Tamrat Layne: A life less ordinary

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Tamrat Layne Admassu is an extraordinary man. In his 60 years, he has been a radical revolutionary, a communist flag-bearer, a declared atheist, the Ethiopian premier and a political prisoner.

During the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991), Tamrat was a leader of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, which came to power in 1991 after defeating dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. From 1991 to 1996, Tamrat was Prime Minister of the transitional government. In 1996, he was imprisoned on charges of alleged corruption and embezzlement of funds and spent the next 12 years in prison. While serving his sentence, Tamrat, a self-professed atheist for more than 23 years, became a Christian in 2002. Since his release in 2008, he has extensively travelled the world as a gospel preacher.

Living in exile in the United States, Tamrat says his thoughts are centred on his homeland, Ethiopia. Among the oldest nations in the world, till 1974, it was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, whose influence as an African leader far surpassed the boundaries of his country. Emperor Selassie is believed to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, two legendary rulers from the 10th century BC. He was instrumental in turning Ethiopia into a modern civilisation. It is in Ethiopia, also called the Horn of Africa, that an obscure mountain chapel is believed to hold in safe custody, till date, the elusive Holy Grail of Christian mythology. Geopolitically, Ethiopia is strategically located adjacent to South Sudan and right across from the Middle Eastern landmass. Significantly, it is home to the largest Jewish population in northern Africa.

On his recent visit to India, Tamrat Layne spoke to TEHELKA about relations between India and Ethiopia, his chequered life and his hopes of a new future, founded on peace and reconciliation – for both himself and his beloved country.

Ques 1. Ethiopia and India have a shared geographical and cultural history, going back several centuries. The two nations were once part of the same landmass – Gondwanaland. How do you view India-Ethiopia relations today?
Ans. Ethiopians have a lot of interest in India and know a lot about your country. When I was a student, I remember most high school teachers were Indians. There were many Indians in Ethiopia, especially in the field of education and also in the business sector. Indians have contributed greatly to Ethiopia’s education sector. After 2005, large-scale Indian investments have also started flowing in, mainly in agriculture, particularly in floriculture.
Ques 2. Do you think Ethiopia has benefited from these investments? In this context, what is the way ahead for the two nations?
Ans. It has been 10 years since Indian business started investing in Ethiopia. Foreign investment is important for our country but it is not the solution to all our problems. The solution lies in making the economy financially self-reliant and this can be done by focusing on indigenous enterprise and comprehensively encouraging it. And so, the role of foreign investment in Ethiopia has to be seen in this light. Generally, Indian investment in Ethiopia has to be aware of ground realities and some policies may have to be revisited to be of real help for the people. A good example of this is the acquisition, for floriculture, of 300,000 hectares of land in Gambela Region (bordering South Sudan) by an Indian agricultural corporation in 2008. Now, the lease for this huge tract of land is for 99 years and it is considered a very controversial investment in Ethiopia. The corporation’s motives may be honourable, but admittedly, the project is not doing well, despite many millions of dollars having been invested. Many agricultural scholars have written about this project as a case study of what could go wrong if foreign investment is blindly invited into Ethiopia; most have warned this could be a dangerous trend. Hence, companies must be very careful with their investments in Ethiopia and not evoke feelings of discontent among the local population through their activities.
Ques 3. Which sectors in Ethiopia will benefit most from foreign investment?
Ans. Ethiopia is famous as the oldest known settlements of humankind. Yet, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. We need foreign investment in manufacturing (medicine, apparel, food) and agro-processing sectors and to set up medium-scale industries. These investments have to be made keeping the end result in mind – making the Ethiopian economy self-sufficient. At the same time, we have no need for companies with dubious sources of funding and no room for corruption in investment. At the end of the day, the best investment is manpower investment. We welcome Indian teachers, among the best in the world, at the university level and Ph D level to come and teach in Ethiopia.
Ques 4. How do you view your political journey? If you could, would take a different course of action during your years as Prime Minister?
Ans. In 1991, when we came down from the mountains in the north with 100,000 men and wrote a new chapter in Ethiopian politics, we did so with great hope in the future. Somewhere, we were unable to complete the task we had set ourselves. There are 85 ethnic groups in Ethiopia and several religious groups, too. The per capita GDP is less than $500 and corruption is a huge menace. The way ahead is through tolerance and unity. In retrospect, we had a great opportunity for change and we may have squandered it, then.
Ques 5. This year, when a new government is set to be elected in Ethiopia, do you hope to make a comeback to politics in Ethiopia?
Ans. The only way forward for Ethiopia is through peace and reconciliation, through tolerance and unity, through convergence of political freedom and individual liberty. The future of Ethiopia in the African Union is bright, provided there exists a united Ethiopia — united on religious, ethnic and political grounds. The need of the hour is federalism based on ethnicity, an inspiring leadership and forward-looking policies. The nation needs a selfless, honest and god-fearing leadership. And such a leadership needs to formulate economic, political and social policies in such a manner that they guarantee political freedom, ensure individual property rights, promote limited governance and apply the rule of law. Today, the youth of Ethiopia have a never-before opportunity to chart the course of the nation and not repeat the mistakes made by our generation. We must work for political freedom, economic progress, and for peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. As for a comeback to politics, I always believe in obeying God’s will, whatever it may be.
Ques 6. Many people in Ethiopia think your talk of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness may be too little, too late. As you have repeatedly asserted yourself, you represent a generation of Ethiopians that had gone astray because of the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Do you think your situation presents a unique opportunity for the redemption of your generation as well as of Ethiopia as a whole?

Ans. During my years in prison, I learned a lot. From an avowed atheist, I turned into a reluctant sceptic and finally emerged as a Christian. Today, I carry the Lord’s word across the world – from Phillippines to India, from Dubai to Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Today, I have a new Commander-in-Chief – Jesus — and I go where he orders me to and do what he commands me to. Before moving ahead, Ethiopia must heal the wounds of its past and this can only be done through forgiveness and peace and reconciliation. Our work in the country remains unfinished, we could not achieve what we had set out to achieve and our intentions remain unrealised. So, yes, this is a unique opportunity for redemption, and it may never again come our way. As I have said repeatedly, this is unfinished business. The sooner we complete it, the sooner we will heal and prosper, individually and as a nation.

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