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Viewing cable 08ASMARA543, BIO NOTES ON ERITREAN PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08ASMARA543 2008-11-12 10:10 2010-12-15 21:09 SECRET//NOFORN Embassy Asmara
P 121055Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY ASMARA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0005
INFO AMEMBASSY ADDIS ABABA 
R
E
DJ/AMEMBASSY QJQBOUTI 3104
AMEMBASSY KHARTOUM 
AMEMBASSY NAIROBI 
SECDEF WASHDC
CIA WASHDC
DIA WASHDC
NSC WASHDC
CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
JICCENT MACDILL AFB FL
CJTF-HOA J2X CAMP LEMONIER DJ
HQ USAFRICOM STUTTGART GE
COMUSNAVCENT
S E C R E T ASMARA 000543 

NOFORN 

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 
security detail. 

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?" 


MCMULLEN