STRONGMAN STRATEGIES Eritrea: Who is who in President Isaias Afwerki’s inner circle?
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki is a critical player in Ethiopia's civil war and the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. His authoritarian rule keeps the country isolated internationally as he removes threats to his rule, using a permanent state of emergency and military mobilization to tighten his grip on the people and the army.
Isaias, 76, came to power in 1993 and has since ruled with an iron grip on the country. His People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) regime does not hold elections and drafts young men for compulsory military training. Many people have fled conscription, with nearly 10% of the population has left the country as refugees.
The government was previously under United Nations sanctions for supporting the Al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia, and the US imposed sanctions on the ruling party and military for involvement in the war in the neighboring Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Eritrea fought for its independence from Ethiopia, winning the battle in 1993. Relations between the neighbors were poor, with disputes over their borders still unsettled today. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy and Eritrea’s Isaias signed a peace deal shortly after Abiy came to power in 2018, ushering in an era of closer cooperation.
The Eritrean Defence Forces and Ethiopian troops fought against a rebellion in Tigray, which started in November 2022. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) challenged the authority of Abiy.
With peace talks now underway in Tigray, The Africa Report looks at the allies critical to the regime in Asmara as it prepares for its next chapter.
Yemane Gebreab is the second-most influential Eritrean leader after President Isaias. He is the de facto foreign affairs minister and has played an essential role in Eritrea’s participation in the Tigray conflict. Yemane is Isaias’ chief diplomat and implements the regime’s foreign policy. His official position is a special adviser to the President and head of political affairs of the PFDJ.
He has been in the ministry of foreign affairs for more than three decades. Foreign ministers come and go, but Yemane remains there. He goes wherever the foreign affairs minister goes.
Yemane is originally from Aksum, Tigray. He came from a poor family, and his father was an activist for the Eritrean unification with Ethiopia.
Yemane is deeply involved in cooperation with Ethiopia, mainly because of the Tigray war. Yemane had lobbied various countries and talked to diplomats –particularly Africans and Israelis – to reduce the international pressure on the Ethiopian government due to the Tigray war. He had been organizing support for Ethiopia in various international institutions and had organized anti-Western intervention campaigns like the #NoMore campaign.
Hagos Gebrehiwet is the head of economic affairs of the PFDJ. He oversees state-owned enterprises and the regime’s income. He oversees the finance ministry. Only Hagos and Isaias are in control of crucial financial information and resources.
Hagos is from Tembien, Tigray.
Regarding Hagos oversees the companies that operate under the army, potash, gold mining, and exports. The Bisha Mining Project is a key source of income for the regime. He reports on income and expenditures to Isaias. He also manages the 2% tax levied on Eritreans in the diaspora.
Yemane is a chief bureaucrat and coordinates all ministerial offices and government institutions. He is a technocrat and the most competent manager in the inner circle.
Yemane has been the minister of information since 2015. He was chief of staff of the president's office and is a de facto deputy president.
He is from Agame, Tigray. His father was a union-with-Ethiopia activist.
Abraha Kassa is the regime’s chief spy. He is the head of the Eritrean National Security Agency. He manages and coordinates the country’s intelligence units.
Abraha is from Eritrea’s southern border region.
He organizes and leads intelligence units throughout the regime, including within the army. Other figures, such as Colonel Simon Gebredingil, are within the intelligence agency but do not have power. They do not have access to the decision-making and policy-making inner circle and to Isaias. They only execute commands.
Regarding the army, the main task of the intelligence agency is to spy on the army generals and officers. There is at least one intelligence agent in each armed forces leader’s office.
Since its establishment in 1970, the army has been somewhat independent of political leadership. Gradually, Isaias controlled the army.
However, there are no politically affiliated players in the army. They evolved from the battlefield during the armed struggle for independence and have little affiliation with the political circle.
Army leaders involved in the political inner circle were imprisoned (Petros Solomon, Berhane Gerezgher, Oqube Abraha) or exiled (Mesfin Hagos). The army and its leaders respect and execute the decision-making of the political leadership. But the generals and senior officers are never allowed to take military training in other countries and never permitted to make contact with outside professional networks.
Zemhret Yohannes is the regime’s ideological wiz. He manages the government’s propaganda machine as head of research and documentation at the PFDJ.
He has less power in the inner circle and less access to Isaias.
His messaging focuses on Marxism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Zionism. Zemhret is an expert in conspiracy theory.
He is a Catholic and is from the Segheneyti area in southern Eritrea.