Isaias Afwerki is Eritrea’s first and only ever President and has been in power since 1991. Upon officially gaining independence in 1993, the unelected National Assembly chose Isaias as Eritrea’s first president.
He has been in power ever since and has come to be recognized by many international voices as a totalitarian ruler. According to the United States Department of State, the government of Eritrea still has not implemented a constitution.
A one party state that does not hold national elections and has been ruled by the same leader for three decades, Eritrea received a total freedom score of just 3 out of 100 from Freedom House in 2022. This score is the second worst in Africa and amongst the worst scores in the world.
“As a one-man dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary,” says Human Rights Watch, also describing the Eritrean government as “extraordinarily repressive.”
President Isaias Afwerki has a long history of being at odds with Western powers and the broader international community. In March of 2022, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Eritrea was one of just five nations to vote against the motion, joined by several dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.
Eritrea has made international headlines over the past two years for its involvement in the violent military campaign in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Eritrean forces have been credibly reported to have been committing numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, arbitrary detentions, as well as rape and starvation as weapons of war.
Isaias Afwerki has been the recipient of widespread international criticism and condemnation for these injustices. The United States placed sanctions on Eritrea and emphatically called for the withdrawal of all Eritrean forces from the region.
World Health Organization Director General Dr. Ghebreyesus said Monday that in the past three to four weeks, only 69 trucks with humanitarian aid, or 4 percent of what is needed, have been allowed into Tigray by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments who have been accused of enforcing a humanitarian blockade into the region.
While millions of people face hunger as a result of the violence perpetuated in the Tigray region, this is not the first time that President Isaias Afwerki has found himself under pressure from the international community.
Accusations of human rights abuses have become a hallmark of Isaias’s reign in Eritrea. In 2015, a United Nations panel accused him of leading a totalitarian government responsible for widespread systematic human rights violations.
According to numerous reports from Amnesty International, the Eritrean government systematically punishes dissent- imprisoning dissenting voices and intimidating its critics. The government shut down all independent media over two decades ago.
In 2021, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea dead last out of 180 nations in regards to press freedom.
Over the past three decades, Eritrea has grown into one of the world’s most repressive and brutal totalitarian regimes. However, it does not get talked about in Western media as often as other authoritarian nations. Much of the general public around the world is largely ignorant of the systematic abuse and oppression that has become a defining characteristic of President Isaias Afwerki’s regime.
Born in 1946, Isaias Afwerki became involved in the movement for Eritrean independence at a very early age and became a prominent leader in the cause. Nationalism has been a defining feature of his political perspective throughout his lifetime and career.