New Internationalist

Isaias Afwerki

March 2004

Who is Isaias Afwerki? No-one really knows. Even those who fought alongside him for three decades are baffled by his unpredictable behaviour.

The facts are easy to state. Afwerki was born in 1945 into a large family in what is now known as Eritrea. After a couple of years of university education he dropped out to join an armed struggle with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which was seeking independence from Ethiopia.

It was not long before he and a few other fighters founded a splinter group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The EPLF was known internationally as progressive and had the support of the majority of the Eritrean population. Within a decade Afwerki was named Deputy Secretary General and made responsible for guiding most aspects of the Front’s mission.

In 1991 the three-decade-long armed struggle with Ethiopia came to an end when the EPLF entered the capital, Asmara, and claimed victory. Afwerki, who had put aside his former Marxist ideology for moderate pragmatism, became head of a provisional government and in 1993 was named President. Much of the credit for the military and political victory was given to Afwerki, although it was the umbrella structure of the EPLF that deserved the full credit. Still, Eritreans loved him for delivering a dream many had doubted would be achieved in their lifetimes.

It was not too long before it began to dawn on the country that all was not well with their leader. In November 1993 the President ordered the imprisonment of war-injured veterans for protesting about difficult living conditions in military barracks. The only independent human rights organization was shut down. In 1997 the President unilaterally ordered the closure of all international development agencies working in the country. Less than half-a-dozen local non-governmental organizations remained registered and operational. Nonetheless, when former President Bill Clinton made a trip to Africa in 1998 he called Afwerki one of the most promising of the ‘new generation’ of African leaders.

That same year an unexpected border conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia suddenly spiralled into a crisis. With little regard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people, Afwerki turned down several offers of a peaceful settlement and plunged the country into war. Outnumbered and outspent, Eritrea suffered an enormous loss of economic resources and human lives. By the end of the conflict a couple of years later Eritrea’s economy was crippled and nearly a third of the population was dependent on food aid. The President, who had defiantly boasted about Eritrea’s self-reliant stance, was quick to negotiate deals for famine relief with the international community.

It was not until September 2001 that Eritreans finally woke up to the true nature of their leader. Taking advantage of the world’s diverted attention after 11 September, Afwerki ordered the arrest of 11 of the highest-ranking members of his administration – many of them his closest friends and colleagues who had fought alongside him for nearly four decades. They were arrested for ‘suspected treason’, punishable by death. It was evident to many that their real ‘crime’ was to call repeatedly for democratic reform and accountability. On the same day all private newspapers were shut down and 18 independent journalists were imprisoned for ‘threatening national security’.

To add insult to injury, the President decided that the Eritrean people were ‘not ready’ for multiparty democracy and the constitution would have to be shelved indefinitely; there would be no elections in the foreseeable future.

Afwerki, who once took pride in being a humble comrade among his people, has shed his casual attire for fancy suits and is developing a taste for autocracy. Eritreans must now endure life under the same fear and terror they fought to bring to an end in 1991. Prisons are full of journalists, university professors and former political officers. Young people are sent to rural areas for several years to do their ‘national service’, which is aimed at keeping them from protesting against the Government. Renewed conflict with Ethiopia looms over a boundary-commission decision to locate the village of Badme in Eritrea.

Eritreans value their nationhood and don’t like to air their ‘dirty laundry’ in public. Protecting the nation from a dictator was not something they figured on having to do when they were planning to build a new nation. Many Eritreans were optimistic that their new country would be a model of democratic, egalitarian rule. Such dreams have had to be deferred, as people fight long and hard for democracy and to attain ‘liberation’ in the full sense of the word. Some lessons have had to be learned the hard way.

Nunu Kidane is a co-ordinator with Priority Africa Network (PAN) in the Bay Area, California. PAN is a coalition of 26 organizations that promote and conduct education and mobilization on African issues.

Isaias Afwerki Fact File
Isaias Afwerki
President of Eritrea
National Liberator, Humble Comrade, Promising Pragmatist, Part of the ‘New Generation’ of African Leaders
Sense of humour
A couple of years after the end of the war, demobilized women fighters complained to the President about the rising rate of divorce in the military – former male fighters preferring well-dressed ‘city girls’. To their amazement, Afwerki’s response was: ‘Perhaps you should wear dresses and apply lipstick more often.’
Low cunning
In response to concern at the incarceration of top-ranking political officials, President Afwerki stated: ‘According to internal judicial process, they should have been put to death immediately.’ However, given that they are old comrades, he opted to spare their lives and keep them detained indefinitely – a more ‘humane’ option.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 365 This column was published in the March 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Dnniel the II 21 Dec 10

    Isaias Afwerki

    Isaias Afewerki is an individual who suffers from identity cricis and mental issues. Naturally, he is an austere and narcissistic person. He always put his idea first. He always dreamed and hoped to lead the country as long as he is alive.After he shelved the 1997 ratified National constitution, he never thought to hold fair and democratic election in the country.He always accused somebody else to cover his own mistakes.He always appears in the media clad casually in slacks, jacket, open-necked shirt, and sandals or loafers.And this is purposely done to confuse the people as if he is a hard working person.

  2. #2 titi 24 Dec 10


    he is crazy

  3. #3 me 16 Feb 11

    The only best leader in africa,I am Ethiopian Girl but I can see what is going on my beloved homeland when I am comparing with other countries like eritrea and onather poor countries i shy of my leaders,though many people are insulting him, he improove the country day after day,so pls beg our leaders atleast to have half of them,instead of having ring road in addis we need agricuture for feeding our poor people.

