Analysis: The case of Eritrea’s missing President |

May 06 2012

All of us fans of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle know of that moment when Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes know something that the reader does not. It is something that the suspect said, or how he said it, or what he didn’t say. His alibi just is not as tight as he thought it was.  He slipped. And now he is going to be busted. And the reader now is left with two conflicting emotions: admiration for the skills of the detective (actually, the author), and inadequacy for not picking up on the clues left earlier.  Then there is The Case Of The Missing President, a detective mystery authored by PFDJ. It was written sloppily, badly acted and had a bad ending—but we can’t wait for the sequel.

Now, before we get there, and this is related, so hang tight. The voice on the phone is soft, engaging but serious.  It is discussing the last Al-Nahda which talked about how Isaias’s treatment of the body of Naizghi Kiflu shouldn’t surprise us; that to deal with the grief that has befallen Eritreans, we are going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance.  And then:  “Many of the Eritreans who seem to be completely unsurprised by anything that goes on in Eritrea are in Stage 5.” So, the caller asks: “are you in stage 5?”

I didn’t have a good answer, really. I was taken aback.  I haven’t accepted that Eritrea is destined to be a dictatorship; but my hair doesn’t set on fire every time the Isaias Afwerki government does something horrific; and my heart doesn’t beat fast in anticipation of something encouraging from the Opposition. So what stage am I? It depends on the moment. And there are moments when it does.  Like?

The Stripped Down Facts

There are moments and then, well, let’s steal a line from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men: “A moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much more, more than a moment. Then, gradually time awakened again and moved sluggishly on.” April was such a month. And, in those moments, dear interviewer, I am not in Stage 5.

So, the facts, stripped down. And, please, I am too old to do the photo and video forensics, although I am aware there are many Eritreans playing the role of Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK.  Bust that case and send me your results. But I can’t join that adventure.

Fact 1:  For the last 20 years that Isaias Afwerki has been president, Isaias Afwerki has been on one or all of the state-owned media if not every day at least every week.

Fact 2:  It is the job of the Eritrean state media to present Isaias Afwerki in the most positive light every time, all the time. Just today, Eritrea was on the news as being the world’s (not Africa’s, not the Third World, but the world’s) most censored state:

“Every time [a journalist] had to write a story, they arrange for interview subjects and tell you specific angles you have to write on,” an exiled Eritrean journalist told CPJ, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We usually wrote lots about the president so that he’s always in the limelight.”

Fact 3:  Every time the Eritrean president travels outside the country, the news is plastered on government website and state TV—before and after the visit. Until recently, they used to line up government ministers at the airport to bid him farewell, and to welcome him home.

[Not fact: they didn’t ask “Ayay, entay emtSi’ekalna kab Adi Areb?”]

Fact 4:  President Isaias Afwerki was not on Eri-TV from March 29 all the way to April 27. If you are counting, that is exactly 30 days. That is four weeks plus.

Fact 5:  Ali Abdu, the Minister of Information, was interviewed by Voice of America on Monday, April 23  He said that Isaias Afwerki’s itinerary for Sunday, April 22, 2012) was as follows:

3:00 am – Gash Barka

6:00 am – Sawa

9:00 am – Anseba

12:00 noon – Semenawi Keyh Bahri (Northern Red Sea)

3:00 pm – Mendefera

4:30 pm – Maekel (Center)

7:00 pm – met with Ali Abdu

Fact 6: Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union, was interviewed on April 25 by RFI and…well, Girma owns a store called “Superlatives Are Us” and he consumes most of the profit. “You would never even compete with him [Isaias Afwerki] the way he travels, the way he walks, the way he visits, he is a handsome kind of a president…” sorry, that was the Amara accent: he is a hands-on kind of a president is what he said.

Fact 7: Ali Abdu is interviewed by the BBC on Friday, April 27, 2012. He says it is not in our political culture to bring the president on TV to respond to rumors fanned by “stupid people.” We don’t stage that kind of drama to respond to cheap propaganda, he says.

