Isaias Afwerki

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Isaias Afwerki
Isaias Afwerki in 2002.jpg
1st President of Eritrea
Assumed office
24 May 1993
Acting: 27 April 1991 – 24 May 1993
Preceded byPosition established
President of the National Assembly
Assumed office
24 May 1993
Preceded byPosition established
Leader of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice
Assumed office
15 June 1994
Preceded byPosition established
Leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front
In office
4 October 1978 – 15 June 1994
Preceded byRomodan Mohammed Nur
Succeeded bySebhat Ephrem
Personal details
Born (1946-02-02) 2 February 1946 (age 72)
Asmara, British Military Administration (Eritrea)
Political partyPeople's Front for Democracy and Justice
Spouse(s)Saba Haile
Children3 (Abraham, Berhane, Elsa)
Alma materAddis Ababa University

Isaias Afwerki (also spelled "Afewerki"[1], Tigrinya: ኢሳያስ ኣፍወርቂ ኣብርሃ ሃይሉ ሓጎስ ምራጭ [isajas afwɐrkʼi Abraha Hailu Hagos Mirach]; born 2 February 1946) is the first President of Eritrea, a position he has held since its independence in 1993. He led the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory in May 1991, thus ending the 30-year-old Eritrean War of Independence. Isaias is the leader of the country's sole legal political party, People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). He has been cited for human's rights violations by the United Nations and Amnesty International. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea under the government of President Isaias Afewerki last in its press-freedom index for the eighth year running.

Personal life and education[edit]

Isaias Afwerki was born on 2 February 1946 in the Aba Shi'Aul district of Asmara, Eritrea.[2][3]

Isaias was educated at the Prince Makonnen High School (PMSS). In the early 1960s, he joined the nationalist Eritrean student movement.[4] In 1965, he began his studies at the College of Engineering at Haile Selassie I University (now called Addis Ababa University) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.[4]

Isaias Afwerki met his wife, Saba Haile, during the struggle to liberate Eritrea. Like him, she was a freedom fighter and the two of them met in a village called Nakfa in the summer of 1981. Together they have three children: Abraham, Elsa and Berhane.[5] Numerous anecdotal stories imply that the lifestyle of the President of Eritrea is extremely humble. This was referred to by the former U.S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate who makes references to that in her biography.[6] Many of the President’s associates describe him as an intelligent, and fiercely guarded man with a no-nonsense attitude. One of the President’s foreign critics described him as an imposingly tall, intelligent and naturally austere individual.[7] Despite the external criticism, the President is greatly revered in Eritrea. People who meet him describe him as a helpful and supportive leader with a good sense of humor.[8] As opposed to many African revolutionary leaders, the President has openly criticized the practice of personality cult of leaders and during the African Unity summit in Cairo in 1993, when he openly criticized fellow heads of state on this issue.[8]

Eritrean independence movement[edit]

In September 1966, Isaias left the university he was studying at and travelled to Kassala, Sudan, via Asmara to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). In 1967, the Chinese government donated light weapons and a small amount of cash to cover the cost of transportation and provided training to ELF combatants. Isaias was among the first group that went to China in 1967. There, he received intensive military training. Upon his return, he was appointed as a political commissioner of the ELFs Zone 5 in the Hamasen region.[9]

Isaias played a key role in the grassroots movement which rapidly gathered momentum and brought about the demise of the zonal divisions of the liberation army. Further he played a vital role in the Tripartite Union, which challenged the ELFs leadership, the Supreme Council (Cairo) and the Revolutionary Command (Kassala). Soon after the commencement of sectarian violence in the early 1970s against members of the reform movement, those who were in the central highlands, including Isaias, withdrew to an isolated locality, Ala in northeastern AkkeleGuzay near Dekemhare. Here, they joined Abraham Tewolde, the former commander of the defunct Zone 5. Isaias became the leader after Abraham Tewolde died from natural causes.

In the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF)[edit]

In August 1971, a group of younger ELF members held a meeting at Tekli (northern Red Sea) and founded the Solti Natsinet, what was commonly known as the Peoples Liberation Force (PLF). The group elected five leaders, including Isaias Afwerki. Less than two months later, in October 1971, the group formed a committee to draft and issue a highly polemical document, “NhnanElamanan” (“We and Our Goals”), in which they explained in detail the rationales for their decision to create a separate political organization instead of working within the ELF.[9]

In 1977, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) held its first congress, at which Isaias Afwerki was elected vice-secretary general. During the second congress of the EPLF in 1987, he was elevated to the status of secretary-general of the organization and in May 1991 became secretary-general of the Provisional Government of Eritrea. In April 1993, after the national referendum, he was elected as the President of the State of Eritrea by the National Assembly. In February 1994, the EPLF held its third congress, and Isaias was elected secretary-general of the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) by an overwhelming majority of votes.


