For the second time in his life, a former army general has found himself at the centre of a rebellion against the Ethiopian government in the mountainous Tigray region, writes analyst Alex de Waal.
The commander of Tigrayan rebel forces, Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae, is regarded by international security analysts as one of the finest military strategists of his generation in Africa.
The 68-year-old abandoned his biology degree at Addis Ababa University in 1976 to join the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At the time it was a band of a few hundred guerrillas in remote mountains fighting the-then Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
His analysis, organisational skills and ability to win the trust of the fighters meant that by the late 1980s, he was one of its most respected operational commanders.
By 1991, the TPLF was a formidable army of more than 100,000 and included mechanised divisions.
In May that year, Gen Tsadkan – along with Eritrean forces then allied with the TPLF – led the attack that ended with the capture of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and the overthrow of the Mengistu regime.
As the TPLF fighters moved in, they secured a temporary headquarters for him, at a guesthouse near the Hilton Hotel.
There Gen Tsadkan slept in a bed with sheets for the first time for 15 years. Under his command, the guerrillas rapidly restored order to the capital – they entered the city on 28 May, and pensions and civil servants’ salaries were paid three days later.
Raid on al-Qaeda base
For the next seven years, Gen Tsadkan led the reconstruction of the Ethiopian army. He was given the rank of general and the position of chief of staff.
During Gen Tsadkan’s 10 years as head of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, former TPLF commanders made up the core of the military, leading to criticism that the army was not ethnically balanced, as Tigrayans make up about 6% of the population.
Gen Tsadkan also returned to college, studying for an MBA by correspondence at the UK’s Open University.
Prof Graeme Salaman remembers his former student: “He is about as far from the stereotypical army officer as you could get – quiet, reflective, a listener, almost shy, open-minded – but of course there is steel inside.”
The civil war may have been over but the Horn of Africa was in tumult.
He dispatched troops to raid an al-Qaeda base in Somalia in 1996 and also sent forces clandestinely across the border into Sudan to support the opposition to President Omar al-Bashir.
Fired from the military
Gen Tsadkan’s warnings that the Eritrean leader Isaias Afewerki was a threat to Ethiopia went unheeded by his TPLF colleague, then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
But during the war with Eritrea which broke out in 1998, Gen Tsadkan was Ethiopia’s military planner.
It was an extremely bloody conventional conflict that cost some 80,000 lives on both sides. In June 2000, an Ethiopian offensive broke the Eritrean defences and troops poured over the border.
Gen Tsadkan was intent on advancing towards the Eritrean capital Asmara, but Prime Minister Meles called a halt, saying that Ethiopia’s war aims had been achieved and Eritrea was now humbled.