Fact 8:  Isaias Afwerki was interviewed by Eri-TV on Saturday, April 28, 2012. He says: “I wasn’t here last week in this country. For about three days. Came here the end of the week. Then went to Gash Barka.  I wasn’t here Saturday or Sunday [April 21, April 22.]  And so…continuous moving about for about 14 hours on Sunday.  Edges of Gash Barka, via Keren, Afabet, Gulbub, Massawa, had breakfast at Gahtelai. Had a little thing to do, got to Asmara and slept….then Saba told me there is news…”

Fact 9:  The website of the Ministry of Information,, summarizes what Isaias Afwerki said a day earlier. It says that “in the past week he had been abroad on a 3-day working visit, and that upon return home he has been on a tour of inspection to Gash-Barka, Anseba and the Northern Red Sea regions from 21 to 22.”

Alibi 101

There are, as any mystery novel fans know, two elements to a good alibi: consistency and detail-orientation. And every police drama fan also knows that it is harder to maintain an alibi when there are multiple of people involved. Here, the three spokespersons for the Case of The Missing President are the Minister of Information and the President and the Ambassador to the AU.

By consistency, I mean is the story consistently told and is the story consistent with what we have come to expect from PFDJ, or what it likes to call “PFDJ culture”? And here, something is off key:

(a)  When Ali Abdu was interviewed by VOA on April  23, and he was giving the improbable itinerary of Isaias Afwerki, I expected the punch line: “would you like to speak to him, he is next to me…” then hand the phone to a Ministry of Information employee, and then explain to the confused VOA reporter, “He is Isaias Afwerki; I am Isaias Afwerki, there are 5 million of us Isaias Afwerkis…” That would have been in keeping with Ali’s characteristic smart-alec response. But he chose to stick to the ridiculous itinerary.

(b)  The Isaias Afwerki itinerary of Sunday April  22, as told by Ali Abdu, has a striking resemblance to the Isaias Afwerki itinerary of Sunday April 22. The marathon trip starts at Gash-Barka, ends at Asmara. But whereas the Isaias version ends with him in Asmara (after breakfast in Gahtelai), the Ali Abdu version goes to Mendefera and there is no time for sleeping.  Just work, work, work.

(c)   There is way, way too much detail in one itinerary—had breakfast in Gahtelai, had a little work to do there—and no detail at all about where he was out of the country or for the rest of the month.

(d)  The “PFDJ culture” of dealing with crisis is suq meritSna (we choose to be silent.) This is an organization whose middle name is Democracy and is constantly ridiculing democracy: that is its “culture.” But in this case, they had a press release, 3 radio interviews, a cartoon (!) ridiculing CIA agents wearing beads (like they just came from a Grateful Dead concert) and a one-on-one interview with the president. Why? What was so different about this that raised alarm bells everywhere? Why were they saying on Friday that they can’t respond to this “cheap propaganda” and then responding to it on Saturday?

(e)  When Isaias Afwerki said Saba told him the news, I really thought, for a micro-second, that he was talking about the Yemeni news agency S.A.B.A. But Isaias Afwerki was talking about his wife Saba.  This has never happened.  Treating your wives as equal partners is not in keeping with the character of PFDJ government officials who are just slightly a few inches away from, say, Iran, in their misogyny register.  In traditional Eritrea, the only time the wife is mentioned is when the husband feels the knock of the Grim Reaper on the door.

The Speculation

There is this question: why can’t you take the PFDJ at face value and believe what they are saying?  Answer: because they lie so effortlessly.  Need a quick reminder? Here’s Isaias Afwerki on 10-year-plus-disappeared playwright Fessehaye Yohannes “Joshua”, when he was asked by Australia’s ABC reporter Corcoran:

CORCORAN:  Last time ABC Foreign Correspondent visited Eritrea they profiled a former fighter turned journalist and artist named Fessahi Yohannes, known as Joshua. Where is he now?


REPORTER: He was co-founder of the newspaper Setit which was the biggest newspaper here prior to it being shut down.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: I don’t know him. I don’t know.

REPORTER: You don’t know him or where he might be?

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFEWERKI: I don’t know him. If I don’t know him how can I know where he might be?

That’s why. It’s not that PFDJ politicians lie (some would say all politicians lie), it is that they lie recklessly, habitually, and even when there is no benefit in it for them to lie. When you get away with something for so long then you fail to see what is so wrong about it. In the interview, just to establish the theory that he hadn’t been following the speculations about his whereabouts until his wife appraised him of the situation, Isaias Afwerki had to tell two lies: that he doesn’t browse the Internet, and that he doesn’t have a mobile phone.

