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Isaias Afwerki

There is some confusion about the name of the Eritrean independence leader and president of Eritrea from 1993. Some call him Isaias Afwerki [6,600 Googla hits], while others say Isaias Afewerki [4,100 Googla hits]. Some sources [eg, the UN] say President Afewerki, while others [eg, the US State Department] say President Isaias. Eritrean names are made up of three parts: the individual’s first name, his/her father’s first name and his/hergrandfather’s first name. There are no surnames in the European sense and people are therefore called by their firstnames also in formal settings. Eritreans in Europe frequently use their father’s name and grandfather’s name as a surname.

Isaias is an austere and narcissistic dictator whose political ballast derives from Maoist ideology fine-tuned during Eritrea's 30-year war for independence. He is paranoid and believes Ethiopian PM Meles tried to kill him and that the United States will attempt to assassinate him. He is not notably nepotistic and has not favored his ancestral village or immediate family. Asmara-based Arab ambassadors are impressed by Isaias' fluency in Arabic. There is some debate about where he learned it, but all agree he is a comfortable and capable Arabic speaker.

Isaias' immediate family is rarely featured in the state-run media and keeps a low profile. Although his portrait adorns many shops in Asmara, there is no cult of personality in Eritrea. Isaias often appears in the media clad casually in slacks, jacket, open-necked shirt, and sandals or loafers. He rarely travels in a motorcade. Isaias is a cagey, security-savvy fighter who eluded the Ethiopians for 30 years and has survived a number of assassination attempts since 1993.

Isaias Afwerki was born on February 2, 1946 in the Aba Shi'Aul district of Asmara, Eritrea. Isaias' father, Afwerki, came from the village of Tselot, which is perched on the lip of a 7,000' escarpment four miles southeast of Asmara. When Isaias was a boy his father Afwerki reportedly spent much of his time in Tigray, where he owned a coffee farm that was later nationalized by the Derg. With Afwerki largely absent, Isaias lived with his mother (rumored to have family roots in Tigray) in a working class neighborhood in eastern Asmara near the train depot and the Lutheran church. Isaias' mother made and sold a traditional beer called sewa. By some accounts, Isaias was nicknamed the Tigrinya equivalent of "Beer Pot," after the ceramic jug from which sewa is dispensed. Today he is a whisky drinker, but perhaps as a youth his nickname referred as much to his habits as to his mother's business.

His ancestral village has not received any special favor from Isaias. Like most Eritrean villages, it has electricity but no running water or sewer system. Gaunt cattle and untended donkeys roam the village. Their droppings are quickly gathered and formed into oval patties, which are then stuck on rock walls, dried, and used as fuel for cooking.

He was sent to the elite prince Makonnen secondary high school in Asmara, where he graduated in 1965. He is an adherent of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Isaias has (had) five brothers—Amare, Erimias, Amanuel, Ephrem, Paulos—and four sisters—Nardos, Tsigereda and Ariam).

Isaias attended Haile Selassie University before dropping out to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). During this period, he spent time in China studying politics and military training. Isaias was sent to China by the Eritrean Liberation Front for political commissar training in in 1966-67, where, according to the Chinese ambassador, "he learned all the wrong things." Isaias was turned off by the cult of personality surrounding Mao, but apparently internalized Maoist ideology.

The influence of Maoist China on Isaias should not be overdrawn, but it is there, perhaps most importantly as a philosophical lodestone for Eritrea's isolated and mercurial dictator. Despite China's evolution beyond Maoist politics and economics, Isaias remains fond of the PRC.

A young man of humble origins who through ruthless determination rose to the top of a revolutionary army and defeated a stronger foe, led his country against foreign domination, and launched a wrenching social revolution, Isaias probably sees many parallels between his life and Mao's. Isaias' closure of Eritrea's only university mirrors Mao's anti-intelligentsia campaigns of the mid-1960s. His nationalization of the economy and the wholesale conscription of Eritrean youth into a "national service" of military duty and forced labor resemble some aspects of Mao's early rule.

Isaias would later part ways with the ELF and co-found the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, one of three groups that split off to participate in the civil war before the conflict stalled in 1974. Isaias became the chairman of the EPLF military committee in 1975 and the vice secretary-general in 1977. When another Eritrean civil war began in 1979, Isaias and the EPLF opposed the ELF alongside the Tigray People's Liberation Front, eventually toppling the Derg regime in 1991 and gaining official Eritrean independence by referendum two years later.

Isaias, 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 Isaias, 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.

Isaias, 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. Isaias' popularity stemmed from his leading role in Eritrea's Davidic victory in the thirty-year struggle for independence. Immediately after liberation, Isaias seemed to be providing (like Mugabe) reasonably good governance to his traumatized nation.

