Tamrat Layne, 63, was Prime Minister of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, serving from June 1991 to October 1995. He became a member of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) while a teen, and later defected with 36 other comrades to form the-then Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), in 1982.
After ten years of guerilla fighting, his party, which allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1989, ousted the Dergue military regime on May 28, 1991. A few years before their victory however, the Oromo members of his party left to form the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO); similarly, fighters from the southern Ethiopian region also left to form several ethnic based parties. Finally, when almost all other non-Amhara members evacuated the EPDM, the party retitled itself as the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) in 1994.With the adoption of a new constitution in the same year and subsequent change of the form of government from presidential to parliamentary, executive power was vested in the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, President of the Transitional Government and chairman of TPLF & EPRDF, while Tamrat became deputy prime minister and minister for defense. He stayed in that post for less than two years, before being sacked and dismissed from his party and government posts in 1996. Four years later, he was convicted by the Federal Supreme Court on corruption charges and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was accused of involvement in an alleged 16 million-dollar deal with a firm to ship Ethiopian textile products and exports of 1,000 tons of state-owned coffee through a bogus firm. He claimed that all the accusations were baseless and untrue.
After serving 12 years in prison, Tamrat was released in 2008 and has since been living a deeply religious life in Colorado, in the United States. He also operates two orphanage centres in Addis Ababa and Sekota, a small town in the state of Amhara. He travels around the world to make speeches, and offer trainings to government officials, business leaders, and nonprofit organizations in Europe, Asia, and Africa on leadership and management.
Tamrat sees the recent developments in the country positively. While he believes the changes brought about by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration are encouraging in widening the political space, he still seems worried about the factions within the ruling coalition, which he believes may put the country in jeopardy. He cautions that the changes that have been achieved because of the popular movement should be institutionalized. EBR’s Amanyehun R. SiSAY sat down with him to learn his views about the current political situation in the country. Excerpt:
Let’s start with the relationship your party had with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). EPLF fought for Eritrea’s independence. But after ousting of the Dergue regime, wasn’t the idea of forming a democratic country and coexisting in peace brought up?
No. EPLF’s goal from the start was to form an independent State of Eritrea. As a party, EPRDF’s position was that EPLF should hold a referendum, and if the [Eritrean] people decide to secede, they should secede. Of course, the question of whether the referendum was done correctly or not is another matter. This was also a point of differences I had with Meles Zenawi and others.
We have heard unconfirmed reports that Herman Jay Cohen, the then-United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who brokered the 1991 London Summit to end the 30-year of Eritrean struggle for independence, suggested that Ethiopia needed a port because of its size, and Isaias didn’t refuse the proposal. Instead it was the Ethiopian negotiators who didn’t push for the idea. Are you aware of this; and how true is the information?
The issues of Eritrea giving up the port of Assab was ruined because of Meles. I can’t honestly say whether the other Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership knew about what he did in the conference. I only found out about it in prison. Even though I was the deputy chairperson of the EPRDF at that time, the leaders of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and Oromo People’s Democratic Party (OPDO) didn’t know anything about it. The matter had not been discussed with us before, and when the question was raised, Meles didn’t tell the rest of the leadership back home that the issue had been brought up.
While you were Prime Minister, was there any discussion about establishing a confederation or federation between the two countries?
Yes, but not at the cabinet level. We used to meet and discuss the kind of relationship we should form. There was a goal to, step by step, grow that relationship into economic integration. It would start as a free connection between the people, and then improve trade links, and build infrastructure linkages. We set some lofty goals. But we couldn’t [implement] them.
Why the 1998 war did break out?
I believe that Badme was not the reason. Although the TPLF and EPLF had a good relationship when they were founded, they had always been rivals; Meles and Isaias were also rivals. When TPLF was founded, EPLF really helped them. However, in 1984, disagreements and rivalries between the two started to surface. When we took power in Addis in 1991, the two parties worked closely together. In fact, Meles and Isaias Afwerki used to meet unofficially and do a lot of things. In my view, had both countries democratized, the war would not have happened.
The relationship between the two countries, after a 20-year no peace or no war situation, has finally seen big changes recently. What’s your take on this?
