Iasias Afwerki

Leader of Eretria’s Revolution
Illustration by: Ali Almandalawi
Illustraion by: Ali Almandalawi

 

Iasias Afwerki was born in 1946 in Asmara, which was, at the time, under British administration. In 1962 it was annexed by Ethiopia.

Afwerki studied engineering in Ethiopia at the University of Addis Ababa, but he left the university in 1966 to join the ELF. Mr Isaias was among the first group of fighters to travel to China in 1967 for military and ideological training. On his return he, along with others, agitated for change within the ELF but then went on to form a new party, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. During Ethiopia’s own revolution in 1974, Isaias led the highland-dominated Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). In 1987 he was elected secretary-general of the EPLF. After years of military struggle, the EPLF defeated Ethiopian troops in May 1991. A provisional government was put in place with Isaias at the head, and a referendum on Eritrean independence from Ethiopia was planned for the future.

After a decades-long David-and-Goliath struggle, Eretria held the referendum in 1993 and Eritreans voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. The next month Isaias was elected president of Eritrea by the National Assembly as well as chairman of the aforementioned body, giving him control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. On May 24 he officially proclaimed Eritrea’s independence. Mr Isaias remains the only president the country has known.

In the early years he was hailed as a new type of African president. Then-US President Bill Clinton referred to him as a "renaissance African leader". In the years that followed, Isaias gradually consolidated his power over virtually every aspect of Eritrean life, serving additionally as commander in chief of the army and as chairman of the country’s sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), as the EPLF renamed itself in 1994. He cancelled the 1997 presidential elections despite having blasted fellow heads of state for staying in power for too long at an Organisation of African Unity summit in Cairo in 1993.

 Eritrea is still being ruled without a constitution. After a three-year-long drafting process, the country's constitution was ratified in 1997, but it has not been implemented to this day. The president, in his Independence Day address of 2014, promised that the country would draft another constitution. But four years on, this has still not happened.

Political and media watchers report that private media is almost non-existent and foreign journalists are usually refused access – except recently when a number of them gained formal entry. 

Isaias oversaw an unexpected transformation of the country’s contentious relations with Ethiopia in 2018. Outreach by Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in June regarding ending the long-standing border war between the countries led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, including reciprocal visits by Isaias and Abiy in July. Diplomatic and commercial ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reestablished, and on July 9 the two leaders issued a joint statement declaring that the state of war between their countries was over. Given that Isaias had long used the conflict with Ethiopia as an excuse for the repressive conditions in his country, many wondered how the recent changes would affect the lives of Eritreans.


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