The accelerating decline into dictatorship began in 1996 with an alleged assassination attempt against Isaias by Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi. While returning from a vacation in Kenya, Isaias, his family, and his inner entourage stopped in Addis, where Meles offered to fly them back to Asmara in one of his aircraft. Isaias accepted the offer; en route the aircraft caught fire, but managed to turn back and land safely in Addis. According to someone who was on the aircraft, an infuriatd Isaias accuse eles to his face of trying to kill him and his family. Isaias has not trusted Meles since.

This was followed by the bloody 1998-2000 Border War, and the "treason" of the inner-circle critics called the G-15. Severe persecution of any potential opposition increased. With half of Eritrea's population being born after liberation, Isaias' Struggle credentials are less important than before; youth today face a hopeless future of open-ended National Service at survival-level wages. Hope for a better future fueled Eritrean resistance for a whole generation; the country's reservoir of hope is now largely depleted.

At a January 2008 dinner he hosted for a codel and embassy officials, Isaias became involved in a heated discussion with his Amcit legal advisor about some tomato seedlings the legal advisor provided to Isaias' wife. Isaias complained that despite tender care by his wife, the plants produced only tiny tomatoes. When the legal advisor explained that they were cherry tomatoes and were supposed to be small, Isaias lost his temper and stormed out of the venue, much to the surprise of everyone, including his security detail.

A senior party official said Isaias and Djibouti President Guelleh had agreed during a 2008 telephone conversation to try to resolve at the presidential level issues related to the June border clash. According this senior Eritrean official, Isaias was livid when Guelleh supposedly shortly thereafter lambasted Eritrean aggression in a media interview. Isaias reportedly felt personally betrayed by President Guelleh, and has been obstinate about resolving the Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute ever since.

Isaias asked to be named the patron of the World Bank-funded Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP). When individuals involved with CARP published the book "Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City," it failed to include a note of thanks to CARP's patron. Isaias was miffed and shut down CARP.

Isaias has an aversion to talking on the telephone and frequently sleeps in different locations to foil a coup or assassination attempt. During the winter months he spends most of his time in Massawa rather than in Asmara. When dining in restaurants, Isaias will often switch plates with a subordinate, apparently to avoid being poisoned, according to the Qatari ambassador.

As President Isaias makes all decisions, even on a quotidian level, a discussion of politics and economics must focus on Isaias. By 2008 some opined that many of the decisions taken by Isaias recently were contrary to the regime's own self-interest, and wondered whether Isaias was somehow being misled by his inner circle or if he was mentally unbalanced. Isaias' manic behavior had become worse in the last year with his heavy drinking bouts, violent eruptions of temper, paranoia so severe he rarely talked on the telephone, and his total intolerance of disagreement or dissent.

President Isaias made a surprise appearance at the Chinese Embassy's October 2009 reception celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China. Isaias ate little during the meal but drank almost a whole bottle of high-proof Moutai, becoming visibly inebriated and sentimental as the evening drew on. He remarked repeatedly on his admiration of Chairman Mao and claimed that Mao laid the foundation for all of China's subsequent achievements. Other Chinese diplomats tell us Isaias dislikes Deng Xiaoping because Deng attempted to undermine Mao's legacy.

Isaias suffered a severe bout of cerebral malaria and was treated in Israel in the early 1990s. The Israeli ambassador sometimes joked that "we must have mis-prescribed the president's meds," after particularly egregious behavior. Isaias also currently suffers from debilitating lower back pain, but otherwise appears healthy.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is characterized by: An exaggerated sense of self-importance, fantasies of unlimited success or power, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, haughty or contemptuous behavior, a envy of others or belief that others are envious of him, belief that he is "special" and that normal rules don't apply to him, self-righteous indignation when others are believed to be breaking rules, and an intense reaction to criticism. Tyrannical leaders (Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, etc.) who helped found and/or preserve their nations often remain popular despite their seemingly irrational brutality.

Isaias, then aged 62, told a visiting German parliamentarian in late 2008 that he was healthy and expected to live another 40 or 50 years. He said he hoped to serve his country as long as he is able. In a May 2008 television interview, Isaias said Eritrea might hold elections "in three or four decades." Isaias, a physically active 62 year old, was 22 years younger than Mugabe.

The mantle of Eritrean nationalism could conceivably pass from the shoulders of Isaias Afwerki to the Eritrean Defense Force (at least temporarily), should the military or a faction of it suddenly find the need to step in to "save the revolution." Isaias realizes his ability to remain in power is tied to the loyalty of his military commanders. Isaias was able to buy the support of top generals by allowing them to engage in contraband trade with Sudan and Yemen.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2015 20:21:06 ZULU