A Cozy Chat with An African Dictator

Jeffrey Gettleman talks to Eritrean strongman Isaias Afewerki and finds the bright-side of the press-squelching, dissident-jailing dictator: "And his eyes lit up like the fake orange fire in the fireplace next to him when he talked about his hobbies of welding sculptures and carving wood."

Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman interviewed Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, accused by the U.S. and the U.N. of supplying arms to Islamists in Somalia.

In February 2007, Gettleman mentioned the "positive qualities" of Idi Amin.His Tuesday story, "A Calm Voice From Embattled Eritrea," flattereda livedictator, making him sound plucky and defiant.

"For a man who many people say has been backed into a corner, Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea, actually looks pretty relaxed.

"The Bush administration has threatened to designate his nation a terrorist state. Eritrea is nearing war again with its neighbor, Ethiopia, which is 15 times as populous. And on top of everything else, his country is struggling with thorny development issues, like how to feed itself.

"But on Monday, Mr. Isaias sank into a stuffed chair in an old Italian villa in downtown Asmara, the capital, and spoke leisurely for nearly two hours about all the struggles his underdog of a country has overcome, and how Eritrea will do it again.

"'It's not easy fighting against regimes supported by superpowers,' he said in a rare interview. 'But we did it.'

"He bragged about the harmony among his people, half of whom are Muslim and half Christian.

"He lamented America's role in the region, accusing it of propping up dictatorships in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Middle East and viewing everything through the cross-haired lens of terrorism and counterterrorism.

"And his eyes lit up like the fake orange fire in the fireplace next to him when he talked about his hobbies of welding sculptures and carving wood. 'It's good to do something besides work to recharge your batteries,' he said. 'Otherwise, you obsess.'

"By all accounts, Mr. Isaias has plenty to think about. Eritrea, a sliver of a country along the Red Sea, is teetering on the edge of officially becoming a pariah state after the State Department and the United Nations accused it of funneling weapons to Islamist fighters in Somalia, which Mr. Isaias categorically denies."

Gettleman briefly explained why Isaias is an international pariah:

"But Eritreans have not seen a ballot box for years. State Department officials have criticized Mr. Isaias for continuing to postpone elections; he has been president for 14 years. Human rights groups have assailed him for jailing journalists and opponents.

"Mr. Isaias dismissed internal problems as a result of 'external threats,' and said that 'our political process has been held hostage' by the border issue, which he says is the fault of the small clique ruling Ethiopia.

"The Ethiopians laugh at this.

"'He is the dictator,' said Zemedkun Tekle, an Ethiopian government spokesman. 'While our political system is not perfect, at least we have got started down the road of democracy.'

Gettleman returned to weird flattery, giving Isaias credit for avoiding (at least when a foreign journalist is around - the only kind allowed in Eritrea) the trappings of typical African strongmen.

"Democratic or not, there is a certain easygoingness in Asmara, at least on the surface. The streets are spotless, and when Mr. Isaias drives through town, it is not in a motorcade with whirling sirens and sunglassed police officers. Instead, there is just one car, a white BMW, and the president rides shotgun.

"Unlike most other African capitals, where pictures of the big man hang from every shop and over every stove, it is difficult to find anything in Asmara - a poster, a piece of money - bearing Mr. Isaias's mustached face, which has been likened to an African version of Tom Selleck. "

Did Gettleman even try to talk to dissidents in this country of five million?

"To understand this struggle is to understand Mr. Isaias' defiance. Eritrea, population five million, was colonized by the Italians, occupied by the British and then handed over to the Ethiopians, who ruled it brutally for 30 years, first with the help of the Americans, then with the Soviets.

"Mr. Isaias, 61, led a guerrilla movement that built underground cities and trained women to fight in one of the few successful separatist movements on the continent. Eritrea won its independence in 1993, but in some ways, it still seems like it is fighting for it."

The cheekily named DictatoroftheMonth.com did the digging the Times doesn't:

"After Afewerki clamped down on private press in 2001, privately run media are now nonexistent in Eritrea, leaving the country as the only in Africa without private news media, with press, radio, TV and the country's news agency all strictly controlled by the government. Moreover his regime has been marred by the disappearances/ kidnappings/ incarcerations of international and domestic journalists. Opposition and criticism of his government are absolutely not tolerated and are swiftly punished. Oppression by Afewerki has been very brutal, as evidenced by the number of refugees fleeing the country; about ten thousand Eritreans have sought asylum and live in camps in Ethiopia."

And Xan Rice, columnist for the left-wing U.K. newspaper The Guardian, had another less-cozy view of the dictator:

"Behind locked doors, and in hushed tones, Asmarinos trace the beginning of real paranoia to 2001, when 15 senior politicians were jailed for suggesting that President Isaias Afewerki was not a democrat. Eleven of them have not been seen since. Shortly afterwards, the independent media was shut down. At least 13 journalists remain in prison. Only North Korea has a worse record on press freedom."