The 57-year-old has cast the conflict as resistance to a push by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to centralise power, which the government denies, accusing his movement of revolt.
He is leading the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel movement that spearheaded the toppling of a Marxist dictatorship in 1991 before going on to dominate a coalition government until Abiy’s appointment in 2018.
Here are some facts on Debretsion and the three-week old conflict:
FOUNDER OF ‘REVOLUTION’ RADIO
Debretsion joined the TPLF as a teenager and was sent to Italy to learn communications and technology.
He led the team behind “Dimtsi Woyane” (“Voice of the Revolution” in the Tigrinya language) radio around 1980, which the bush fighters used to connect with people as they endured aerial bombings, according to a 2018 book.
The radio broadcast propaganda, reports on the Marxist-Leninist rebel movement’s meetings, and programmes ranging from basic medicine to agriculture and literacy.
Debretsion and his colleagues carried portable equipment to avoid detection, moving it on donkeys and camels and hiding it in caves, academic Nicole Stremlau wrote in her book “Media, Conflict, and the State in Africa”.
SURVEILLANCE AND TELECOMS
After the TPLF took power in 1991, Debretsion obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Addis Ababa University. He entered high-level politics in 2005.
He chaired Ethio Telecom, the state telecoms monopoly, after serving as deputy director of the national intelligence agency – underscoring the agency’s grip on communications, Human Rights Watch noted in a 2014 report.
He also led a programme that rolled out government technology services and gave the state access to email accounts and personal information of civil servants, the rights watchdog said.
As communications and information technology minister and later as deputy prime minister, he signed agreements with Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei.
POWER, NILE DAM
During the same period, he also chaired the state-run Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and tried to modernise the creaking power sector that now serves 115 million people.
He oversaw the construction of hydropower dams, the biggest of which is the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction on the Blue Nile river. Both Egypt and Sudan fear the dam may limit their access to the Nile’s waters.
Debretsion was replaced as chair of the state power utility in late April 2018, shortly after Abiy took office.
Debretsion is known within his party, which elected him as chairman in 2017, as a shy workaholic. He cemented his position as the region’s leader when it decided to hold an election in September in defiance of the federal government, which postponed voting nationwide due to due to COVID-19.
The TPLF won more than 98% of the vote.
Abiy’s government declared the vote illegal and has set up a transitional administration in parts of Tigray taken by federal troops since Nov. 4.
Debretsion is on a list of TPLF leaders whom the government says must surrender or be captured before any negotiations to end the conflict can begin.
“We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region,” Debretsion said in a text to Reuters this week.
The TPLF accuses Abiy, who is of mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage, of singling out high-level Tigrayan officials in a crackdown on past abuses and corruption. Abiy’s office denies that and says the prime minister has tried to work with the TPLF but was rebuffed.
“Youth of Tigray, be prepared for all eventualities,” local media quoted Debretsion as saying at an event in the Tigray regional capital Mekelle in December 2018, less than a year after Abiy took office.
Asked by Reuters what the comment meant, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said Debretsion was not implying that conflict was inevitable but that “if push comes to shove, we don’t have to scramble for crash military training.”