The Unusual Absence Of Isaias Afwerki

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki has not made a public appearance since March 28, 2012 when he received the credentials of the incoming ambassador from South Africa. Given that his appearance is the daily diet of the State media, this has, understandably, fueled speculation that he is either seriously ill or even dead. Yesterday, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information issued a statement claiming that the president’s health is “robust” and that the rumors of his failing health are propagated by the CIA. There is wildly conflicting information from sources which considers highly reliable: some say he is critically ill; others say he is dead; still others are in a total state of confusion. As of today, this is what we know:

(a) Isaias Afwerki suffers from a serious liver ailment. This ailment is, no doubt, exacerbated by his heavy drinking. A US Embassy cable of October 20, 2009 reporting on the activities of the Chinese embassy in Asmara reports (wikileaks) that “Isaias ate little during the meal but drank almost a whole bottle of high-proof Moutai, becoming visibly inebriated.” This ailment requires medical attention only available outside the country. Between the winter of 2010 and the end of 2011, Isaias Afwerki traveled to Qatar seven times. These “state visits” are often appointments with his physician.

(b) Isaias Afwerki is omnipresent in the State media. Whether he is receiving guests, presiding over Cabinet of Ministers meeting, or conducting “inspection tours” throughout Eritrea, the image of Isaias Afwerki is a fixture in the state media and, most of the time, the media lead their reports with his activities. That he has not made an appearance since March 28, 2012 is highly unusual.

(c) This is not the first time there have been rumors about his health—but this is the first time that the Ministry of Information took the unusual step of denying it. According to our sources, this has to do with the fact that his absence had begun to create agitation among the Eritrean Defense Forces. The denial by the Ministry of Information is unlikely to quell the speculation since the report was not accompanied by new clips but old videos of the President in a state of “robust health.”

(d) There has always been tension between the “civilians” and the “military” hierarchy of the ruling party—a tension which Isaias Afwerki stroked expertly. The “civilians”—Yemane Gebreab (“monkey,” the presidential adviser/political director of the ruling party), Yemane Gebremeskel (“Charlie,” the Chief of Staff of the President’s Office), Hagos Gebrehiwot (“Kisha,” the economic director of the ruling party), Abraha Kassa, (the National Security Chief), Ali Abdu (Minister of Information) along with Sebhat Ephrem (the Defense Minister), have formed an emergency committee (now derisively referred to in Asmara as a junta or a Derg), to deal with any emergency from the corrupt and autonomous generals and colonels. Some of their pre-emptive strikes include confiscation of cell phones from officers and re-assignments.

(e) For whatever it is worth, in his New Year Address, Isaias Afwerki had announced a plan to restructure the government by the end of the first quarter (31 March, 2012.)

(f) Asmara-based embassies have received no information on the whereabouts of Isaias Afwerki and they are, bewildered, sending reports to their home countries, telling them of the state of denial and confusion in Asmara.

(g) Isaias Afwerki publicly attends or presides over every official secular holiday, and privately visits the patriarch on religious holidays. (This year, like last year, the Eritrean patriarch was reportedly on a pilgrim to Jerusalem for the Easter Holiday.) There are no official secular holidays in April; the next one is in May 24,2012, commemorating Eritrean independence.

More news to follow.



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