Article written

Take me to your leader: Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki 0

Despite all that’s been written and spoken about extreme repression and economic blight in Eritrea, surprisingly little has been publicized about its inscrutable leader, Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country with an iron fist since independence in 1991. Based on common knowledge among Eritreans in the country and other information collected over the years from frequent contacts, Abraham T. Zere attempted to profile him.

Having closed all independent media and banned international correspondents, President Afwerki rebuilt the national media to exclusively serve his own interests and ambitions. In regular interviews with the state media, he approves all questions beforehand. In the midst of interviews, he often takes over, addressing a single question with lectures that ramble on for 30 minutes or more. The journalists’ only role is to help him transition between topics and occasionally nod in approval or agreement. Once during a pre-recorded interview, one of the “journalists,” Asmelash Abraha, fell asleep during the president’s long reply. In his regular interviews with the state media, Afwerki talks at leisure and analyzes many world developments. During an interview on the national broadcaster, Eri-TV, journalist, Temesghen Debessai, asked the president questions interchangeably in three languages, Tigrinya, English and Arabic. Afwerki talked about a variety of issues, demonstrating his command of language, history and current events for his Eritrean audience.

Afwerki appoints and fires ministers unpredictably and erratically. Journalist Seyoum Tsehaye tells a story about his encounter with Afwerki before he himself was imprisoned (15 years later he is still behind bars). Tsehaye, then director of the newly established ERI-TV, was summoned to the office of the president. The two had a heated exchange, and the president demanded he leave. Before Tsehaye reached his own office, Afwerki had called Tsehaye’s immediate supervisors to effectively freeze him from his job.

Similarly, Andebrhan Welde Giorgis wrote in his book, Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope (2014), that a disagreement he had with President Afwerki when he was governor of the national bank resulted in the sudden appointment of Tekie Beyene to take over his position. He was instructed to vacate his job the same afternoon.

Another example of Afwerki’s arbitrary and abrupt nature in dealing with underlings in his government involved the National Holidays Coordinating Committee. This is the key office that undertakes all national celebrations, including planning and carrying out propaganda. When some of the performances at the Independence Day celebration of May 24, 2010, displeased the president he ousted Zemhret Yohannes, the committee chair and a longstanding executive member of the ruling party.

Later, Afwerki appointed Semere Russom, minister of education, to chair the committee. Barely a year into his term, Russom returned from a trip to China to learn that his position had been taken over by Luel Ghebreab, then chairwoman of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW). Ghebreab herself fell out of favor the next year (both as chair of the holidays committee and chair of the women’s association) and was replaced by Zemede Tekle.

Afwerki is notorious for not providing clear directives when he appoints people to a new position or to launch a big program. Frequently, he meets with people and approves directives while in his car or walking, or when out-of-town on public holidays. Without having adequate knowledge or a full grasp of the new task, newly appointed officials must navigate their way perilously through trial and error.

In the regular cabinet meeting, ministers take turns to present the quarterly or semi-annual reports of their respective ministries through Power Point presentations. All other sensitive issues are handled autonomously by the president and his favorite (at that moment) officials, mainly from the army and security.

Corruption is not only tolerated but encouraged, and the president uses it to buy loyalty. Relatively incorruptible government officials are considered a potential threat, so Afwerki makes sure he appoints loyal subordinates who will report directly to him.

Since the mid-2000s, the president has started a so-called “tour of inspection” that allows him to personally monitor all development projects across the country. During these tours, he advises or instructs private businesses and hands down directives directly affecting these government projects. Disregarding the expertise of professionals or ignoring them entirely, Afwerki approves projects that cost millions. For example, during the second half of the 2000s, all Eritrea was talking about a dam project called Gerset – a name that became ubiquitous in the national media. Afwerki was the sole architect and engineer for the project, which he launched against the repeated advice of professionals. Although the intended goal was irrigation, after Gerset was built, (not unexpectedly) the whole project proved to be a failure. It sustained massive cost over-runs due to the huge cost of pumping water uphill. Fast forward to today, and the whole embarrassing project has faded away from the collective memory.

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Abraham T. Zere

subscribe to comments RSS

There are no comments for this post

Please, feel free to post your own comment

* these are required fields

P.IVA 11273390150
Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi