Ethiopia: Abiy Ahmed Vs Debretsion Gebremichael, former spymasters duel

By Noé Hochet-Bodin

Posted on Friday, 15 October 2021 11:31
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) party, in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, July 7, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer SEARCH "ETHIOPIA FIGHTING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

For a year now, in the province of Tigray, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has been engaged in a fratricidal war against his former ally. It is an all-out clash.

The conflict raging in Tigray for almost a year has driven more than 400,000 people into famine. However, the stakes in this conflict go beyond the simple political and territorial fight.

Beyond the confrontation between two military leaders, the fighting extends into the field of information. Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ethiopia on 4 November 2020, the leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Debretsion Gebremichael, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have demonstrated their mastery of the art of tactical warfare.

Troubling repetition of history

Abiy Ahmed, a soldier in the Ethiopian army, played a similar role in these mountains during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war (1998-2000) nearly twenty years ago. He was the head of an Ethiopian intelligence team in charge of scouting Eritrean positions.

In a repeat of history, the Prime Minister forced the Tigrayan leader to go underground again in November 2020, when he managed to drive the rebels out of the provincial capital Mekele. For the second time in forty years, Debretsion Gebremichael has to take refuge in the countryside to lead the armed insurrection.

“I didn’t think I’d make it out alive,” he admits in a rare interview with the New York Times when he recalls the eight months he spent hiding in the mountains of Tigray before his forces took over the region at the end of June.

In the meantime, Abiy Ahmed had put a bounty on his head, eager to do battle with the TPLF, which he described as a “junta” and “the cancer of Ethiopia”. Abiy tweeted that there would be no dialogue, “until our efforts to ascertain the rule of law are achieved”.

Former military, technical and indeed political allies, the two men know each other intimately.

They both headed the major information and cyber security agencies of Ethiopian intelligence. They also served in the same government in 2016; Debretsion Gebremichael as Deputy Prime Minister while Abiy Ahmed took the Science Ministry post.

Providential man

But the hierarchy was reversed in the transition process that began two years later. The TPLF, which had dominated Ethiopian affairs for almost thirty years, suddenly had to share power. A young Oromo politician (the country’s largest ethnic group) from a multi-faith family and a child of the system, Abiy Ahmed represented the ideal man to lead the country’s reforms.

At first, the two former ministers of the ruling coalition welcomed each other warmly. In 2018, the president of Tigray welcomed the new head of government to Mekele with great fanfare. Abiy declared his love for the region – ‘the birthplace of Ethiopian history’.

Having won the Nobel Prize – prematurely, some would say – following the signing of the peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed set about a much more important task in Ethiopia: to dismantle the Tigrayan monopoly on the political-military structures and the country’s financial system.

It is notably from this endeavour that the current civil war began. By bringing Tigrayan businessmen and politicians to heel, Abiy Ahmed has drawn the wrath of the TPLF, whose protector Debretsion claims to be.

Tigrayans denied electricity, money and petrol

The latter, who is said to have had great ambitions to lead Ethiopia, is attacking Abiy Ahmed head-on. “He is immature, he is not the right candidate” he repeats to anyone who will listen while the Prime Minister continues to cleanse the system.

Following weeks of tension, the war broke out during a preventive attack by the TPLF in Mekele on 4 November 2020. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, well massed on the borders of Tigray, took over the major towns of the province in three weeks, only to be driven out eight months later.

Today, the contrast between Addis Ababa and Mekele is night and day. The Ethiopian capital was the scene of the grandiose inauguration ceremony of the Prime Minister on Monday 4 October, in the presence of several African leaders. Abiy Ahmed has emerged stronger from the legislative elections, although they were marked by irregularities and the boycott of the main opposition parties.

While he acknowledged that Ethiopia paid a heavy price for the ongoing war, he assured that the “weed” of the TPLF will still be defeated.

As for the Tigrayans, they are now living under blockade: deprived of electricity, money and petrol. The chairman of the TPLF describes the situation as “a siege” imposed on his region, where famine is taking its toll.

Debretsion Gebremichael has kept a low profile since the takeover of Tigray at the end of June. Holed up in Mekele, he is waiting for the announced offensive of the government forces to, perhaps, once again, lead the guerrilla war from the Tigrayan hinterland.

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