The political philosophy of German sociologist Karl Marx inspired the imaginations of many aspiring revolutionaries. While he did not live to see his theories played out on the large scale of the Soviet Union, Marx did leave volumes of written instructions for his followers in The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
During the mid-1950s, while Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were busy installing the first communist oligarchy in the Western Hemisphere, a parallel partnership was emerging half-way across the globe in eastern Africa. Meles Zenawi and Tamrat Layne (pronounced “lie-nay”) were born just months apart in 1955 in the northern market villages of Ethiopia.
As the boys matured into adulthood, their close friendship was solidified in a shared admiration of Karl Marx. They read and reread every Marxist writing that they could get their hands on. By the time they reached their thirties, Zenawi and Layne were convinced that they themselves were called to lead the transition of Ethiopia into the utopian ideal of communism.
By the late 1980s, Zenawi and Layne had initiated a methodical and escalating plan towards replacing Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Over the course of years, Zenawi and Layne accumulated soldiers, weapons, tanks and loyalties. Working from their mountain refuge, they would confront Mengistu‘s army in small battles. Many times, an entire battalion would defect to their cause rather than fight. By 1991, Zenawi and Layne marched their Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front into the capital of Addis Ababa.
Having easily overthrown the Ethiopian government, Meles Zenawi was installed as President and Tamrat Layne as Prime Minister. There had been previous attempts at standing up a communist regime in Ethiopia, but it always ended up looking more like a dictatorship. Aspiring utopian leaders frequently convince themselves that, this time, it really will work.
Predictably, the experiment eventually proved a disappointment for the expectations of the young despots. Following Karl Marx’ rollout plan did not result in a happy and prosperous nation. And after a series of trial and error, the boys tossed the roadmap and ruled by their own intuitions. Then in 1996, Meles Zenawi also tossed Tamrat Layne in prison and assumed for himself a more powerful version of Prime Minister.
The melee surrounding this mini coup d'état saw many Ethiopians fleeing the country in fear of the recurring nightmare of violent unrest. Among the refugees to Kenya was Tamrat Layne’s wife and two young children. In time, they made their way to the United States Embassy in Nairobi.
Realizing that their lives were in danger, the U.S. granted Layne’s wife and children political asylum and put them on a plane to Colorado. In a matter of months, Layne’s wife transitioned from First Lady to refugee to clerk at a 24-hour gas station convenience store. It would be twelve years before she would see her husband again.
During most of the period from October 1996 through December of 2008, Tamrat Layne was kept in solitary confinement. Every conviction that had, at one time, made so much sense now seemed to betray him; the philosophies of communism, his lifelong comrade, and soon – the certainty of atheism.
Around the midway point of his prison term in 2002, Layne tells of his encounter with a very real God. The personal interaction claimed by millions of others came about for this former revolutionary and deposed ruler while sitting very alone in solitary confinement. For Tamrat Layne, devotion to Karl Marx had been joyously displaced by faith in Jesus Christ.
Six years later, on December 19, 2008, Layne was finally released from prison. The American Ambassador to Ethiopia made arrangements to reunite Tamrat with his family in the United States. His devoted wife, his now adult son, and his daughter who was an infant when he last saw her, all greeted him at the Denver International Airport. And the awkward delight in reacquainting with his own flesh and blood was about to be followed by a surprising revelation regarding his new host country.
While his outlook on life had been drastically improved, Tamrat Layne anticipated that he would be living in a dysfunctional American society. He had spent decades immersed in the worldview that the West had humanity all wrong and that the United States was the ultimate infliction of unfair capitalism.
But it did not take many weeks of observing Americans in their natural habitat to see that they were generally happy and thriving. Tamrat asked himself, “How did this America become the most powerful and prosperous nation in history after only 200 years of existence when Ethiopia remains poor after 3,000 years of attempts at progress?” The inquisitiveness that once sought theories to solve complex sociological problems was now seeking explanations for demonstrated success.
Layne walked into a Denver public library and asked, “How do I understand how America works?” I hope one day to find and thank the librarian who responded by handing Tamrat a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and an inspiring account of America’s founding history.
Today, Tamrat Layne is a kind, humble, and deeply thoughtful man. He carries the burden of regret for the nation that he used to rule. But with his unique perspective, Tamrat has wisdom for both Ethiopia and for America. And, as it turns out, that powerful advice is the same for both nations: “Seek the liberty that God gave you.”