A former guerrilla fighter who previously jammed the communication network of Ethiopian troops, Debretsion Gebremichael is now fighting the government of Prime Minister Abi Ahmed for control of the northern region of Tigray, described as the “womb” of the nation.
Mr Debretsion leads the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray and which disintegrated so dramatically with Mr Abiy.
Now married with a young child, Mr. Debretsion dropped out of the University of Addis Ababa in the 1970s to join the TPLF in its 17-year war against the Derg regime of Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam.
He then continued to be government minister after Derg was defeated and replaced by a coalition of TPLF-dominated parties until Mr Abbey came to power in 2018.
His close friend and comrade Alemayehu Gezahegn said that after both had completed their military training in the rugged and mountainous terrain of Tigrei, and, noting his comrade’s technical skills, he suggested to TPLF commanders that Mr Debretsion should be located in the “technical unit”.
For Mr Alemayehu, this was the logical place for Mr Debretsion, as he was a bright but reserved ‘city boy’ who grew up in the Shire, who is now under the control of the federal forces in a big blow to the Tigray leader.
“Remnant bulb made”
Hailing from an Orthodox Christian family, Tigrei’s leader was called Debrecion, meaning Mount Zion, while his middle name was his father, Gebremihael, meaning Servant of St. Michael.
“When he was in primary school, he collected old batteries, radios, electrical equipment and repaired them. When no one had electricity in our city, he made a light bulb for himself from leftovers,” Mr Alemayehu recalled.
Mr Debretsion excelled in the TPLF’s “technical unit”, playing a vital role in developing intelligence capabilities so that the TPLF could eavesdrop on Ethiopian military conversations and jam their radio communications.
“This helped us win because the TPLF freedom fighters knew in advance about the enemy movements and because they were stuck, they could not communicate with each other when they were attacked,” Mr Alemayehu said.
To further develop his skills, Mr Debretsion traveled to Italy with a fake passport and returned to set up TPLF’s first radio station, Dimtsi Weyane, which means “Voice of Revolution”.
“He almost slipped to his death.”
Another TPLF guerrilla fighter, Measho Gebrekidan, recalled that they were walking in the mountains at night, when the chances of being spotted by government spies were slim to install antennas.
“One night he slipped … and another friend and I saved his life. I always thought that if that happened, would this radio be created?” Mr. Measho said.
Dimtsi Weyane is now part of a multilingual and multi-platform media group based in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, broadcasting TPLF statements about its military confrontation with the federal government.
The media station broadcast fierce criticism of Mr. Abbey, and when the conflict broke out, his signal was silenced, but Dimci Vayane returned to the air the next day.
Abbey’s rivals for prime minister
Mr Debretsion and Mr Abiy seemed friends at the beginning of the Prime Minister’s term in 2018. The Tigray leader even organized an enthusiastic welcome for the Prime Minister in Mekelle.
“Tigrei is a place where the history of our country is being prepared, and this is the region where foreign invaders [including Italians and Egyptians] he was defeated and embarrassed. In modern Ethiopia, this is the womb of Ethiopia, “said Mr. Abbey in 2018.
For his part, Mr Debretsion welcomed the Prime Minister’s peaceful initiative with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to end the “no war and no peace” situation that had existed between the two countries since the end of their 1998-2000 border conflict.
“[Mr Abiy] traveled to Eritrea and met Isaiah. This was impossible for many years. This is a big deal because it will give a huge opportunity to the country, “Mr Debretsion said when the deal was agreed.
But this display of camaraderie seemed to mask the tension that was rising between the two men.
Mr Debretsion had ambitions to be prime minister himself and lost to Mr Abiy in the 2018 race in the ruling coalition.
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“I told him, ‘You’re immature.’ You are not the right candidate, “Mr Debretsion told Britain’s Financial Times in 2019.
But his defeat came as no surprise, as the TPLF has become synonymous with repression and corruption in its 27 years as the dominant political force in the dominant state.
Views on Mr Debretsion’s performance when he worked in the government are mixed.
His critics say that when he was deputy head of the intelligence bureau in the 1990s, he played an important role 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 promoted to the cabinet where he was deputy prime minister and minister of communications and information technology.
He has launched massive projects to expand mobile phone coverage in Ethiopia, although the state has maintained a monopoly on the industry and the telecommunications company has been criticized for shutting down the internet to curb anti-government protests.
“Most of the energy and telecommunications infrastructure projects were led by him,” said US public policy expert Dade Desta.
“The IT park, which is now in Addis Ababa, was his idea [and] his fingerprints can be found in many government projects. “
This includes the building of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is now at the center of diplomatic tensions with US President Donald Trump, warning that Egypt could “blow it up”.
The TPLF and the prime minister split when Mr Abiy disbanded the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the ruling coalition of ethnically based parties, to launch the Prosperity Party in 2019, arguing that it would help unite the country.
The TPLF refused to join, arguing that Ethiopia’s federal character was a better way to manage the country’s deep ethnic divisions.
Mr Debretsion returned to Tigrei, where he was seen as a reformer. It allowed four new political parties to run in the September regional elections in violation of the federal government.
“My door is open to everyone,” he often said.
“We want development, not war,” was another common statement by Mr Debretsion.
“This war is a curse”
But now it finds itself at the center of a conflict that has reportedly killed hundreds of people, forced more than 30,000 people to flee to neighboring Sudan, and damaged key infrastructure – including roads and buildings – in a region with the highest levels. of poverty in Ethiopia, according to the UN.
“Mr Debretsion considers this war a curse,” Mr Dade said.
But he added that he expects the TPLF to strongly oppose Mr Abiy’s attempts to set up a new administration in Tigray.
“They [the TPLF] were in the war with Eritrea and the struggle against Derg. So they have enough experience. At its core, war needs the will of the people to fight, as there is in Tigrei, “Mr Dade said, raising the prospect of a protracted conflict.
However, Mr Abiy is also confident that he can defeat the TPLF and send Mr Debretsion, who has been accused of treason and rebellion against the constitution, to court.
Five things about Tigray:
1. The Kingdom of Axum was concentrated 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 Axum are a UN World Heritage Site. The site, dating to between the 1st and 13th centuries AD, features obelisks, castles, royal tombs and a church that some believe is the ark of the covenant.
3. Most people in Tigrei are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The Christian roots of the region go back 1600 years.
4. The main language of the region is Tigrinya, a Semitic dialect with at least seven million speakers worldwide.
5. Sesame is a major cash cropexported to the USA, China and other countries.