A Portrait: Isaias Afwerki, The Man & The Dictator

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Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki
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Following a series of interviews with former colleagues, this is an attempt to profile one of Africa’s most reclusive and authoritarian leaders. Though he remarkably outlasted his peers, his unwillingness to change is now detrimental to his country and its neighbours.

Isaias Afwerki has never faced an election in the three decades he’s led his country. He tends not to mince words about why this is the case. Isaias cannot stand to take a mandate from the people as that will limit his powers. He believes his stewardship is necessary to safeguard the integrity of the young republic he believes he steered to independence. He doesn’t do it for fun or glory, as he explained in a rare personal interview in 1996. Isaias said he “dislikes” politics, but views it as a sacred “duty.” “Whenever justice is missing in a society, it always grates on you,” he said. 

This calling, he explained, has come at a tremendous personal sacrifice, forcing him to put aside his own personal, artistic and literary pursuits to lead his nation. “I do not like the life of a politician,” he continued, “I don’t even like to live like a president.” Given that’s the way he feels, it should come as no surprise that by all common understandings of what these roles entail, he doesn’t do politics, nor does he live like your regular president. At the age of 62, Isaias told a visiting German parliamentarian in late 2008 that he is healthy and expects to live another 40 or 50 years, during which he hopes to continue to lead his country. 

The mere suggestion that he needed a mandate from the Eritrean people took him by surprise when a journalist fielded a question about when polls might be held in the country. “What elections?” Afwerki brusquely responded combatively before launching a seemingly unrelated diatribe against the United States. “We will see what the elections in the United States will bring, and we will wait about three or four decades until we see genuine, natural situations emerge.” “Maybe more, maybe more, who knows,” he said with a chillingly straight face.

His style of engagement with the media – seesawing between reclusive aloofness & combative engagement – is refracted through his regime’s foreign policy. His country had a thorny baptism in regional geopolitics, directly warring with all its neighbours (and Yemen) and extending its influence as far as Congo, where Eritrean forces helped bring Laurent Kabila to power in 1997. His three-decade-old vendetta with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) put him among the architects of Ethiopia’s war with the organisation in Tigray. The US re-imposed sanctions on the country for its role in Ethiopia’s war, where Eritrean forces are accused of gross human rights abuses & war crimes, ending a brief four-year interlude where Eritrea was sanctions-free. 

Like his old friend Gaddafi, Isaias revels in the anti-American tough-guy brand he’s now cultivated, although he once supported the US war in Iraq, offering it a base. He more recently sealed his position among an isolated club of states including Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria when Eritrea voted against a UNGA resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This didn’t surprise observers of Eritrea as its foreign minister visited South Ossetia and Crimea after Russia occupied both territories.

But ultimately, Eritrea was never big enough for Isaias, and he was always too aloof to engage with bodies that might limit his influence. When he attended his first continental summit in 1993 with the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation for African Unity, he viewed the AU as a tool for American hegemony – calling the organisation an abject failure. Eritrea only joined “in the spirit of familial obligation”. He held East Africa’s regional body IGAD in similar contempt. He also worked with Gaddafi, an old ally, on an ambitious bid to form an alternative body to the African Union called the Community of Sahel-Saharan States in 1998 to no avail. 

Early Life & The Guerrilla Years 

Very few have been so resistant to change throughout their lives, despite the significant changes in their fortunes, as Isaias. He has always been notoriously brutal, hot-tempered, secretive and unwilling to indulge any opposition. He created and lived through history, betrayed and was betrayed, and made and broke lives with the same demeanour today as he had when he was an adolescent revolutionary, according to former colleagues of his we interviewed. “The jaded emotional view,” he said in his 1996 interview, was “fostered with time and loss of colleagues.” “You then ask yourself, am I not human?” he added.

American journalist Robert Kaplan first met Isaias in the mid-80s during the heady days of Eritrea’s independence war. Isaias’ moustache, clipped perfectly then as now, sat perched above a mouth, which when open in public delivers, Kaplan said, “a cold, authoritative style of speech”. In his book Surrender or Starve, Kaplan observed that Isaias had “affected a military disposition”, a rock-hard stubbornness and indifference about how he realises his goals. This trait would both serve and undermine him during his stormy political career. 

The second eldest in a family of eight, Isaias was born in Asmara under British rule in 1946. He was never one to accept second fiddle, and according to people who grew up with him, this trait was a crucial part of his character since childhood. He wanted to captain all his neighbourhood football teams, always insisting on sitting in the best seat available at home. He slapped an American high school physics teacher who gave him a bad grade. But it was in Eritrea’s independence movement where Isaias made his name. 

