The rebel commander who drove the Ethiopian army out of Tigray

This week the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), a coalition that brings together anti-government rebels from the northern Ethiopian region, launched a surprising military offensive to regain control of Macalle, the regional capital that had been conquered by the Ethiopian army last November. . The reconquest of Macalle was accompanied by the swift and hasty withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, disguised as the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed behind a unilateral ceasefire.

The reconstructions of what happened are incomplete and partial, due to the absence of international journalists and observers in Tigré, and the interruption of all communications to the outside. Also for this reason, the latest developments have been received with extreme surprise. Few expected that the rebels, quickly defeated last November and forced to take refuge in the mountains, would have the ability to reorganize, start a new military operation and recover Macalle, forcing the soldiers of two different armies to withdraw: the Ethiopian, which had the war began to oust the rebels from the regional government, and the Eritrean one, who later intervened alongside the Ethiopians.

“When the history of the last Ethiopian civil war is written, the battles in June can be told as one of the greatest victories achieved by a rebel group in recent years,” wrote theEconomist commenting on what happened.

One of the central characters for understanding the latest events is Tigrinya general Tsadkan Gebretensae, who led the rebellion. Gebretensae, 68, is perhaps the best-known military man in Ethiopia and one of the best military strategists of his generation in all of Africa. The history of Gebretensae is very particular, and in some ways it is emblematic of the complicated relationships that have characterized Tigrayans and the rest of the country for decades.

Gebretensae joined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1976, after leaving his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Addis Ababa. Today the TPLF is the main political party in the Tigray region, the same that led the last rebellion, but then it was only a small faction made up of a few hundred guerrillas who wanted to overthrow the Marxist regime of Menghistu Haile Mariam, who ruled the Ethiopia until 1991. By the end of the 1980s, analyst Alex de Waal wrote, however, Gebretensae had become one of the most respected Tigrinya commanders and the TPLF had come to include more than 100,000 soldiers. In May 1991 the TPLF led by Gebretensae, allied with the Eritrean army, managed to conquer Addis Ababa, overthrowing the Menghistu regime.

Gebretensae set up a temporary home in a guesthouse near the Hilton hotel in the capital: “It was then that General Tsadkan slept in a bed with sheets for the first time in 15 years,” wrote Alex de Waal.

During the years that followed, power in Ethiopia was held by the TPLF, amid the protests and discontents of the other ethnic groups in the country, much more numerous than the Tigers but less represented in the national government (Tigers are 6% of the entire Ethiopian population ). Gebretensae was given the rank of general and given the task of rebuilding the federal army of Ethiopia. Even among the armed forces, as had happened with the government, the main offices were assigned to members of the Tigrinya ethnic group, who were thus able to develop enormous skills in the military field, which became very useful in planning the latest rebellion.

In the late 1990s, during the war that Ethiopia fought against Eritrea, Gebretensae proved to be a skilled and competent military strategist, but his proximity to the federal government did not last long. In the course of the conflict, in fact, Gebretensae clashed with other Tigrinya military leaders on the strategy to follow, as well as with the then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, of whom he was also chief of staff, head of cabinet. After the fighting ended, Meles fired him. Gebretensae began a civilian life, starting among other things a brewery and a horticultural business in the province of Raya, in southern Tigré.

He returned to being involved in public affairs only after the election of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian prime minister since 2018, who unlike the heads of government who had preceded him is not Tigrinya: he is Oromo, one of the most marginalized ethnic groups in the country.

Perhaps out of a sense of revenge against the Tigrinya leaders who had dumped him, Gebretensae said he was willing to collaborate with the new government, but this time too it didn’t last long. When anti-government sentiment began to grow in the Tigray region, parallel to the separatist demands of the region, Gebretensae returned to Macalle; and when the war between the Ethiopian Federal Army and Tigrinya separatist forces began last November, it joined the rebels by putting aside previous divisions.

A TPLF guerrilla near the town of Hawzen (AP Photo / Ben Curtis, File)

Gebretensae was immediately placed in charge of the Tigray Defense Forces (which also include non-members of the TPLF) and assumed central command: he failed to stop the first offensive of the Ethiopian federal army, aided by the Eritrean one, and he and the other TDF guerrillas were forced to take refuge in the mountains, leaving the possibility for the Abiy government to declare itself the winner of the war.

In mid-June, however, after four months spent in the Tigrè mountains to train and reorganize under the leadership of Gebretensae and other rebel military leaders, the TDF managed – unexpectedly for everyone – to counterattack, force the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers to flee. and reconquer Macalle. The details of how the rebels managed to carry out an operation of this type have not yet been told, also due to the refusal of the Abiy government to admit defeat and to make an accurate and truthful description of the balance of forces existing today in Tigré. .

Despite the reconquest of Macalle, however, it does not seem that the war can be declared over. As the New York Times, “The rebel forces seem to have little appetite for a truce” and have shown that they are considering the possibility of starting a military operation in neighboring Eritrea, with the aim of anticipating any further future attacks by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray. The war could spread further, adding to the terrible violence already carried out in recent months by the warring parties against civilians.

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