30 days is a long time for a public man to disappear—especially one who had conditioned the nation to expect to see him every day, whether he had anything to say or not. So where was he? And why wasn’t he on the air. My best guesses—and this is not an either or situation, it could be all of the above:

Sick: Isaias Afwerki is 66 years old. It is not unusual for 66 year old people—even ones who are blessed with good genes, exercise regularly and have a decent diet—to require hospitalization. But to say that is impossible if your entire construct is that the nation cannot survive without your leadership. You ensure that there is no clear line of succession, you create a cult of personality so vast that when you die, even your victims wail for you in sincere grief. When Stalin died, Russians whom he sent to the gulags were crying in genuine grief and dread. In the archive video they showed to demonstrate that Isaias was in “robust health”, he was moving around (and that is not “cheap propaganda” by the way), but in the live interview (it wasn’t live by the way), he was sitting stoically. By the standards they established, if he wasn’t sick, he would be strutting since that is NOT cheap propaganda.  (“the way he moves, the way he walks…”)

Vacation:  Isaias Afwerki has constructed such a prison for himself that he is not free to publicly say, “Dammit, I work really hard, I earned a vacation and I, and my family, are going on vacation.”  The only time we know he has ever gone on vacation is because wikileaks  told us that he did so in 1996 (it didn’t end well, that time, his Ethiopian plane malfunctioned en route back to Asmara and he accused Meles Zenawi of trying to have him assassinated.) And a few years back, he was in Milan, Italy and when we speculated that he was on vacation, shabait was compelled to add the words “working visit” to any trip he takes (including the most recent one to an un-named country.) So, that he is not mentioning what state he visited, or that he heard the news from Saba could also mean that he was on a family vacation and she was catching on the news while he slept or vice versa.  Happens in every family.  But normalcy is taboo in hgdef-land.

Issu Time: According to a former bodyguard who trekked to Ethiopia and was debriefed by the Ethio government, Isaias spends a great deal of time having quality time with Isaias. The direct quote, again, courtesy of wikileaks, is this: “[Ethiopian Intelligence Chief] Getachew [Assefa] remarked that one of Isaias’ bodyguards was in Dubai and then defected to Ethiopia. The bodyguard remarked that Isaias was a recluse who spent his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work. Isaias appeared to make decisions in isolation with no discussion with his advisors. It was difficult to tell how Isaias would react each day and his moods changed constantly.”

This should answer the question of those who marvel at how the PFDJ “maintained the secret for so long”: it is easy to maintain a secret of which you have no knowledge. The PFDJ is an organization in name only—it is like an assembly line with each assembly worker assembling his widget—but it is beyond his job description to know where the CEO is and what he is up to.

And what decisions is he making in “isolation with no discussion with his advisors”? Well, there is the issue of what to do with Ethiopia and its Bush Doctrine of “we’ll fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Over there happens to be where he lives. Then, the issue of re-org. As he did in 1994, he clued us in January 1, 2012 there is a major restructuring of the PFDJ and the government coming. This requires solitude because it is hard to have discussions with your advisors if one of the decisions you are making is whether they should be your advisors.


The month-long disappearance of Isaias Afwerki was unusual and the explanations offered have holes in them and are not in keeping with the PFDJ culture of tight-upper-lip-we-can-wait-you-out. (PS: Is meskerem’s Naizghi Kiflu ticking clock still around?) The stories told by Isaias Afwerki and Ali Abdu are inconsistent with each other, and inconsistent with the “PFDJ culture.” If you have complaints that the independent/opposition Eritrean media reported “unconfirmed news”, please moderate your outrage because every piece of news you are fed by Eritrean state media is “DELIBERATELY unconfirmed news”—there is no independent body to confirm or deny it. Skepticism should be the order of the day to media—state or independent—that has shown a pattern of being not credible.  Nobody would have paid that much attention to the absence of Isaias Afwerki if he hadn’t conditioned the people to expect to see him every day—and if he had a vice president.  The PFDJ did not keep any secret—because it (to the extent it exists) was not aware of the secret itself.   The most likely explanation for Isaias Afwerki’s absence was that he was sick, on vacation, in voluntary solitary confinement as he plots his next move, or all of the above.  As for the role of the Eritrean opposition in all this, wait, I think I hear The Pencil being sharpened.


This article first appeared on on May 3, 2012, authored by Saleh AA Yonis ([email protected]).

Check the Eritrea archive for related posts.