The quote “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight, spoken by the character Harvey Dent, captures a recurring historical pattern. This pattern is especially evident in the context of leaders who rise to power during crises, often positioning themselves as saviors or reformers, only to eventually become oppressors. This narrative can be traced back to Roman rulers and continues to be relevant in modern times. Today, we examine one such example in the East African country of Eritrea, focusing on its recent history and the authoritarian rule of President Isaias Afwerki.

Historical Context

Eritrea, located at the strategic juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, declared independence from Ethiopia in May 1993. The country’s ruler, Isaias Afwerki, has held power since then, without a single election to support his mandate. Eritrea’s political and social landscape is shrouded in mystery, ranking among the worst in the world for press freedom, economic freedom, and religious freedom. The country’s severe repression has led to one of the highest rates of outward migration globally.

The Path to Independence

To understand how Eritrea came to be under the grip of a dictator, it’s essential to delve into its history, demography, and relations with its political environment. Eritrea’s diversity is immense, with half the population being ethnic Tigrinya, including Afwerki himself. The Tigrinya people are a predominantly Christian ethnic group in the central highlands, speaking the Tigrinya language. They share close ties with the Tigray people of northern Ethiopia. Another significant group, the Tigre people, who practice Islam and speak the Tigre language, make up about 30% of Eritrea’s population. The remaining 20% consists of various other ethnic groups, each with distinct customs and languages.

Despite this diversity, precise population statistics are challenging to ascertain, as Afwerki has never allowed a population census during his 30 years in power. Afwerki was born in Asmara, the modern-day capital, in 1946. At that time, Eritrea was under British administration, following Italy’s defeat in World War II. In 1952, a UN resolution federated Eritrea within the Ethiopian Empire under Emperor Haile Selassie. However, by 1962, Eritrea was forcibly annexed, becoming a province of Ethiopia, sparking widespread discontent and the beginning of the Eritrean War of Independence.

The War of Independence

The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a militant organization with leftist leanings, launched the independence struggle in the 1960s. Isaias Afwerki joined the ELF in 1966 but soon founded a splinter group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), in 1970. The EPLF eventually became the dominant faction in the fight for independence. Unlike the ELF, which was marked by infighting and ethnonationalism, the EPLF was founded on Marxist principles, garnering significant support from the Eritrean public.

The EPLF waged a sustained guerrilla campaign against Ethiopia throughout the 1980s. The Ethiopian Civil War, which began in 1974, further destabilized the region. The overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by the Derg, a Marxist military dictatorship, and subsequent internal conflicts weakened Ethiopia, allowing the EPLF to make significant gains. By 1991, the Ethiopian government collapsed, and Eritrea declared independence in 1993, following a UN-supervised referendum.

Afwerki’s Rule

Afwerki, having led the EPLF to victory, was well-positioned to assume leadership of the newly independent Eritrea. Initially hailed as a Renaissance African leader, Afwerki soon revealed his true intentions. Eritrea under his rule has become one of the most repressive regimes globally. The country operates without fundamental governance structures, such as a parliament, functioning constitution, or legal opposition parties. Afwerki has never held elections, maintaining a firm grip on power through severe repression.

The suppression of civil liberties in Eritrea is extreme. Independent media outlets were banned in 2001, and the country consistently ranks last in press freedom. The government’s mandatory military service is notorious, often extending indefinitely, with many Eritreans spending decades in the military. The UN has described the conscription system as “slavery-like,” with harsh penalties for those who refuse to serve.

Migration Crisis

The harsh conditions in Eritrea have led to a massive exodus of its population. Despite having one of the world’s highest birth rates, Eritrea’s population growth is stunted due to large-scale emigration. In 2019, around 12% of the population migrated, with Eritreans making up a significant portion of those attempting to reach Europe by sea. Many cite the unbearable conditions and risk of severe punishment or death if returned as reasons for fleeing.

International Relations and Conflict

Eritrea’s foreign policy under Afwerki has been marked by volatility and risky decisions. Relations with Ethiopia have been particularly strained. Following Eritrea’s independence, the two countries went to war in 1998 over the disputed town of Badme. Although a ceasefire was reached in 2000, tensions persisted until 2018 when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed renounced Ethiopia’s claims to Badme in exchange for access to Eritrean ports.

Afwerki’s actions have often alienated potential allies. His decision to send Eritrean troops into Tigray during the recent conflict further isolated Eritrea internationally. Instead of seeking reconciliation, Afwerki has aligned Eritrea with countries like Iran, China, and Venezuela, distancing it from Western nations and some African neighbors. His undermining of the African Union, in collaboration with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has also weakened Eritrea’s standing in the region.