  4. #4 Robel 01 Mar 11

    Shame full Tigrian decent

    He is the one of the few leaders who suffers in identity and ignorance ,he always thinks he is different leader he is Totalitarian leader ,he is just confused person he doesn't even know why Eritreans struggled for 30 years ,he is just a grumbler of Eritrean youth lives,he spent most of his time dancing in Asmara night clubs like SHAMROCK in spite of reforming the countries political situation .We cant say he is a leader of population he is just a leader of Mafia group ,how can we put him as a leader he takes drugs like marijuana he participates in terrorism he is just wed MEDHIN BERAD who spent his time drinking Alcoholic beverages

  5. #5 yebio kifle 31 Mar 11

    shame for u

    he is the only one who will bring what the eritrean people that is the reality every bady know it even u

  6. #6 balam 18 Jul 11

    this article needs editing. Starting with egotiating deals for famine relief with the international community, didnt go very well because the IMF said, ’we will help on the conditions that you do this changes, changes meaning making the market open for international investors to come in and use cheap labour for multinational companies benefits.’ democratic changes, the nation is NOT ready for democracy, it has nine tribes, two big religions...what party would you vote for...the tribe/religion that belongs to you. Singapore still dont have democracy because it dont believe that the system will suite them.
    About the ordering the arrest of 11 of the highest-ranking members of his administration. the members was voted down in parliament, out of 75 members only 15 voted for democratic reforms even so they decided to go out to the media and create further instability after the WAR. The eritrean people aint yes saying people, if they truly believed in democracy then they would them selfs rise up and remove the president. One could accuse him for not taking them to court. But to say his developed a taste for fancy suits and autocracy is a lie.
    Young people are sent to rural areas for several years to do their ‘national service’, which is aimed at keeping them from protesting against the Government. the aim is to build the nation, which they are succeeding with very well. the infrastructure, hospitals and schools (free of charge for the people) and logistics is getting built, further more it is the fastest growing economy for 2011. their liberty is limited its true but what good is freedom if you cant bread. most african countries are trapped in a vicious circle while eritrea is on the right track. provided the UN does whats right and protect this nation from bulky traps (sanction) and WAR it will be the first (after south africa) developed nation in africa. many eritreans are still very optimistic.

  7. #7 Kibreab Habtemariam 08 Sep 11

    President Isaias is hated by the western countries in general for loving his nation and people. The big powers felt that he should place their interest first and his people's last just like all African leaders especially like the Ethiopian leaders. Unfortunately, he is being roughed up by the west and their puppets in the horn of Africa. We, Eritreans, love him and pray that the world sees his quality beyond their interest. All the accusations labeled against him are untrue. Ethiopia is still occupying Eritrean territories and the west is not saying a thing about it, instead they are trying to manufacture non existing problems as if they really matter in terms of regional stability. God bless this man of Eritrea.

  8. #8 Merih 03 Oct 11

    What His Excellency President Isaias Afwerki has done with his life is admirable. Eritrea is blessed to have leaders that function at high levels. However, President Isaias epitomizes the best of them. He is selfless, focused, brilliant and a true Eritrean who made Eritrea, his life’s work. He lived Eritrea. Eritrea is his mission, his way of life and life. He gave his life for Eritrea. That commitment is the reason why he was able to oversee Eritrea transform through critical stages that propelled Eritrea into the world stage that we are witnessing today. He saw the beginning and lived the transformation. He experienced all the ups and downs of the Eritrean revolution from atop. He lived through the hardships to see the independence of Eritrea by defeating enemies. He oversaw the unthinkable; the yanking of the Derg regime; facilitated a regime change and produced the signature that engraved Eritrea

  9. #9 max 13 Dec 11

    please dnt believer this article half of it is like a propoganda war against eritrea because eritrea is like anti-west country and development is taking slowly but with a bright future

  10. #10 ephrem 13 Jan 12

    This guy
    is amazing, and loves he's own country. But he need to come down the way he treat he's own people. And be have change he's rules. But still we love hem. God bless you! Isaias. Awet nhafash!

  11. #11 Conflicted 07 Apr 13

    This is sad. I never fails that Eritreans raised in Ethiopia talk about what's good for Eritrea. They use the same language as western liberals with an arrogant sense of moral superiority. These are the same people who shed their Eritrean identity while living in Ethiopia.

    Additionally, this writer, who I just found was being celebrated by the White House seem too brainwashed and arrogant that some people may consider a one party rule the best option in the short-term. One could make the case that when you need to educate a largely illiterate population, build basic infrastructures, establish basic healthcare, and devoping more effective agriculture practices. One party rule leads to more efficient and focused political decisions because it avoids political gridlock and false promises to get elected. China us a case in point. Although political liberalization has been slow by the west's standards, 400 to 500 million people have been taken out of poverty.

    All the progress Eritrea was making from 1991-1997 was halted by two factors, the border war and the US's deliberate interference. The former can be justified because you have to defend your homeland from foreign invaders. The latter can only be supported by the US, the same government celebrating this writer, and Ethiopia, the country that tried to take land within Eritrea's border - as decided by the Border Commission.

    My advice to this writer? Stick to social issues in Ethiopia and the US. It's obviously clear that your misunderstanding about the social and political situation in Eritrea is from books and 2nd hand sources. It lacks thoughtfulness, understanding of the nuances, simplistic, arrogance, and ignorant.

  12. #13 Toa 24 Jul 13

    The blackness of darkness forever into eternity awaits this Marxist pig, enemy of God and all mankind, to meet Hitler, Marx, Stalin, Darwin and Mao.

  13. #14 Amine Emhatsion 08 Apr 14

    Death to facist imperialist USA weane pirats eseyas afewrki is the one and only true democratic leader weane group is an American puppet very soon facist USA and weane will fall mark my words I love eritrean Ethiopian people but puppet weano I hate them long live the peace loving eritrean and Ethiopian people death to USA and weane shifts puppet group .

  14. #16 mesfin kidane 21 Feb 15





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