Debretsion Gebremichael’s Blazing as Rebel Forces Capture Mekelle

  • Tigray’s rebel forces captured Mekelle on June 28th 2021. 
  • A military victory for Tigray’s forces is important for Tigray’s President Debretsion Gebremichael who will not only be removed from power but also faces a prison sentence should Tigray lose. 
  • The redeployment of Tigrayan troops as well as forces loyal to the federal government means that further conflict is likely which may prolong the humanitarian crisis in the country and bring instability to the region. 

Why is Debretsion Gebremichael Blazing?

Answer: Tigrayan rebels have captured Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. 

On June 28th 2021, Tigrayan rebels captured Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. The Ethiopian army had withdrawn from the region according to Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed in order to avoid further casualties and because the city is no longer considered the centre of conflict. However, the real reason for withdrawal seems to be that forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had made battlefield gains that made it difficult for the Ethiopian army to continue holding on to Mekelle. Rebel forces claim to have killed or captured tens of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers and thereby significantly weakened Ethiopia’s army.

Following the capture, Ethiopia unilaterally declared a humanitarian ceasefire. Tigray’s rebels conditionally accepted it. Among their demands they asked that Eritrean soldiers as well as soldiers from Amhara withdraw from Tigray and that the rebel government in Tigray be restored. However these conditions were difficult for Abiy to accept and so he ended Ethiopia’s unilaterally declared ceasefire by stating that the federal government would repel any TPLF threat. 

The events so far have benefited Debretsion Gebremichael, the chairman of the TPLF and President of the Tigray Region. They have shown that Tigray’s rebels are able to stand up to the central government. If the Tigray’s forces win in further armed confrontation, this could give them the leverage to put a stop to the prime minister’s process of centralization and protect Tigray’s autonomy. This in turn would consolidate Debretsion’s power. 

What is changing his temperature?

Answer: Strong military forces and Tigrayan discontent. 

Tigrayan rebels retook Mekelle after pushing back two of Africa’s largest armies. This surprising military success can be attributed to the size and strength of the rebel forces. Namely, 250 000 soldiers are believed to serve under the TPLF. Tigrayan forces also took control of the headquarters of the Northern Command of the federal military in November 2020. This allowed them to seize important heavy weapons according to a military source from the Horn of Africa. 

In addition, the TPLF forces are aided in their fight against the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies by volunteers. Tigrayans may be motivated to fight with the TPLF in light of Abiy’s efforts to reduce Tigray’s autonomy and in light of the atrocities that are said to have been committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies. 

Ethiopia’s prime minister has been trying to weaken the TPLF. The TPLF and the federal government have been at odds with each other ever since Abiy started pushing for centralization. Tigrayans are firmly against the removal of Ethiopia’s federal structure. During Ethiopia’s imperial era, when the country was seemingly united, the culture of the ethnic Amhara majority was presented as Ethiopia’s national culture, while ethnic minorities such as the Tigrayans and Oromos felt oppressed. Debretsion has stated, “we will never back down for anyone who is intending to suppress our hard-won right to self-determination and self-rule”. Portraying the war as a battle for Tigrayan rights may be motivating Tigrayan volunteers to fight. 

It is also possible that people from Tigray blame the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies for the humanitarian crisis in the region. It is impossible to get a full picture of the situation in the country due to an Ethiopian government-imposed communications blackout. Still, based on information that is available, three million people are said to be in need of urgent assistance which the federal government is not allowing to reach the region. Moreover, the US has accused Ethiopia’s government of ethnic cleansing in Tigray. It is also believed that Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are responsible for sexual violence, ethnic based target attacks and large scale looting, although atrocities have been committed by both sides.

What is driving Debretsion Gebremichael?

Answer: A desire to protect himself, his political career and the Tigrayan people. 

While the TPLF was still in power, Debretsion served as communication minister and headed Ethiopia’s power utility. In 2018 he ran for prime minister but lost to Abiy Ahmed. After losing the election Debretsion went to serve as President of the Tigray region. Debretsion’s biography shows that he is a man of great political ambitions. This helps explain his fierce resistance to prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to set up a new government in Tigray which would have ousted him from power. 

However, as the conflict intensified other considerations motivated Debretsion to keep fighting. Following months of rising tensions, the TPLF preemptively attacked a federal military base in November 2020 marking the start of the present conflict. As a result, Debretsion is now facing charges of treason and rebelling against the constitution. Should he lose the war he would face imprisonment.

Finally, Debretsion claims that Abiy’s actions have threatened the rights of the Tigrayan people whom he seeks to protect. In an interview with the New York Times, Debretsion stated “they have taken the land by force, so we will take it back by force.” During the past eight months has been leading rebel troops from Tigray’s mountains in the hope of re-establishing the TPLF’s rule over the region and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Further war is likely which could lead to prolonged human suffering and bring instability to the region. 

The civil war in Ethiopia is likely to continue due to the uncompromising stances of both sides. Although Abiy had expressed that the Ethiopian government was ready to hold an inclusive dialogue to resolve the crisis in Tigray he had also previously stated that it will not negotiate with TPLF leaders. The federal government classifies the TPLF as a terrorist organization by way of parliamentary decree. However, the TPLF had also given Ethiopia conditions that were impossible for it to accept, making negotiation difficult. As a result, the TPLF is preparing for further conflict as Tigrayan rebel forces are being redeployed to face militias from the neighboring Amhara region. Similarly, Amhara and three other regions are mobilizing forces to support the federal government’s fight against the TPLF. 

Furthermore, should conflict start again, it’s likely to be prolonged. Although Tigray’s rebel forces seem to have the upper hand for now, the outcome of the war is uncertain. The Eritrean army continues to be involved even though it announced that it would be withdrawing from the conflict as early as March. Furthermore, while Tigray’s forces have grown thanks to volunteers, the Ethiopian army also claims to have over 1 000 000 volunteers ready to fight. 

Finally, if the federal government continues to push for greater unity this could motivate Tigray’s forces to seek independence. Debretsion has stated that “the trust has broken completely … if they don’t want us, why should we stay?”. Should Tigray attempt to secede from Ethiopia, this could bring about further conflict and prolong the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

In sum, Ethiopia is becoming a source of instability in the region. Aside from the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia has seen outbreaks of ethnic violence in other parts of the country. Due to its domestic instability Ethiopia can no longer pay close attention to regional issues. This is problematic as Ethiopia has long been a provider of security in the region. It has helped stabilize Somalia and South Sudan and provided diplomatic support to Sudan during its transition. Already, Ethiopia has had to shrink its peacekeeping forces in Somalia while the country is facing a constitutional crisis.

In addition, the conflict could become tied to ongoing regional geopolitical battles. For instance, Sudan is at odds with Ethiopia over the building of a hydroelectric dam in the Blue Nile. It most likely hopes that Ethiopia’s domestic instability will slow down construction. As a result, Sudan may rush to take advantage of Ethiopia’s current vulnerability. Indeed, a border skirmish has already occurred between Ethiopia and Sudan in relation to the disputed Fashaga triangle. Should Sudan support the TPLF in order to put pressure on the federal government, the conflict would spill over and thereby further destabilize the region.