Eritrea: All the President's Men - Isaias Afwerki's Close Circle

9 November 2023

Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki has cultivated an ability to ward off threats, both internal and external. Below are profiles of his inner circle.

Isaias Afwerki, born in 1946 in Asmara, is the longest-serving ruler in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. He is known for his strategic manoeuvring to protect his own interests, and regularly reshuffling both loyalists and alliances both domestically and regionally. Isaias never accepted second place, and his ambition knows no bounds. He split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to create his own organization, eventually consolidating power as the sole leader of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and later of Eritrea after independence, eliminating threats along the way.

His leadership faced challenges, notably in 1973 when former colleagues and classmates called for democratic decision-making and accountability. These dissidents, labelled 'Menkae' or bats, were ruthlessly dealt with, leading to the creation of the feared 'Halewa Sowra' (Tigrinya for 'Guardians of the revolution') security apparatus. The clandestine party formed in 1971, further consolidated his grip on power.

In 2001, another challenge emerged as senior party leaders demanded accountability and democratic reforms. Isaias manipulated and arrested them. Their fates are unknown. Isaias also maintained power through manipulation of senior officials, ensuring their loyalty. He operates without a clear command structure, leaving higher commanders vulnerable to subordinates, and he often demotes and humiliates even his supporters to test their loyalty.

Externally, Isaias shifted alliances from Gaddafi and Qatar to supporting Iran, and later Saudi Arabia and the UAE in coalition efforts in Yemen. He was allied with the TPLF during the liberation struggle, and after independence, with the TPLF-controlled EPRDF. His falling out with TPLF strongman, the late Meles Zenawi eventually led to the 1998 war between the two countries in which 150,000 were killed and a two-decade long bitter enmity ensued with the TPLF. The rapprochement with Abiy Ahmed in 2018 led to a Nobel (for Abiy, oddly, rather than the two of them), and war - against the remnant TPLF in Tigray. Just as paradoxically, the peace deal signed in Pretoria last November, has led to a new conflict that threatens to develop into an all-out war, this time with Isaias supporting a rebellion in Amhara.

Throughout all these shifts, only a few have remained loyal, with Isaias showing a willingness to replace even his loyalists at any time. President Afwerki routinely shifts the five-zone military commanders around, apparently to encourage rivalries between them, distribute profits, and prevent them from building up too close a rapport with the units under their command. Official positions are irrelevant as subordinates, even without titles, may hold the real power. Officials responsible for security and military affairs, finance and politics form his inner core.

1. Colonel Tesfalidet Habtesellasie - Isaias's head of personal security

He is the commander of the Presidential guard and its security chief, and so is actually the most important person in protecting Isaias. He is one of the few whom Isaias trusts and has remained with him for a long time, having operated as his radio operator since the 1980s, during the liberation war. Even the Generals will consult him to gauge the opinion of Isaias on any matter. As Chief of Staff in the Office of the President, he controls access to President Isaias Afwerki and is responsible for communicating the President's instructions to Government and party officials, including the security services. He occasionally undertakes special missions abroad on behalf of the President. He is believed to know where high profile political prisoners are detained and he supervises prison transfers. He travels frequently to China and Eastern Europe from Dubai.

2. Hagos Ghebrehiwet Woldekidan (aka Hagos Kisha) - Economic Chief

Born in 1953, Hagos Ghebrehiwet WoldeKidan is officially the economic advisor to the president and to the ruling PFDJ, and is the chief executive officer of Red Sea Trading Corporation (RSTC). He is one of a handful trusted by Isaias. Ghebrehiwet was sanctioned in November 2021 by the US for having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the PFDJ.

He started his career in the finance section of the EPLF (now PFDJ) in the 1970s where he was the treasurer of Eritreans For Liberation in North America (EFLNA), the social and financial wing of the Isaias faction, which split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1970. He later was responsible for handling donations from the mass organisations supporting the EPLF. He was the official EPLF representative in the US in the 1980s, although a more qualified member, his deputy Dr. Tesfay Girmazion, penned the EPLF communiqués.

He rarely appears in the media. He runs all the official and clandestine financial resources of the PFDJ. He is one of the very few, besides Isaias, who knows the size and operations of the finance of the state. The covert operations, he runs and the manipulation of the informal economy, ineffective implementation, and the use of international partners to facilitate revenue flows outside formal channels, enabled Eritrea to survive the decade long UN sanctions. In doing so, they have consistently relied on trusted "partners in crime." He appeared once in the media signing an agreement with the Sichuan Road Mining Investment company and was referred as the Chairman of the Eritrean National Mining Corporation (ENAMCO).