I see it positively. There are several reasons that have pushed both countries to this situation. First is the socioeconomic situation in Eritrea, which has declined sharply. Secondly, when EPLF saw that TPLF was losing its dominance in the Ethiopia’s political landscape, they became open to negotiation. It would have been impossible to go to the negotiation table with a TPLF-dominated EPRDF government.
Some critics are against the implementation of the Algiers Peace Agreement signed in 2000 for the formal end of the border war fought by the two countries; they say that the public’s participation in the peace agreement, particularly those living in the border area, is low.
The role of the people living along the border in normalizing the relations should not be overlooked.
Before the conflict, our intention was to integrate the people along the border through infrastructure and economic activities. In doing so, we were thinking that the border would eventually become less important. Although the border was not the major reason for the war, demarcation should be done promptly.
There are claims that the introduction of the Nakfa as the Eritrean currency worsened relations between the two countries.
The issue of currency was always a contentious matter among the two nations. While I was in office, the Ethiopian government was pushing Eritrea to have its own currency.
What is the best solution for the people of the two countries to live in peace and prosperity?
They should gradually work on their differences and reunite again. I know, that is not easy.
Do you follow the political changes taking place in Ethiopia currently?
Yes. I am positive about it. It is like a beginning of a new chapter. However, we should note that the old political system is still in place.
Firstly, EPRDF has been repressing freedom of speech and assembly. [The restrictions were] eased following the political unrest, but these rights were realized because of public pressure. Secondly, TPLF’s long dominance in the government has come to an end. Now OPDO and ANDM are at the forefront of EPRDF, at least for the moment. I expect ideological, and policy shifts in EPRDF in the near future.
The government is also welcoming almost all banned and exiled opposition political parties. Although the terms on which their returns are based are not clear and have not yet been disclosed to the public, the move is positive.
The political parties coming home have not started a formal dialogue with the people they say they represent. Even though many good things are happening, all the positive changes have no legal grounds or institutional base to sustain and accelerate the reforms.
Now, I see two contending political extremes going parallel to each other. In one hand, there is a growing ethno nationalism in Oromia and Amhara regions; the Pan Ethiopian extremist view is also receiving a fertile ground. Handling these complex situations require skillful political leadership.
So far [most of] the changes are positive and I am cautiously optimistic.
Do you think the ruling party has the capacity and leadership to address these problems, capitalize on the positives and move towards democracy?
This is the fundamental question. The ruling party has its own internal bottlenecks that keep it from undertaking those urgent and demanding national issues. Two parties are upholding the changes in the country, out of the four member parties of the ruling coalition.
The Southern party is presently passive, and TPLF has detached itself from the ongoing dynamic. Even though they are still members of EPRDF, and are led by one chairperson, they don’t agree on many points.
People still assume or address Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Lemma Megersa, [the president of the state of Oromia] and Gedu Andargachew, [the president of the state of Amhara] as if they are not members of the EPRDF. That isn’t true. The three are moving in a different direction, while some top TPLF leaders are not onboard. This is the first and biggest problem. This problem [might obstruct] the changes. It is already hindering some of the progress.
The other problem that can endanger the [sustainability of] the change, is EPRDF’s political ideology. A developmental state ideology cannot be the avenue to constitutionalism, democracy, freedom, justice, fairness and equality in Ethiopia. Developmental state ideology is [inherently] a communist philosophy.
A developmental state, democratic developmental state, or the revolutionary democracy, whatever they call it, dictates that everything from governance to economic development should be done by the state. This ideology is not inclusive. It puts the government at the nucleus of everything; and pushes the public and other stakeholders away from major public discourse.
Any political system that puts the government at the center is dictatorial. Since this ideology cannot take the nation to democracy, it must be replaced.
Rule of law, justice, and democracy were expressed as the causes of EPRDF’s freedom fighting era. Now you are saying these ideals cannot be achieved through revolutionary democracy. Did you embrace the ideology intentionally knowing it would not take the country towards democracy or did you develop this opinions in the later years?
This must be carified. When we started the fight, we did not say we would achieve a constitutional republic democracy through revolutionary democracy or a developmental state ideology. What we imagined was bringing democracy to the nation, ensuring the benefit of the people and creating a modern Ethiopia. Later, we converted to communism. At the same time, we were derailed from the road to constitutional democracy.