He first joined Eritrea’s independence movement with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Unlike most of his colleagues who joined the armed struggle after leaving their studies in good standing, he left Haile Selassie University after failing his freshman exams. This factor may somewhat explain Isaias’ inferiority complex towards his comrade (which he eventually eliminated) and why he attempted to wear the robe of an intellectual. Kaplan believed Isaias was the most “intellectually interesting politician in the history of postcolonial Africa”. Clinton similarly extolled him as a “renaissance African leader”. Though he presides annually over military graduations at Sawa, he has never attended a university graduation ceremony.

Michael Gabr, a member of an ELF cell with Isaias in Addis, feared Isaias would form his own power centre in the organisation. According to Haile Durue, Isaias and himself joined the ELF to split it and create their organisation. While Gabr wasn’t wrong about Isaias’s intent, he certainly under-estimated his ambition. Isaias could not accept being a member of the ELF leadership. He needed an organisation where he commanded absolute authority. After he returned from China, where the ELF sent him for military and ideological training during Mao’s now-infamous Cultural Revolution, Isaias’s return would be decisive for the future of the Eritrean liberation movement. US diplomatic notes said he “was turned off by the cult of personality surrounding Mao” but internalised the need to eliminate political opponents, leading him to the summit of Eritrea’s liberation movement.

The first challenge to his leadership after splitting from the ELF was in 1973. Some of his former colleagues and classmates called for democratic decision-making and more accountability from the leadership. The dissidents were labelled ‘Menkae‘, Tigrinya word for bat (meaning those who moved at night). The ring leaders were executed, and others imprisoned for years. This challenge led to forming a notorious and highly feared security apparatus, ‘Halewa Sowra’, another Tigrinya word for ‘guardians of the revolution’. This apparatus proved a crucial tool for Isaias to consolidate his grip over the EPLF and its successor, the people’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which existed only in name since 2001. The US ambassador to Eritrea quoted his Chinese counterpart, who said that Isaias “learned all the wrong things” during his stint in their country. All decisions were his; there was no space for alternative views.

Eritrea’s former central bank governor & diplomat, Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, who the president fired for refusing an order to transfer funds illicitly, said the “air vibrated with tension” during their meetings. “He got so furious and agitated that his neck veins seemed about to burst,” Giorgis wrote. His temperamental unwillingness to accept anything but his view was also displayed when he hosted a dinner for US embassy officials in 2008, where he became involved in a heated discussion about tomatoes. Isaias complained that despite his wife’s efforts, some tomatoes she was growing came out too small, to which a legal advisor responded that cherry tomatoes are meant to be small. Afwerki stormed out of the room, surprising even his security detail.

Development Policies

Some observers and UN officials applaud Isaias’s development and self-reliance policies. The Eritrean regime prides itself on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly in the health sector, such as reducing maternity child mortality, improving maternal health, and combating diseases like malaria and HIV. In Eritrea’s response to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Human Rights Council of 2014, the government stated that its key national priorities are creating and enhancing a conducive environment for its citizens to exercise their fundamental human rights in the ‘broadest definition of the term.’ But the EU indicates that the country is facing considerable challenges: ensuring food security, providing and updating essential social services, and combatting youth unemployment. Regarding health services in the country, it is worth noting that Eritrea is the only country in Africa that has denied its population Covid-19 vaccines without any explanation.

Eritreans we speak to inside Eritrea, and recent visitors to the country, paint a gloomy picture. There is an acute shortage of essential medicines. Despite the need for health services, the government closed 22 health clinics operated by the Eritrean Catholic Church in 2019 because of the Church’s criticism of the government. Poorly paid doctors are not allowed to use private clinics after government work hours, thus overloading the services in hospitals. Dr Futsum Ghebrenegus, Eritrea’s only psychiatrist in a traumatised country, has been in prison since 2004 for his religious views, and his whereabouts are still unknown.

Isaias prides himself on self-reliance, but the country doesn’t publicise its loans and development aid. It has never published a budget since independence. In Eritrea, everything is confidential, but lenders are transparent. Eritrea has borrowed 631 million US dollars from China from 2000-to 2018. World Bank data indicates that Eritrea received 4.36 billion US dollars in net official development assistance and official aid from 1992-to 2019. A US Bankruptcy Court ruled Eritrea pay $286m loans to Qatar National Bank (QNB). QNB can search anywhere the government may have assets and retrieve them to satisfy its debt. Though Eritrea has taken baby steps in the right direction on health, the drawbacks of the country’s governance structure have undermined further progress.

“In Isaias, time stopped”

Eritrea has fought both offensive and defensive wars with its neighbours and has harboured simmering grudges against them. It has been a victim of international intrigue and a perpetrator of elaborate plots. It has armed and faced down rebel groups. It has had its borders contested and has contested the boundaries of its neighbours. Nowhere have these dynamics played out more intensely than in Isaias’s turbulent relationship with his old friends in Eritrea’s parent state Ethiopia. 

