Former guerrilla who used to jam the communication network of Ethiopian troops, Debretsion Gebremichael is now leading the fight against the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for control of the region of northern Tigray, described as the “belly” of the nation .
Mr. Debretsion heads the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray and which has quarreled so dramatically with Mr. Abiy.
Now married with a young child, Mr Debretsion interrupted his studies at Addis Ababa University in the 1970s to join the TPLF in its 17-year war against the Derg regime of Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.
He then became government minister after the defeat of the Derg and its replacement by a coalition of parties dominated by the TPLF until Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018.
His close friend and comrade Alemayehu Gezahegn said that after both completing their military training in the rugged and mountainous terrain of Tigray and, noting his comrade’s technical skills, he suggested to the TPLF commanders that Mr Debretsion be deployed. in “technical unit”. .
For Mr. Alemayehu, this was the logical place for Mr. Debretsion, as he was a brilliant, but reserved “town boy” who grew up in Shire, who, in a blow to the tabby ruler, is now under the control of the federal government. troops.
“ Made a light bulb out of waste ”
Coming from an Orthodox Christian family, the Tigray chief was called Debretsion, which means Mount Zion, while his second name is that of his father, Gebremichael, meaning servant of Saint Michael.
“When he was in elementary school he used to collect batteries, radios, electrical equipment and repair them. When no one had electricity in our town, he would make a light bulb for himself. waste, ”recalls Mr. Alemayehu.
Mr. Debretsion excelled in the “technical unit” of the TPLF, playing a vital role in developing intelligence capabilities so that the TPLF could listen to Ethiopian military conversations and jam its radio communications.
“It helped us win because the TPLF freedom fighters knew enemy movements in advance and, being blocked, could not communicate with each other when attacked,” Alemayehu said.
To further develop his skills, Mr Debretsion traveled to Italy with a fake passport and returned to set up the first TPLF radio station – Dimtsi Weyane, meaning Voice of the Revolution.
‘Almost slipped to his death’
Another TPLF guerrilla, Measho Gebrekidan, recalled that they used to go to the mountains at night, when the chances of being spotted by government spies were slim, to set up antennas.
“One night he slipped … and it was me and another comrade who saved his life. I always thought that if that had happened, would this radio have been created?” Said Mr. Measho.
Now Dimtsi Weyane is part of a multilingual and multiplatform media group based in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, broadcasting statements from the TPLF on his military confrontation with the federal government.
The media station aired strong criticism of Mr. Abiy, and when the conflict began his signal was blocked, but Dimtsi Weyane was back on air the next day.
Abiy’s rivals for prime minister
Mr Debretsion and Mr Abiy appeared to be friends at the start of the prime minister’s tenure in 2018. The Tigray leader even hosted an enthusiastic welcome for the prime minister in Mekelle.
“Tigray is a place where the history of our country is cooked, and it is the region where the invaders [including Italians and Egyptians] had been overcome and embarrassed. In modern Ethiopia, it is Ethiopia’s belly, ”Abiy said in 2018.
For his part, Debretsion hailed the Prime Minister’s peace initiative with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to end the “no war – no peace” situation that had existed between the two countries since the end of their conflict. border from 1998-2000.
“[Mr Abiy] traveled to Eritrea and met Isaias. This was impossible for many years. This is a big problem because it is going to give a huge opportunity for the country, ”Debretsion said when the deal was made.
But this display of camaraderie seems to have masked the tensions that were brewing between the two men.
Mr Debretsion had ambitions to be prime minister himself and lost to Mr Abiy in the 2018 contest in the ruling coalition.
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“I told him, ‘You are immature. You are not the right candidate, “” Mr Debretsion told UK newspaper Financial Times in 2019.
But its defeat came as no surprise, as the TPLF had become synonymous with repression and corruption during its 27 years as the dominant political force in the dominant country.
Opinions about Mr Debretsion’s performance when he worked in government are mixed.
Critics say that when he was deputy director of the intelligence bureau in the 1990s, he was instrumental in spying on opposition figures and helping to crush dissent.
But his supporters focus on the fact that he transformed Ethiopia’s telecommunications infrastructure when he was high in cabinet, where he served as deputy prime minister and minister of communications and information technology. .
It has launched massive plans to expand mobile phone coverage across Ethiopia, although the state has retained a monopoly on the industry, and the telecommunications company has been criticized for internet shutdowns aimed at curb anti-government demonstrations.
“Most of the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure projects have been led by him,” said Dade Desta, a US-based public policy specialist.
“The computer park that is now in Addis Ababa was his idea [and] his fingerprints can be found in many state-owned projects. “
This includes the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam, which is now at the center of diplomatic tensions with US President Donald Trump warns Egypt could ‘detonate’.
The TPLF and the prime minister broke up when Mr. Abiy dissolved the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the ruling coalition of ethnic parties, to launch the Prosperity Party in 2019, arguing it would help unite the country.
The TPLF refused to join, arguing that Ethiopia’s federal nature was a better way to deal with the country’s deep ethnic divisions.
Mr. Debretsion returned to Tigray where he was considered a reformist. It allowed four new political parties to run in regional elections held in September in defiance of the federal government.
“My door is open to everyone,” he often said.
“We want development, not war” was another joint statement from Mr Debretsion.
‘This war is a curse’
But now he finds himself at the center of a conflict that has reportedly killed hundreds, forced more than 30,000 people to flee to neighboring Sudan, and damaged critical infrastructure – including roads and buildings – in a region at levels the highest. of poverty in Ethiopia, according to the UN.
“Mr. Debretsion sees this war as a curse,” Mr. Dade said.
But, he added, he expected the TPLF to firmly resist Mr Abiy’s attempts to establish a new administration in Tigray.
“They [the TPLF] were in the war with Eritrea and the fight against the Derg. So they have enough experience. By its nature, war needs the will of the people to fight, which is in Tigray, ”Dade said, referring to the prospect of a long conflict.
However, Mr. Abiy is also convinced that he can defeat the TPLF and bring Mr. Debretsion to justice, who faces charges of treason and rebellion against the constitution.
Five things about Tigray:
1. The kingdom of Axum was centered in the region. Described as one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, it was once the most powerful state between the Roman and Persian empires.
2. The ruins of the city of Aksum are a United Nations World Heritage Site. The site, dating between the 1st and 13th centuries AD, features obelisks, castles, royal tombs, and a church which some say houses the Ark of the Covenant.
3. Most of the inhabitants of Tigray are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The region’s Christian roots date back 1,600 years.
4. The main language of the region is Tigrinya, a Semitic dialect with at least seven million speakers around the world.
5. Sesame is an important cash crop, exported to the United States, China and other countries.