The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November last year after accusing the then-governing party of Tigray of attacking military bases across the region. The TPLF denied the charges. But on November 4 that year, Abiy ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray in response to the attack on the military bases.
Ethiopia’s communications since the altercations began on November 4 appear to recognize that the country is fighting both a war of guns and identity. The TPLF had been Tigray’s regional government and it is seen as the political organization encapsulating Tigrayan identity. Last November, the TPLF was ousted by federal forces. The government declared victory at the end of that month after seizing the regional capital Mekelle.
However, the TPLF kept fighting and retook Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June after government soldiers withdrew. The fighting continued. Then came Operation Alula which in June 2021 led to major reversals for the Ethiopian army in Tigray. One of the masterminds of that operation was Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae. The commander of Tigrayan rebel forces, Tsadkan is seen as one of the best military strategists in Africa.
In 1976, he shunned his biology degree at Addis Ababa University to join the TPLF, which was at the time a small rebel group in remote mountains fighting against the Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. By the late 1980s, Tsadkan had become one of TPLF’s most respected and trusted operational commanders thanks to his analysis and organizational skills, a BBC article noted. The TPLF soon grew and by 1991 was having an army of over 100,000, the BBC report added.
It was in May that year that the Mengistu regime was overthrown by the TPLF led by Tsadkan. The TPLF that included Eritrean forces invaded the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa on May 28, removing Mengistu from power and restoring order to the capital. Tsadkan, for the next seven years, led others to reconstruct the Ethiopian army. He earned the rank of general and became chief of staff.
But for the 10 years that he led the Ethiopian military (the Ethiopian National Defence Force), he was criticized for leading an army that was not ethnically balanced. The military was then mostly made up of former TPLF commanders. Meanwhile, Tsadkan focused on education, studying for an MBA by correspondence at the UK’s Open University. Under his leadership, the Ethiopian National Defence Force raided an al-Qaeda base in Somalia in 1996 and supported rebel forces in Sudan.
During the Eritrean–Ethiopian War, Tsadkhan also insisted on driving the Ethiopian army into the Eritrean capital of Asmara in June 2000, but his TPLF colleague, who was then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, stopped him from doing so. And when the war ended, disagreements within the TPLF caused Zenawi to fire Tsadkan as chief of staff. But Tsadkhan was still watched closely by TPLF security agents. He later worked with the new government of South Sudan on security sector reform and founded a brewery in his home district of Raya, in southern Tigray. He also started a horticultural business.
In 2018 when Abiy took office after anti-government protests, he sidelined leaders of the Tigrayan government that had been in power for almost three decades. He started pursuing political reforms. Tigray’s leaders were against those reforms, saying they were attempts by Abiy to centralize power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system of government that the TPLF party had played a huge role in setting up. These would lead to months of feuding between Abiy’s government and Tigray leaders. To make matters worse, Tigray went ahead to organize its own regional election which the central government described as illegal.
In 2019, Tsadkhan, who had welcomed Abiy’s government to the shock of his TPLF colleagues, became a member of a group that tried to mediate between Abiy and TPLF leaders. But he later left the group, saying that Abiy “was not serious.”
And when war broke out in Tigray last November, he let go of his grudges against Tigray leaders and joined the armed resistance organized under the banner of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). Soon, he rose to its central command and now its leading strategist.
Tsadkhan and other Tigray leaders have been accused of treason by the Ethiopian government that said they began the war by organizing an attack on federal military bases in Tigray. Tsadkan said this July that the war would continue unless Abiy accepted military defeat in Tigray. He also said the government had deliberately blocked aid to the region.
“I would like to say it’s very sad that our country Ethiopia is in such a situation,” Tsadkhan told The Elephant this July, adding that Eritrea has a heavy hand in Tigray and Addis Ababa.
He continued: “We were forced to act the way we did, because of the Central Government in Ethiopia, is in our opinion directed by Asmara, by Isaias, Isaias’ security forces, intelligence forces are operating in Ethiopia day and night.”
“…I would like to say that even though so many atrocities have been committed, it’s not led to resolve our issue peacefully and politically. So, when Ethiopians come out of the illusion that the Prime Minister has created, the reality on the ground is completely different, let Eritreans get out, not only from Tigray, but from all of Ethiopia. Let Ethiopians set their own trajectory themselves.”
As at the time of putting together this report, combined rebel forces were getting closer to Addis Ababa as Ethiopian authorities announced a nationwide state of emergency. There are fears that the conflict could get worse, with international pressure building on both sides of the conflict to end hostilities so that aid can reach hundreds of thousands of people starving.