Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, is believed to have retreated into the mountains
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region before he was ousted in a federal military offensive, once ran a guerrilla radio station before rising through the ranks to head the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
It has been nearly two weeks since Debretsion — a top target of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s campaign against the TPLF leadership — has issued any kind of statement.
After three weeks of fierce fighting, Abiy claimed victory in late November and said federal forces had Debretsion and other TPLF leaders in their sights — but he remains on the run.
On Friday Ethiopia’s military said it would pay 10 million birr (roughly $250,000 / 205,000 euros) in exchange for information that would help locate TPLF’s leaders, Debretsion presumably among them.
– Humble beginnings –
Debretsion was born in the city of Shire in the impoverished, mountainous north where he had an Orthodox Christian upbringing.
Debretsion ditched his studies in the 1970s to join the rebel movement TPLF in its battle against the brutal Derg dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam.
Rather than being deployed to the frontlines, the small, soft-spoken young man found his niche in communications and propaganda, helping establish the TPLF’s guerrilla radio station, Dimtsi Weyane — “Voice of the Revolution” in the local Tigrinya language.
Debretsion’s team of engineers were reportedly highly mobile, travelling by donkey and hiding in caves to establish antennae on Tigray’s mountains.
They not only broadcast pro-TPLF, anti-Derg messages but also intercepted military communications to assist their comrades on the battlefields.
– Communication is power –
The years running radio for the TPLF were to prove formative for the quiet, hard-working Debretsion.
“Communication was central to the struggle, was the essence of the struggle for us,” he told Iginio Gagliardone, a researcher at South Africa’s Wits University and author of “The Politics of Technology in Africa”.
In a 2008 interview Debretsion told Gagliardone of the importance of communication in “mobilising the society against the Derg regime” and how it was possible “to convert people, to make them think in a different way.”
Mengistu was eventually ousted in 1991 and a coalition of parties, led by the TPLF, took power.
Debretsion resumed his studies, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Addis Ababa University.
He then returned to the TPLF, taking on a series of high-profile positions that melded his interest in communications with his loyalty to the party.
His various roles included deputy director of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Services, chairman of the national telecoms company Ethio Telecom, minister of communications and IT, and director-general of the Ethiopian Information and Communication Technology Development Agency.
They placed him at the heart of Ethiopia’s state-controlled telecoms and communications sector at a crucial moment.
It was during this time that the government developed and expanded infrastructure that allowed it to disseminate propaganda, control information and conduct wide-ranging, often intrusive, surveillance of its people in order to maintain control.
Debretsion personifies “the strong links between Ethio Telecom, the intelligence apparatus, and the ministry of communications,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 2014 report.
He was named the TPLF’s chairman in late 2017, but his elevation coincided with the party’s control waning over both the country and the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
– Return to the mountains –
Following the 2018 resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Debretsion sought the EPRDF’s support to replace him, but he lost dismally to Abiy.
Map of Ethiopia locating Tigray and its capital Mekele
The rise of Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, marked the end of decades of political dominance by the Tigrayan ethnic minority, which represents six percent of Ethiopia’s population.
As relations between Abiy and the TPLF soured, the premier dissolved the EPRDF and Debretsion retreated to Tigray.
In September this year Tigray held a regional parliamentary election in defiance of Abiy, the TPLF winning 98 percent of the vote.
Abiy sent federal troops into Tigray on November 4, saying the offensive was in response to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.
Abiy claimed victory three weeks later when the army seized Mekele, the regional capital and seat of the TPLF.
However Debretsion has sworn to fight on, and is believed to have retreated to the mountains of Tigray where he first learnt the skills, tactics and power of guerrilla resistance.