Nairobi (AFP) – Sidelined after a decade at the helm of the Ethiopian army, General Tsadkan Gebre-Tensae did not expect to put on his uniform after his retirement. But when war broke out in Tigray, the famous military strategist was back, ready to fight the army he once commanded.
For many observers, there is little doubt that Tsadkan, whose face – round, bald, mustached – is famous in Ethiopia, is the man responsible for the advances of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group since. June.
Thirty years earlier, in 1991, Tsadkan led the TPLF march on Addis Ababa, part of a coalition that overthrew autocrat Mengistu Hailemariam.
He then served as Ethiopia’s Army Chief of Staff for a decade, leading troops during the country’s bloody border war with Eritrea (1998-2000).
But it is his decision to return to the front lines in his late 60s that could prove to be the most important.
“He’s a well-off (man) who could have lived in luxury anywhere,” said Awet Weldemichael, Horn of Africa security expert at Queen’s University in Canada.
“It is honorable that he has decided to face the storm that is building up with his people.”
‘Trained on the job’
Coming from a peasant family, nothing predisposed Tsadkan to a military career.
But soon after the TPLF was formed in 1975 to defend the rights of Tigrayans in multi-ethnic Ethiopia, he abandoned his science studies at Addis Ababa University to join the movement.
“Militarily, he was trained on the job, and he climbed all the levels”, explained to AFP René Lefort, historian specializing in Ethiopia, stressing “his intelligence, his rigor, his pragmatism”.
“He projects a calm of steel, he never raises his voice,” said Lefort, who has met Tsadkan on several occasions.
After the fall of Mengistu, Tsadkan was put in charge of the Ethiopian army and transformed it, according to Gérard Prunier, an expert on the country.
“He turned it into an army that could have been a Western army. He made reforms focusing in particular on recruitment and training,” said Prunier, who has known Tsadkan for more than two decades.
“For him, an army is above all men.”
Tsadkan’s army was dominated by the Tigrayans, as was the national government – intensifying discontent among other ethnic groups that would eventually lead to the TPLF being ousted from power.
The army chief’s own fortune deteriorated during the war with Eritrea, when he called for the capture of territory inside the neighboring country, exacerbating tensions with the then prime minister , Meles Zenawi.
Meles fired him in 2001 and Tsadkan returned to civilian life after 36 years.
Tsadkan goes into business by setting up a brewery and a horticultural business in Tigray. He has also been appointed to the board of directors of several large companies, including Ethiopian Shipping Lines and Lion Bank.
He offered his services as a military consultant to the new government of South Sudan and obtained a master’s degree in international politics from George Washington University in the United States.
In 2019, he was called to the sidelines to help resolve the increasingly divisive relationship between the TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose desire to remove TPLF officials from their leadership positions had fueled discontent since. his appointment in 2018.
Mediation efforts came to nothing.
“I have met Abiy Ahmed on three occasions (…) but it became evident that he did not intend to resolve this problem peacefully,” Tsadkan said in an interview on a television station. Tigray in June.
War seemed increasingly inevitable for the veteran military man, who quietly packed his bags in Addis Ababa and returned to the Tigray capital Mekele last year.
Repeat the strategy
When Abiy deployed federal forces to Tigray in November 2020, a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps, the rebels withdrew to the mountains and the government said victory.
“The number one doctrine of the TPLF is never to engage in a fight you cannot win,” said historian Lefort, explaining that the rebel strategy was to retreat, regroup and ultimately regain lost ground.
Under Tsadkan’s leadership, the TPLF en masse recruited and trained new fighters while also welcoming Tigray troops who lost their jobs following a purge of the national army.
Seven months later, they made a shocking comeback, taking over most of Tigray and rapidly expanding into neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar before claiming towns on a key highway to Addis Ababa in late October. .
Recent announcements of territorial advances by Abiy’s government have ushered in a new uncertain phase in the 13-month war, with Tsadkan once again set to play a key role in his country’s trajectory.
“They are following the same strategy that they always have,” said Lefort.
“What they did in 1991 inspires what they are trying to do in 2021.”
© 2021 AFP