The story of Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki is a stark reminder of the dangers of absolute power. Once hailed as a hero of independence, Afwerki has become a villain in the eyes of many Eritreans and the international community. His repressive regime has driven countless Eritreans to flee their homeland, seeking safety and freedom elsewhere. As Eritrea faces an uncertain future, the lessons from its recent history are clear: the concentration of power in the hands of one individual can lead to unimaginable suffering and oppression.

FAQ Section

Q: What led to Eritrea’s war of independence? A: Eritrea’s war of independence was sparked by Ethiopia’s forced annexation of Eritrea in 1962, which led to widespread discontent and the formation of militant groups like the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and later the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

Q: How has Isaias Afwerki maintained power in Eritrea? A: Isaias Afwerki has maintained power through severe repression, banning independent media, and not holding any elections. The country operates without a functioning parliament, constitution, or legal opposition parties.

Q: Why is Eritrea considered one of the most repressive regimes in the world? A: Eritrea is considered one of the most repressive regimes due to its severe suppression of civil liberties, mandatory indefinite military service, lack of press freedom, and the absence of democratic governance structures.

Q: What has been the impact of mandatory military service in Eritrea? A: Mandatory military service in Eritrea, often extending indefinitely, has led to widespread human rights abuses, with many Eritreans spending decades in the military under harsh conditions. This has been described as “slavery-like” by the UN.

Q: How has Eritrea’s foreign policy affected its international relations? A: Eritrea’s foreign policy under Afwerki has been marked by volatility, leading to strained relations with neighboring Ethiopia and isolation from many international partners. Afwerki’s alignment with countries like Iran, China, and Venezuela has further distanced Eritrea from the West and some African neighbors.

Liked it? Take a second to support Ryan Hite on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Ryan Hite

Ryan Hite is an American author, content creator, podcaster, and media personality. He was born on February 3, 1993, in Colorado and spent his childhood in Conifer, Colorado. He moved to Littleton in 2000 and spent the remainder of his schooling years in the city. Upon graduation from Chatfield Senior High School in 2011, he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated from the university in 2015 after studying Urban Planning, Business Administration, and Religious Studies. He spent more time in Colorado in the insurance, real estate, and healthcare industries. In 2019, he moved to Las Vegas, NV, where he continued to work in healthcare, insurance, and took his foray into media full time in 2021. His first exposure to the media industry came as a result of the experiences he had in his mid to late teens and early twenties. In 2013, he was compelled to collect a set of stories from his personal experiences and various other writings that he has had. His first book, a 365,000-word epic, Through Minds Eyes, was published in collaboration with Balboa Press. That initial book launched a media explosion. He learned all that he could about creating websites, marketing his published works, and would even contemplate the publication of other works as well. This book also inspired him to create his philosophy, his life work, that still influences the values that he holds in his life. Upon graduating college, he had many books published, blogs and other informative websites uploaded, and would embark on his continued exploration of the world of marketing, sales, and becoming an influencer. Of course, that did not come without challenges that would come his way. His trial-and-error approach of marketing himself and making himself known guided him through his years as a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and would eventually create a marketing plan from scratch with a healthcare startup. The pandemic did not initially create too many challenges to the status quo. Working from home did not affect the quality of his life. However, a series of circumstances such as continued website problems, social media shutdowns, and unemployment, caused him to pause everything between late 2020 and mid-2021. It was another period of loss of momentum and purpose for his life as he tried to navigate the world, as many people may have felt at that time. He attempted to find purpose in insurance again, resulting in failure. There was one thing that sparked his curiosity and would propel him to rediscover the thing that was gone from his life for so long. In 2021, he started his journey by taking on a full-time job in the digital media industry, an industry that he is still a part of today. It was at this point that he would also shut down the rest of the media that he had going at the time. In 2023, he announced that he would be embarking on what has become known as PROJECT30. This initiative will result in the reformation of websites, the reinvigoration of social media accounts, the creation of a Youtube channel and associated podcast, the creation of music, and the continued rediscovery of his creative potential. Unlike past projects, the purpose of this would not expound on the musings of a philosophy, the dissemination of useless news and articles, or the numerous attempts to be someone that he was not. This project is going to be about his authentic self. There are many ways to follow him as he embarks on this journey. Most of all, he wants everyone to be entertained, informed, and, in some ways, maybe a little inspired about the flourishing of the creativity that lies within the mind and soul of Ryan.

Leave a Reply