The finances of the PFDJ and the state are highly confidential. When in 2001 leaders in the party and the state wanted to know the state of the finances they were arrested on 18 September of that year. Nobody knows their whereabouts. The national budget has been a state secret since independence.

Yemane Gebreab - Ideological chief

Born in 1954, he is the political ideologue of the PFDJ and the godfather of the Young PFDJ (YPFDJ), overseeing their activities and attending their annual conferences, lecturing and mentoring cadres. The Young PFDJ is meant to recruit future leaders of the PFDJ and continue its legacy.

His low profile ensures that Isaias doesn't see him as a threat; he is believed to be behind the regime's official statements and press releases. His official title is Advisor to the President and Chief of Political Affairs of the party. He also regularly accompanies the Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, on his foreign travels carrying presidential messages to other heads of state. Together with the Foreign Minister, they are the only visible officials of the Eritrean government other than Isaias himself. It is believed they travel together to watch on each other. Although there is a nominal Minister of Information who, among other things, tweets one to three times daily, it is Yemane who gives interviews to foreign media, representing the Eritrean regime. He has survived in his obscure role since independence. He also travels on his own to make political deals with opposition groups in the region.

Abraha Kassa Nemariam - Security boss, Eritrean National Security Agency

He was born in 1953 and worked as the head of security for the clandestine party in the field, which was instrumental in consolidating the power of Isaias during the liberation war. After independence, the Security Chief of the EPLF, Petros Solomon was sidelined, and Abraha took over as Chief of Security of the Eritrean National Security Agency and has the position since then. He usually avoids the limelight but, in 2014, he participated in a symposium on human smuggling where he blamed the United States for being behind the massive exodus of Eritreans from Eritrea. The Eritrean Security Agency was sanctioned by the EU in March 2021 for violations of human rights in the country. Abraha was one of Eritrea's higher officials sanctioned by the US in November 2021. He was sanctioned for being or having been a leader, official, senior executive officer, or member of the board of directors of the Government of Eritrea or its ruling PFDJ, on or after November 1, 2020, where the leader, official, senior executive officer, or director is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged or attempted to engage in, any activity contributing to the crisis in northern Ethiopia. Though he had clandestinely visited Ethiopia several times, he appeared publicly leading a delegation of Eritrean army generals and senior security officials to Ethiopia in April 2023. During that visit, he was seen in Ethiopia's TV screens visiting Ethiopian military intelligence and security establishments, in the country.

Simon Gebredengel - Deputy Director of National Security

He was responsible for the Signals Department which was an important department for radio communications which was a nerve-centre for coordination during the liberation war. He became the Deputy Director of National Security under Abraha Kassa after liberation. He is seldom visible. He survived an assassination attempt in 2007, which the government admitted, when the military commanders started acting as warlords fighting over territories and dividing up the loot among themselves. He is believed to be more trusted by Isaias than his boss, Abraha Kassa. In a way they both watch over each other.

General Filipos Woldeyohannes - Chief of Staff, Eritrean Defence Forces

General Filipos served as a military commander in the army during the liberation war. He served in several positions after Liberation including commander of the 5th Operations zone. He was appointed as Chief of Staff in 2014, following the death of Maj. Gen. Wuchu Gebrezghi, known for his deep loyalty to Isaias. In August 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned General Filipos for being a leader or official of an entity that is engaged in serious human rights abuse committed during the conflict in Tigray.

Tekle Kiflay (aka Manjus) - Brigader General

Born in 1956, he was an army commander during the liberation war. He also took various military positions after independence. He was accused by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea in 2011 for human and arms trafficking during the period he was Commander of the western military operations zone overseeing the Eritrean-Sudanese border. His principal Sudanese counterpart in this cross-border activity is Mabrouk Mubarak Salim, a wealthy Rashaida businessman and former leader of the now defunct "Free Lions" rebel group that once formed part of the Sudanese "Eastern Front" opposition alliance supported by Eritrea. Kiflay was also involved in the sale of millions of dollars of Eritrean scrap metal to Giad, a conglomerate of Sudanese companies, in 2010. Despite all these accusations, he remains close to Isaias.

Mohamed Kheir Omer is an African-Norwegian researcher and writer based in Oslo, Norway. He is a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).

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