When we came to power, we still believed that communism and socialist ideologies were the right way to democracy. Meanwhile, around 1989, the global communist bloc started cracking. All communism and socialism [countries] were diminishing in the eyes of the international community. We took power with that ideology [at heart], although we did not officially declare it. We adopted revolutionary democracy to take EPRDF forward with its communist ideology.
Was that when the EPRDF was established in 1989?
Yes. We developed the programs of revolutionary democracy in 1989. Revolutionary democracy is part of socialism, which many people fail to understand.
It was a road to democratic socialism, not [liberal] democracy. It doesn’t have the capacity to create a constitutional republic democracy. If it was successful, revolutionary democracy was destined to become socialist democracy.
I used to believe in the ideology. I was one of the key leaders who [drafted] the economic and political programs. That is why I repeatedly apologized to the Ethiopian people. I know why the was adopted from the genesis. But now, I have concluded that it neither delivers democracy nor [development].
How about the developmental state model?
Well, that’s state capitalism. A developmental state means, the economy is totally controlled by the government, and politics is dominated by one party. After taking power, we did not disclose that we were going to build a socialist system, because of what was happening globally. When the western block was taking over, it was difficult to disclose our ideology as socialism. So we said we would build capitalism. Particularly, Meles used to say it was a free market economy.
So the idea of building a democratic system was a deception.
If Revolutionary Democracy was a socialist orientation, why were opposition parties allowed and elections held?
Well, it is a one party dominance system but various parties can exist and elections can also be held.
So an election would take place only under circumstances that only the ruling party would win.
Exactly. That is what happened.
Hence the party is not ready to give up power anytime?
No. Meles and Bereket [Simon, former Minister of Information] officially confirmed it after the 2005 election, saying that the party must stay in power for forty to fifty years. They said it is impossible to transform the country without the party being in power for so long. Secondly, you can see it, as the ruling party has become stronger and more dominant after the first election in 1995.
Thirdly, look at the outcomes of the 2005 election. I believe that the opposition parties won that election, using the slight opening in the political sphere. However, EPRDF wasn’t willing to hand over power.
From the perspective of the revolutionary democrats, what was the rationale for staying in power for so long?
There are two rationales. The first one is what was publically proclaimed by EPRDF itself. They say, to transform the country economically, politically and to make it a democratic state, one party has to stay in power to protect the country’s security and stability. This is especially necessary in a situation where there are a lot of ethnic groups.
When I was in power, I used to believe in that idea. This mind-set is a relic of communism. Any communist country believes that one party has to rule for a long time.
The other rationale is that as a party stays in power for longer, it starts to accumulate vested economic interests. To strengthen that position, the party has to stay in power.
At the time the constitution was written, one of the issues raised was the issue of term limits. I remember, the late Kifle Wodajo, Chairperson of the committee responsible for drafting the constitution, fought hard to instate term limits in the constitution. However, we didn’t want that. Because we wanted EPRDF to decide term limit within the party.
As long as a party stays in power, even if it doesn’t set out to accumulate wealth, that’s what happens after it takes power. Even individuals face the same temptations. When individuals stay in power, over time they become morally bankrupt. People have good and bad sides. Parties are the same. When we started, I don’t think that anyone went into it with the mind set of ‘okay, now I’m in a government position, so I’ll make myself a multimillionaire.’ I personally didn’t. But as time went on, that was the situation that was created. People crave power. It can become a weapon.
One of the things that EPRDF is criticised for is that they started a rebellion in the name of freedom and justice. Then once they came to power, they used the power to protect their economic interests and accumulate wealth. The power was important for protection; there is a big difference between the government officials whose power can serve as a shield and an ordinary person stealing. Holding a government official in power accountable is difficult particularly in a country where power checks are not developed, unless the issues build up and explode in the way we’re seeing now.
There is one basic issue that needs to be addressed. Government, by its very nature is not a good thing. I say this because the more power a government is allowed to exercise, the more danger it inflicts on its citizens. I believe that government by its nature is a dangerous institution because it has armed forces, wealth, and authority. However, government is a necessary [evil].
As much as possible, when a government is formed, it should be given limited power and authority. Any kind of mechanism that can limit the power of a government should be present. Term limits, and proper checks and balances between and among the three parts of government should be properly instituted.