Isaias and former Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi reportedly lived together in North Mogadishu, where both were provided Somali passports and given a radio frequency to broadcast in Tigrinya and Arabic. Their movements would eventually end President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s reign with the TPLF serving as the battering ram, triumphantly marching on Addis Ababa and installing a new regime. It was a remarkable achievement. “It is as though Soviet Communism had been overthrown not by Russians but by Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians had taken power in Moscow,” read one letter to the New Yorker.

Immediately after the independence of Eritrea, Isaias and Meles were on good terms. According to a senior Eritrean official, both worked together to influence Somalia by supporting warlord Farah Aideed after the fall of President Siad Barre. Meles, however, was always uneasy about his relationship with Isaias, who he tended to view as a ruthless and volatile figure. Isaias’ suspicions arose when he believed Zenawi attempted to kill him in a plane he arranged for Isaias, which caught fire but landed safely in 1996. Isaias rarely forgets and doesn’t tend to forgive betrayal, as with the case of former information minister Niazghi Kiflu, once a close ally who left the country for medical help to London and was denied burial in Eritrea after they fell out despite pleas for clemency. However, with Meles, the stakes were higher, and the hostility ran deeper. These dynamics took a deadly turn when a border dispute erupted into a full-scale war in 1998, confirming Isaias’ fears about his big neighbour.

When Isaias said the injustice “grates” him, he wasn’t kidding, but his predictable responses were violence and silence. For a good reason, he was furious when the UN awarded Eritrea control over Badme, a small town on their shared border, but Ethiopia refused to let it go, which put more bad blood between the leaderships of both countries. The unresolved border dispute gave Isaias justification to create a political vacuum domestically, put his country on a permanent war footing, and take part in a regional proxy conflict with Ethiopia. He wouldn’t accept the humiliation of defeat again and began biding his time before he could settle the score. 

Isaias’ sense of unfairness was further provoked when he was singled out with sanctions for playing spoiler for the groups across the region he supported (allegedly including Al-Shabab). TPLF-dominated Ethiopia, which did the same, got away scot-free. Ethiopia engaged the international community, whilst Eritrea said it did nothing wrong and retreated. “The regime virtually dared the UN Security Council by insisting on its blanket denial”, Giorgis, former president of the Bank of Eritrea and its EU ambassador afterwards, observed in his book. This insistence on denial when caught and silence when speech is required is a trademark of Isaias’s character and regime.

In 2012, PM Meles Zenawi, Isaias’ foe, died. The TPLF saw a fall from grace in Ethiopian politics, which continued until PM Abiy Ahmed took up the mantle and set himself the task of dismembering the TPLF and its networks in the Ethiopian state. The TPLF’s leadership generally held Ahmed’s new administration in contempt, with its head Debtresion Gebremichael calling the new PM “immature.”. Isaias saw an opportunity to break out of his isolation in Ethiopia’s shifting tides and warmly embraced the young prime minister with whom he concluded a peace deal, the details of which remain obscure, which won Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Isaias is a cunning manipulator and determined survivor and, by 2018, he emerged as the grand older man of East African politics. Zenawi had died, Ethiopian and Kenyan leaders came and went, Somalia imploded, and Sudan split with a coup toppling its long-time leader Omar Bashir. Isaias, however, remained, having changed little about his government. According to one analyst, regional leaders today seek his advice, likely impressed by his remarkable longevity despite his isolation.

Just as he taunted the ELF when he defeated them during the independence war, mere victory wouldn’t be enough against the TPLF. He had to rub it in. The day before Ahmed launched his campaign against the TPLF with Isaias’ support in November 2020, the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa put a cryptic post on its Facebook page, which ended ominously with: “Game Over!”

The differences between Isaias and the TPLF weren’t only personal. Isaias profoundly disagreed with the way Meles re-organised the Ethiopian state. Isaias always thought ethnic and religious sectarianism was a blight, and his party rejected this doctrine much earlier. For him, it is more difficult to influence or manipulate a federal state than a centralised one. He never talks about his Tigrayan ethnic background nor makes it a vehicle for his brand of politics. However, its institutionalisation in Ethiopia threatened Eritrea’s own more centralised and controlled regime.

As he broaches that threat and Eritrean troops occupy parts of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, it is difficult not to reflect on the last time Isaias found himself in a similar role as Ethiopia’s kingmaker almost three decades ago as a young rebel. He worked to undermine one rebel group and form another. That rebel group overthrew one of Africa’s most able governments and separated itself from it, creating a new state and a new society. Whilst many struggle to break with their pasts imprisoned by the circumstances they inherit, Isaias has always been a leader who played high stakes and needed to look forward. His great vice, in many ways, wasn’t that he was chained to his past; he chained himself to it and dragged it into his present like a wrecking ball. 

Faisal Ali (@fromadic92) is a multi-media journalist based in Istanbul. He writes about East African culture and politics.

Mohamed Kheir Omer (@mkheirom) is an African-Norwegian, researcher and writer based in Oslo, Norway. He is a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).

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