Cablegate: Bio Notes On Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki
P 121055Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY ASMARA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0005
INFO AMEMBASSY ADDIS ABABA
DJ/AMEMBASSY QJQBOUTI 3104
CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
JICCENT MACDILL AFB FL
CJTF-HOA J2X CAMP LEMONIER DJ
HQ USAFRICOM STUTTGART GE
S E C R E T ASMARA 000543
DEPT FOR AF/EX AND AF/E
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/05/2010
TAGS: PINR ER
SUBJECT: BIO NOTES ON ERITREAN PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI
REF: ASMARA 345 "IS ISAIAS UNHINGED?"
Classified By: Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen for reason 1.4(d)
1. (C) Summary: Isaias is an austere and narcissistic
dictator whose political ballast derives from Maoist ideology
fine-tuned during Eritrea's 30-year war for independence. He
is paranoid and believes Ethiopian PM Meles tried to kill him
and that the United States will attempt to assassinate him.
He is not notably nepotistic and has not favored his
ancestral village or immediate family. This message includes
some biographic tidbits offered as an addendum to USG bio
information on foreign government leaders. End Summary.
2. (C) Aiming for 112: Isaias, 62, told a visiting German
parliamentarian in late 2008 that he is healthy and expects
to live another 40 or 50 years. He said he hopes to serve
his country as long as he is able. In a May 2008 television
interview, Isaias said Eritrea might hold elections "in three
or four decades."
3. (S/NF) An Alleged Ethiopian Assassination Attempt:
Isaias and Meles, brothers in arms during the 1980s, are now
blood enemies. Why? In 1996, while returning from a
vacation in Kenya, Isaias, his family, and his inner
entourage stopped in Addis, where Meles offered to fly them
back to Asmara in one of his aircraft. Isaias accepted the
offer; en route the aircraft caught fire, but managed to turn
back and land safely in Addis. According to someone who was
on the aircraft, an infuriatd Isaias accuse Meles to his
face of trying to kill him and his family. Isaias has not
trusted Meles since, according to this source.
4. (S) Fears of an American Assassination Attempt: Isaias
thinks the United States will attempt to kill him by missile
strike on his residence in the city of Massawa, according to
late 2007 information from the Force Commander of UNMEE.
5. (C) Holier Than Thou: Isaias has berated the Chinese
ambassador in Asmara for China's embrace of market
capitalism. Isaias was sent to China by the Eritrean
Liberation Front for political commissar training in the
1960s, where, according to the Chinese ambassador, "he
learned all the wrong things." Isaias was turned off by the
cult of personality surrounding Mao, but apparently
internalized Maoist ideology.
6. (C) Fluent in Arabic: Asmara-based Arab ambassadors are
impressed by Isaias' fluency in Arabic. There is some debate
about where he learned it, but all agree he is a comfortable
and capable Arabic speaker.
7. (C) Talented Speechwriter: In mid-2008, after Isaias
delivered an impressive address in English to a gathering of
ministerial-level representatives on the subject of Darfur,
Yemane Ghebremeskel, the director of the office of the
president, said Isaias had written the speech himself.
8. (C) Hot Temper: At a January 2008 dinner he hosted for a
codel and embassy officials, Isaias became involved in a
heated discussion with his Amcit legal advisor about some
tomato seedlings the legal advisor provided to Isaias' wife.
Isaias complained that despite tender care by his wife, the
plants produced only tiny tomatoes. When the legal advisor
explained that they were cherry tomatoes and were supposed to
be small, Isaias lost his temper and stormed out of the
venue, much to the surprise of everyone, including his
9. (C) Holds a Grudge: A senior party official said Isaias
and Djibouti President Guelleh had (g(eed during a 'u'e 2008
telephone conversation to try to resolve at the presidential
level issues related to the June border clash. According
this senior Eritrean official, Isaias was livid when Guelleh
supposedly shortly thereafter lambasted Eritrean aggression
in a media interview. Isaias reportedly felt personally
betrayed by President Guelleh, and has been obstinate about
resolving the Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute ever since.
10. (C) Thin Skinned: Isaias asked to be named the patron of
the World Bank-funded Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project
(CARP). When individuals involved with CARP published the
book "Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City," it failed to
include a note of thanks to CARP's patron. Isaias was miffed
and shut down CARP.
11. (C) Good Op-Sec: Isaias has an aversion to talking on
the telephone and frequently sleeps in different locations to
foil a coup or assassination attempt. During the winter
months he spends most of his time in Massawa rather than in
Asmara. When dining in restaurants, Isaias will often switch
plates with a subordinate, apparently to avoid being
poisoned, according to the Qatari ambassador.
12. (C) The Early Years of Little Beer Pot: Isaias' father,
Afwerki, comes from the village of Tselot, which is perched
on the lip of a 7,000' escarpment four miles southeast of
Asmara. When Isaias was a boy Afwerki reportedly spent much
of his time in Tigray, where he owned a coffee farm that was
later nationalized by the Derg. With Afwerki largely absent,
Isaias lived with his mother (rumored to have family roots in
Tigray) in a working class neighborhood in eastern Asmara
near the train depot and the Lutheran church. Isaias' mother
made and sold a traditional beer called sewa. By some
accounts, Isaias was nicknamed the Tigrinya equivalent of
"Beer Pot," after the ceramic jug from which sewa is
dispensed.Q Qoday he is a QeQvy whisky drinker, but perhaps
as a youth his nickname referred as much to his habits as to
his mother's business.
13. (C) No Pork for His Ancestral Village: In November 2008
emboffs visited Tselot and saw no indication that the village
has received any special favor from Isaias. Like most
Eritrean villages, it has electricity but no running water or
sewer system. Gaunt cattle and untended donkeys roam the
village. Their droppings are quickly gathered and formed
into oval patties, which are then stuck on rock walls, dried,
and used as fuel for cooking. Afwerki is said to be buried
in the village cemetery, but emboffs could not locate his
grave. Isaias' immediate family is rarely featured in the
state-run media and keeps a low profile. Although his
portrait adorns many shops in Asmara, there is no cult of
personality in Eritrea. Isaias often appears in the media
clad casually in slacks, jacket, open-necked shirt, and
sandals or loafers. He rarely travels in a motorcade.
14. (C) Hard-hearted: When a visiting U.S. movie star in
early 2008 raised the plight of two Embassy Asmara FSNs who
have been imprisoned without charge since 2001, Isaias glared
stonily at her and replied, "Would you like me to hold a
trial and then hang them?"