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.