Afewerki's constant postponing of elections has allowed him to rule Eritrea for nearly 30 years. He has enforced restrictions of press freedom, mass persecution of Christian citizens, mandatory and indefinite military service for those between 18-40 years of age and widespread torture of unfairly arrested Eritreans, particularly those who have defied the oppression listed above or attempted to flee the country. A UN panel stated in 2015 that Isaias "has imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population that may amount to crimes against humanity", and many organizations have frequently described Eritrea's human rights situation to be very poor.
Isaias Afwerki was born on 2 February 1946 in the Aba Shi'Aul district of Asmara, Eritrea.
Isaias was educated at the Prince Makonnen High School (PMSS). In the early 1960s, he joined the nationalist Eritrean student movement. 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.
Isaias met his wife, Saba Haile, during the struggle to liberate Eritrea. Like him, she was a freedom fighter and the two of them met in a village called Nakfa in the summer of 1981. Together they have three children: Abraham, Elsa and Berhane. Although he criticized other leaders during the African Unity summit in Cairo in 1993 for staying in power too long, and rejected a cult of personality, his former comrade Andebrhan Welde Giorgis says Isaias went on to personalise power, and "having personalised power he abused it to the maximum."
In September 1966, Isaias left the university where he was studying and travelled 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 transportation and provided training to ELF combatants. Isaias was among the first group that went to China in 1967. There, he received intensive military training. Upon his return, he was appointed as a political commissioner of the ELF's Zone 5 in the Hamasen region.
Isaias played a key role in the grass-roots movement which rapidly gathered momentum and brought about the demise of the zonal divisions of the liberation army. 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 northeastern AkkeleGuzay near Dekemhare. Here, they joined Abraham Tewolde, the former commander of the defunct Zone 5. Isaias became the leader after Abraham Tewolde died from natural causes.
In August 1971, a group of younger ELF members held a meeting at Tekli (northern Red Sea) and founded the Solti Natsinet, what was commonly known as the Peoples Liberation Force (PLF). The group elected five leaders, including Isaias. Less than two months later, in October 1971, the group formed a committee to draft and issue a highly polemical document, “NhnanElamanan” (“We and Our Goals”), in which they explained in detail the rationales for their decision to create a separate political organization instead of working within the ELF.
In 1977, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (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 and in May 1991 became secretary-general of the Provisional Government of Eritrea. In April 1993, after the national referendum, he was elected as the President of the State of Eritrea by the National Assembly. In February 1994, the EPLF held its third congress, and Isaias was elected secretary-general of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) by an overwhelming majority of votes.
During the first few years of Isaias' administration, the institutions of governance were structured and put in place. This included the provision of an elected local judicial system, as well as an expansion of the educational system into as many regions as possible. The EPLF renamed itself the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in February 1994 as part of its transition to a political party. He was hailed as a new type of African President. Then-US President Bill Clinton referred to him as a "renaissance African leader".
In this sense, Isaias strongly advocates the necessity for the development of indigenous political and economic institutions, while maintaining that Eritrea must pursue a development strategy which suits its internal conditions and available resources. The key element of such a policy includes ambitious infrastructure development campaigns both in terms of power, transport and telecommunications, as well as with basic healthcare and educational facilities.
Isaias oversaw an unexpected transformation of the country’s relations with Ethiopia in 2018. Engagement by Ethiopia’s then newly elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in June 2018 to end the long-standing border war between the countries led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, including reciprocal visits by Isaias and Abiy in July 2018. Diplomatic and commercial ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea were re-established, and on July 9 the two leaders signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship that ended the state of war between their countries, and enunciated a framework of bilateral cooperation in the political, cultural, economic and security fields. This was widely acknowledged by numerous world leaders with the UAE Government awarding Isaias Afwerki the Order of Zayed (First Class) in recognition of his efforts to end the conflict.
In June 2015 a United Nations panel accused Isaias of leading a totalitarian government responsible for systematic human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. Amnesty International believes that the government of President Isaias Afwerki has imprisoned at least 10,000 political prisoners. Amnesty also claims that torture—for punishment, interrogation and coercion—is widespread.
The government of Eritrea denies the allegations and in turn accuses Amnesty International of supporting a political agenda of "regime change".