when it fit”. Yodit Imru even today radiates confidence and inner strength and speaking with her inspires one to dare. As her sister who was listening to our conversation jumped in and said, Yodit is courageous and daring. One could still feel the fire in her.
Something that aging has not taken away must be her feisty personality. She recalled an incident that happened at the UN Desk in NY negotiating and not giving to American’s demands that she thought were unreasonable. They complained and managed to get rid of her she says still feeling afresh, but afterwards they must have regretted the decision and asked the Ministry that she be reinstated. Yodit on rejecting the request says “I am not a toy to be reshuffled at anyone’s whim”. Self assured? Definitely… a lot to be learned from this former diplomat who is content to be left alone at her large compound in a beautiful villa designed by her younger sister in architectural field.
She never failed to mention though being an educated woman at that time had its advantages especially in the diplomacy for we were a showcase– a sign of progress that one nation such as Ethiopia included her women population…it worked then and it could work today she says.
What was her relationship with her mother? She says they both had similar personality: both independent thinkers and strong-headed so there always was a clash—two strong personalities come together head-on and she laughs at that remembering fondly the mother she respected and loved. But her mother always trusted her to do the most difficult task, to dare the unchartered territory if you will. She says perhaps mother wanted to get rid of me and laughed mischievously.
Her mother, she said was not educated but naturally smart and her father trusted her judgment. Their relationship was unlike the times of most couple: “it was of mutual respect and father always consulting mother on important matters”. Her mother was a great cook and she even wrote a cookbook on Ethiopian cuisine that is not published yet. She was a devoted mother and wife and took interest in all endeavors of her children encouraging them to pursue whatever they wanted to do. All the siblings were educated and had good standing in life…not just because of their family lineage but earned by the sheer hard work and good education.
Ambassador Yodit says she is a nationalist and wants her country to become better than any other. She says she has faith in the citizens of Ethiopia and that we are more matured than seems but she says we need to cooperate and appreciate healthy competition to achieve and strive for grater things. “We need to learn and to welcome challenges and not feeling the need to destroy the competitor”.
Her advice to young women is to follow their path and trust their judgment. She says they have to go through the process on their own.” It is very difficult to dictate my life upon others or tell others how I did it”. While she was in office, she gave the opportunity by hiring and promoting women. She taught them what she knew and encouraged them to stand on their own. She believes women are stronger and they take their responsibility much more seriously than men would. “This generation is different than mine with much more opportunities and more doors opened for them. I tell them to have the conviction to do well for the nation and themselves…to focus on what they can do not on what they can’t”.
AWiB thanks Yodit Imru for sharing her life and urges her to publish her book that still is in a manuscript form on her desk.
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