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.