President Isaias Afwerki with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2002

In April 1993, a United Nations-supervised referendum on independence was held, and the following month Eritrea achieved de jure independence. Isaias was declared the first head of state, a position he has held ever since the end of the war for independence.[10]

During the first few years of Isaias' administration, the institutions of governance were structured and put in place. This included the provision of an elected local judicial system, as well as an expansion of the educational system into as many regions as possible.[citation needed] The EPLF renamed itself the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in February 1994 as part of its transition to a political party.[citation needed] He was hailed as a new type of African President. Then-US President Bill Clinton referred to him as a "renaissance African leader".[10]

In this sense Isaias strongly advocates the necessity for the development of indigenous political and economic institutions, while maintaining that Eritrea must pursue a development strategy which suits its internal conditions and available resources.[11] The key element of such a policy includes ambitious infrastructure development campaigns both in terms of power, transport and telecommunications, as well as with basic healthcare and educational facilities.[12]

Isaias oversaw an unexpected transformation of the country’s relations with Ethiopia in 2018. Engagement by Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in June 2018 to end the long-standing border war between the countries led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, including reciprocal visits by Isaias and Abiy in July 2018. Diplomatic and commercial ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea were re-established, and on July 9th the two leaders signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship that ended the state of war between their countries,[13] and enunciated a framework of bilateral cooperation in the political, cultural, economic and security fields. This was widely acknowledged by numerous world leaders with the UAE Government awarding Isaias Afwerki the Order of Zayed (First Class) in recognition of his efforts to end the conflict.[14]


In June 2015 a United Nations panel accused the Government of Eritrea for systematic human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.[15] Amnesty International believes that the government of President Isaias Afwerki has imprisoned at least 10,000 political prisoners. Amnesty also claims that torture—for punishment, interrogation and coercion—is widespread.[16]

The Government refutes the allegations and in turn accuses Amnesty International for supporting political agendas of “regime change”.


Regardless of the varying opinions of post-independence political performance, Isaias Afwerki is likely to go down in Eritrean history as the best social engineer and organizer, who built from a war-torn country, a formidable, disciplined, united, and devoted army--one that was versatile with guerrilla and conventional warfare, that inflicted a defeat on one of sub-Saharan Africa’s strongest army in a multi- faith and multi-ethnic polity.[9] Isaias is also acknowledged as being an important leader of the 30-year war of national liberation which helped to forge a strong Eritrean national identity. This identity helped buttress a potent Eritrean nationalism which became the driving force of the Eritrean struggle and the vigor of its internal strength provided the resilience and tenacity and at critical moments of extraordinary difficulty. The strength and resilience of united Eritrean nation successfully challenged the myth of Ethiopian historical regional hegemony, the might of Ethiopia’s military machine and its benefactors, the active hostility of the superpowers and their allies, the acquiescence of the UN and the OAU, and the machinations of regional states.[17] Furthermore, it laid a firm foundation for continued nation building which is being conducted to the noble principles of unity and of diversity, both ethnic, religious and linguistic.[18] In addition, Isaias remains the leader who strongly supported rapprochement with Ethiopia in a move hailed as extremely positive for ensuring the wider stability of the Horn of Africa.[19]


  1. ^ "President: Isaias Afewerki". BBC News. The BBC. 1 May 2014. US diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks in December 2010 offer an unflattering view of Mr Afewerki's rule: Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant." Is the country "on the brink of disaster?" asked the American ambassador Ronald McMullen. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  2. ^ "Isaias Afwerki". Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  3. ^ Historical Dictionary of Eritrea (2nd ed.). Scarecrow Press. 14 October 2010. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-810-87505-0.
  4. ^ a b Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong; Steven J. Niven (2 February 2012). Dictionary of African Biography. OUP, US. pp. 160–161. ISBN 978-0-19-538207-5.
  5. ^ "Biography of Isaias Afwerki". Madote. 2010.
  6. ^ Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003), Oxford Dictionary of African Biography. Simon & Schuster, ISBN-10: 0743222253.
  7. ^ Michela Wrong (2005), I Didn't Do it for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. Fourth Estate, ISBN: 9780007150960.
  8. ^ a b "Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki 'both charismatic and brutal'". BBC News. July 13, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Akyeampong, Emmanuel Kwaku (2012). Dictionary of African Biography. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 9780195382075.
  10. ^ a b "Letter from Africa: Emptying Eritrea". BBC. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  11. ^ "FACTBOX - Key quotes from Eritrean president". Reuters. October 21, 2009.
  12. ^ "TimesInterview with Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki". Financial Times. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  13. ^ "Isaias Afwerki". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  14. ^ "UAE President awards Order of Zayed to Eritrean President, Ethiopian Prime Minister". Emirates News Agency. 24-07-2018. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. ^ "Torture and Other Rights Abuses Are Widespread in Eritrea, U.N. Panel Says". New York Times. New York Times. 2015-06-08. Retrieved 2015-12-06. has imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population that may amount to crimes against humanity"
  16. ^ "Eritrea: Rampant repression 20 years after independence", Amnesty International, London, 9 May 2013. Retrieved on 23 January 2015.
  17. ^ Giorgis, Andebrhan Welde. "Nation Building, State Construction and Development in Africa: The Case of Eritrea" (PDF). Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
  18. ^ Constitution of Eritrea. 23 May 1997,, Retrieved 28 July 2018.
  19. ^ Nyabola, Nanjala (July 14,2018). "Why the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace is good for African politics". Al Jazeera. Check date values in: |date= (help)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
New office President of Eritrea