Isais Afwerki, a former freedom fighter, has been President of Eritrea since its independence in 1993. Afwerki was born in the Abu Shi’aul district of Asmara, Eritrea on February 2, 1946. At that time Eritrea was ruled by Great Britain. Afwerki attended primary schools in Asmara and graduated from Prince Makonnen High School in that city in 1965. He then began engineering studies at the University of Addis Ababa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In 1952 Eritrea became an “autonomous unit” of Ethiopia. Under this arrangement, Eritrea was granted a degree of self-rule. However, in 1962 the Ethiopian government abolished this status and forcibly annexed Eritrea; making it an Ethiopian province. A large number of Eritreans reacted violently to this annexation and rebel groups soon formed to fight the Ethiopian annexation.
In 1966 Afwerki abandoned his studies and traveled to Kassala, Sudan to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) which was fighting against the Ethiopians. He impressed the leadership of this guerilla group and in 1967 was sent to China for military training. In China, he studied Marxist ideologies and guerrilla warfare tactics. In 1971 Afwerki wrote a manifesto, “Our Struggle and its Goals” which became one of the guiding documents of the ELF.
In 1973 various Eritrean guerrilla and political groups merged to form the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Afwerki became a prominent leader in this new organization and in 1975 was appointed Chairman of the military committee of the EPLF. In 1987 he became the General Secretary (head) of the EPLF.
Fighting continued with Ethiopia with the Eritrean forces becoming increasingly confident of eventual victory. In 1989 Afwerki became Secretary General of the Provisional Government of Eritrea. In May of 1991 EPLF fighters marched into Asmara and the 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia had ended. The Eritreans then held a referendum on independence with over 98% of the voters in favor of Eritrean independence. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea became an independent nation and was the first to gain its freedom from another African nation. Afwerki became President of the new country.
President Afwerki consolidated his power over the new country. In addition to being President, he was Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Chairman of the sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, a successor of the EPLF. In 1997 Afwerki canceled scheduled elections. Eritrea has no constitution, no parliament, and no published budget. By 2001 an independent press no longer existed in Eritrea. Opposition leaders have been arrested and charged with treason. The country is highly militarized with indefinite (18 months to 20 years) national conscription for citizens. United Nations’ reports in 2014 and 2016 detailed alleged human rights violations and crimes against humanity by the Afwerki government.
For many years after independence, a virtual state of war existed with Ethiopia. Border skirmishes were common between the two countries. In April 2018, the Ethiopian parliament elected Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. During his first few months in power, he eased tensions with Eritrea through negotiations and meetings with Afwerki. On July 9, 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea announced that the state of war between the two countries had ended.
Afwerki is married to Saba Haile, a former Eritrean freedom fighter. They have three children: Abraham, Berhane, and Elsa.