Isaias Afwerki

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Isaias Afwerki
ኢሳይያስ ኣፍወርቂ
Afwerki in 2023
President of Eritrea
Assumed office
24 May 1993
Preceded byPosition established
President of the National Assembly
Assumed office
24 May 1993
Preceded byPosition established
Chairman of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice
Assumed office
16 February 1994
Preceded byPosition established
Secretary-General of the Provisional Government of Eritrea
In office
27 April 1991 – 24 May 1993
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front
In office
12 January 1987 – 16 February 1994
Preceded byRomodan Mohammed Nur
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Personal details
Born (1946-02-02) 2 February 1946 (age 77)
Asmara, British Military Administration in Eritrea
(now Eritrea)
Political partyPeople's Front for Democracy and Justice
SpouseSaba Haile
  • Abraham
  • Elsa
  • Berhane
Military service
Allegiance Eritrea
Battles/warsEritrean War of Independence
Eritrean Civil Wars

Isaias Afwerki (Tigrinya: ኢሳይያስ ኣፍወርቂ, pronounced [isajas afwɐrkʼi] ; born 2 February 1946)[1] is an Eritrean politician and partisan who has been the president of Eritrea since shortly after he led the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory in 24 May 1991, ending the 30-year-old war for independence from Ethiopia.[2]

In addition to being president, Isaias has been the chairman of Eritrea's sole legal political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). As Eritrea has never had a functioning constitution, no elections, no legislature and no published budget, Isaias has been the sole power in the country, controlling its judiciary and military.[3] Hence, scholars and historians have long considered him to be a dictator,[4][5][6][7] described his regime as totalitarian, by way of forced conscription; the United Nations and Amnesty International cited him for human rights violations.[8][9] In 2022, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea, under the government of Afewerki, last out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index. In 2023 Eritrea ranked 174th out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index.[10]

Early life and education[edit]

Isaias Afwerki was born in the Aba Shi'Aul district of Asmara, Eritrea.[11][12]

Isaias attended Prince Makonnen High School (PMSS). In the early 1960s, he joined the nationalist Eritrean student movement.[13] 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.[13]

In September 1966, Isaias left university and traveled 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 transport and provided training to ELF combatants. Isaias was among the first group that went to China in 1967 to receive military training. Upon his return, he was appointed as a political commissioner of the ELF's Zone 5 in the Hamasien region.[14]

Isaias played a key role in the grassroots movement which brought about the demise of the zonal divisions of the ELF. Further, he played a vital role in the Tripartite Union, which challenged the ELF's 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 northeast of the Akele Guzay near Dekemhare. Here, they joined Abraham Tewolde, the former commander of the defunct Zone 5. After Tewolde died in battle Isaias became[when?] the leader.[citation needed]


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

In August 1971, a group of junior ELF members held a meeting at Tekli (northern Red Sea) and founded Selfi Natsinet, known as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The group elected five leaders, including Isaias. In October 1971, the group formed a committee to draft and issue a highly polemical document, Nihnan Elamanan (“We and Our Goals”), in which they explained the rationale for their decision to create a separate political organization instead of working within the ELF.[14]

In 1977, EPLF held its first congress, at which Isaias 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. In May 1991, with the end of the Ethiopian Civil War he became secretary-general of the Provisional Government of Eritrea.[citation needed]

Post-independence, 1993–present[edit]

In April 1993, a United Nations-supervised referendum on independence was held, and the following month Eritrea achieved de jure independence. Isaias was elected as the president of the State of Eritrea by the National Assembly and declared the first head of state, a position he has held ever since the end of the war for independence.[15]

In February 1994, the EPLF held its third congress, renamed itself the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) as part of its transition to a political party and Isaias was elected secretary-general by an overwhelming majority of votes.[citation needed] In his first few years Isaias was hailed as a new type of African president with then-US President Bill Clinton referring to him as a "renaissance African leader". However, in 1997, a new constitution was drawn up, but never enacted, and elections were cancelled. [15] In 2000, 15 ministers including his vice president wrote an open letter asking him to step down.[16]: 8:56  On September 18, 2001, he closed the national press and prominent opposition leaders were arrested.[17]

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

As of 2009, he advocated for the development of indigenous political and economic institutions, and a strategy that suited Eritrea's internal conditions and available resources.[18] The key elements were to include ambitious infrastructure development campaigns both in terms of power, transport, and telecommunications, as well as with basic healthcare and educational facilities.[19] In 2010, when asked when elections would be held, he responded, "Let's wait 3 or 4 decades".[16]: 10:41  In 2018, Isaias oversaw an unexpected transformation of Eritrea's relations with Ethiopia. In June 2018, Ethiopia's newly elected prime minister Abiy Ahmed negotiated an end to the border war between the countries, diplomatic and commercial ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea were re-established, and on 9 July 2018, the two leaders signed a peace declaration that ended the war between their countries,[17] and enunciated a framework of bilateral cooperation. This was widely acknowledged by numerous world leaders, with the UAE Government awarding Isaias the Order of Zayed (First Class) in recognition of his efforts to end the conflict.[20] After July 2018, the Ethiopian and Eritrean intelligence agencies started a close cooperation. This worried Eritrean refugees in Addis Ababa, some of whom were temporarily detained for three weeks during the Tigray War (2020-2022), acquitted by Ethiopian courts, and only released two weeks after their acquittal.[21]


Voice of America's Peter Clottey interviews Isaias in New York, 2011

The Tigray War began on 3 November 2020 after the Tigray People's Liberation Front, the former ruling party in Ethiopia, attacked the Northern Command center camps of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Tigray and pushed them to Eritrea. The Eritrean Defence Forces joined hands with the ENDF and allegedly with the help of UAE armed drones counter-attacked the TPLF forces. There was alleged looting in Tigray Region, including systematic, wide-scale looting in Aksum following the Aksum massacre in late November 2020.[22][23] After several weeks of Ethiopian government denial of the presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Prime Minister admitted to the presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia and agreed to withdraw them. Under international pressure, on 26 March 2021, after a meeting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Isaias, it was announced that Eritrean troops would withdraw from the Tigray Region.[24][25]

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed with Eritrean president Isaias Isaias in March 2019

Along with Belarus, Syria, and North Korea, Eritrea was one of only four countries not including Russia to vote against a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.[26] In July 2023, Afwerki attended the Russia–Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the meeting with Putin, Afwerki openly denied the existence of a war between Russia and Ukraine.[27]

Personal life[edit]

In the summer of 1981, Isaias met his wife, former EPLF fighter Saba Haile, in a village called Nakfa. As of 2010 they had three children: Abraham, Elsa, and Berhane.[28][29][30]

Shortly before Eritrea declared independence, Isaias contracted cerebral malaria and was flown to Israel for treatment.[31] Arriving in a coma, he was treated at Sheba Medical Center, where he recovered after successful treatment.[32] As of 2019, he was a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of the four legal churches in Eritrea.[28][33]

His nickname "Isu" was frequently used in conversation, and to refer to Isaias in his political capacity, and has appeared in news articles as well.[34][35]


As of 2013, Amnesty International reported that the government of Isaias imprisoned at least 10,000 political prisoners. Amnesty also claimed that torture—for punishment, interrogation and coercion—is widespread.[9]

Isaias Afwerki with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on 31 May 2023

In June 2015, a United Nations panel accused Isaias of leading a totalitarian government responsible for systematic human rights violations in Eritrea that may amount to crimes against humanity.[8]

In 2018, Isaias' former comrade, Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, said that Isaias went on to personalise power, and "having personalised power, he abused it to the maximum". Notwithstanding, during the African Unity summit in Cairo in 1993, Isaias had criticized other leaders for staying in power for too long, and he had also rejected a cult of personality.[15]

As of 2022, the government of Eritrea denied Amnesty International's allegations and in turn accused Amnesty International of supporting a political agenda of "regime change".[36]

Foreign honours[edit]


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  8. ^ a b Cumming-Bruce, Nick (8 June 2015). "Torture and Other Rights Abuses Are Widespread in Eritrea, U.N. Panel Says". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 July 2020. Retrieved 30 March 2019. has imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population that may amount to crimes against humanity
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  19. ^ "TimesInterview with Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 7 December 2018.
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  38. ^ "Decrees on decorations signed by the President of the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic". Archived from the original on 25 May 2019. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
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External links[edit]

Political offices
New office President of Eritrea