On the air in Eritrea


I've just returned from a brief trip to Asmara, Eritrea, where I had the chance to interview Isaias Afwerki, the country's only president in 16 years of independence.

The Ministry of Information gave me less than a week to prepare, and Isaias isn't an easy interview. He's famously prickly and doesn't seem to think much of journalists. As the story goes, he expelled a wire-service reporter from the country a few years back after the reporter repeatedly referred to Eritrea as "the tiny Red Sea state."

But for me the most difficult thing about the interview was that it was taped live by the presidential media service, with three cameras and an array of lights. Before Isaias walked into the room, while I was looking over my notes, one of the cameramen startled me by straightening my tie. When the interview began, I was given a countdown as if I were a seasoned TV personality.

When I got the wrap-up sign, nearly two and a half hours later, I briefly contemplated signing off with "You stay classy, Asmara." (Not really.)

The staged aspect threw me off, but it was stranger after the interview aired on EriTV, the country's only TV channel, and I started being recognized in my hotel, in the street, in the immigration line in Cairo after my flight out. In a deeply repressive and suspicious country, this would have been an excellent way for Isaias to ensure no one spoke to me — except that few people wanted to speak with me, anyway.

I'd been told to watch out for Isaias's footwear, and sure enough he was wearing his trademark sandals. Although the 63-year-old ruler hasn't created a cult of personality there is, among his supporters, an almost cult-like appreciation for his lack of pretension, which measured against his African counterparts makes him seem positively ascetic. His photo doesn't hang in every store window, he hasn't constructed an over-the-top presidential palace, and when he travels through Asmara in the presidential car (a sensible sedan) he rides shotgun.

Later this week we'll be running my story as well as a short video I've produced with clips from the interview. Stay tuned.

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