Economic policies should be free and not government centered. They should be centered on the people and the private sector. Politically, there should not be a system where one party stays forever or is the sole decision maker on national issues. Looking at Ethiopia’s experiences and other countries, I believe we need to create a system that doesn’t depend on political parties as well.
If you advocate for no parties, then who can assemble the people [to express their ideas]?
I don’t object to that. The parties can assemble, teach people, or whatever, but a party should not be a [sole] deciding force in the parliament or in the government.
Are there countries that have done this in practice?
Yes, but in a limited way. In countries with semi presidential and semi parliamentary systems, we can see the difference of party influences. Ethiopia has a party-dominant government…
system. I don’t believe that the country needs that anymore. Why don’t we make our own system that suits our needs and context? Do we necessarily have to be confined to the socialism box, or the developmental capitalism box, or the liberalism box?
Let’s open a dialogue. Let’s create a system where one individual doesn’t take over or where a party, or [coalition of] parties in general don’t dominate public affairs. We need a government elected by the people that governs with accountability and power limits. Parties should exist because people have the right to assembly, but they shouldn’t dominate [state affairs].
You spent your youth struggling. When you look at your overall path now, do you have regrets? Do you feel it was all in vain?
I don’t regret it.
And when you look at the end result?
When I see that the first idea that we had for Ethiopia in our hearts, or that I had for Ethiopia, hasn’t come to fruition, I feel sad. The way I thought the country should be now is not how I found it. There are things that have been done positively. I can’t deny that. There are things that have improved from the previous system, for example in infrastructure. But, in 27 years, Ethiopia hasn’t reached the place it could have. The main problem was the leadership [style] and ideology we pursued.
Korea and Singapore were often raised as examples. I think we could have surpassed them. We received huge amount of aid and loans from the international community. Except for Egypt, Ethiopia was the biggest recipient of aid and loans in Africa.
We are richer in human and natural resources than Korea. Looking at the issue from that perspective, in the last 27 years, Ethiopia could have been on par with Korea. But that didn’t happen.
Tell me how EPDM renamed itself ANDM in 1994, three years after the downfall of the Dergue.
We used to think that the primary political problem in the country was national contradictions; the issue of nations and nationalities. We wanted to address that first before moving to development. In fact, we chose ethnic/national organizations as a tactic for struggle because it was helpful to mobilize the public. Over the years, the idea grew into the bones and marrow of the leadership and became more strategic. However, the decision EPDM made to abandon its pan-Ethiopian organizational status was a big mistake.
Was that decision influenced by TPLF?
No, it was EPDM’s decision. The perspective that the main political issue in the country was the issue of nations and nationalities was controversial even during the armed struggle. Although most of us believed in the need to address this issue prior to addressing other problems, there were quite a lot of fighters in the party who had a different opinion.
Once EPDM became ANDM, did you really work for the benefit of the Amhara people? In fact, when thousands of people were looted, displaced, and killed in many places ANDM did not even issue statements.
Well, we had problems in that regard. We should have struggled to address them. I remember I personally facilitated the safe evacuation of the Amharas in the Somali region, even by air, when they were displaced with other ethnic groups. However, we had problems of effectively communicating the good things ANDM did to benefit and protect the people.
What about the silence when parts of Gonder and Wollo were included in the state of Tigray; when parts of Gojjam were given to Benishangul; and some parts of Shewa became part of the State of Oromia?
These areas were reorganized on the findings of a team who researched the ethnic configurations in the areas, based on a study by the Dergue regime. But I remember EPDM strongly opposed TPLF during the armed struggle when they prepared the current map of Tigray and distributed it in the region. We reached an agreement that these parts of Gonder and Wollos should first hold referendums should they be part of Tigray. Consequently, they stopped distributing the map.
But it finally got implemented when you took power. You were ANDM’s chairman at that time, what did you do about it?
I wasn’t at Parliament when the issue was discussed. However, this doesn’t mean that I am not responsible.
There were political communications that offended people as well.
Well, as the communists we used to be, we often used words like ‘chauvinists’, and ‘narrow nationalists’ in most of our political communications. We even used the terms ‘Amhara ruling elites’ and ‘Nefetegna’, [riflemen] to refer to the few Amhara elites in history, but it was wrongly interpreted as referring to the whole Amhara population. These terminologies became counterproductive to ANDM.