Last week the case of Dawit Isaak, a Swedish journalist, who has been detained without formal charge in Eritrea for nearly 10 years, came alive again.

“While we cannot be sure that there is a heaven, this past week we received partial confirmation that hell is a reality with a known location.

Its address is the infamous Eira-Eiro prison in Eritrea, 10 miles north of the capital city Asmara, where currently over 30 high-level political prisoners of the Eritrean regime are held.

One of them is the journalist Dawit Isaak, a Swedish citizen, who was first detained in 2001… Isaak and nine journalist colleagues were arrested seemingly for nothing more than criticising lack of press freedoms in Eritrea,” a leading campaigner for Isaak’s release wrote.

Isaak and other journalists, the campaigner reported, are being held in “almost unimaginably horrendous conditions.”

As African presidents come and go, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki is so bad, the Swedish government seemed terrified of intervening on Isaak’s behalf. After all, the fellow has more journalists in prison than any other strongman in the world.

Press freedom advocates, however, thinks the Swedish government is cowardly. “The idea that President Afewerki cannot be dealt with, that he is worse than any other dictator, is a fallacy,” they proclaimed last week. 

The thing about Aferweki is that all former African rebel leaders, no matter how tyrannical they become, have always granted some freedoms to the people — like the freedom of worship and of movement.

Most of our dictators are good church or mosque goers. Not so Afewerki. He is a world leader (rivalled perhaps only by China) in jailing people because they want to praise the Lord.

Eritrea is probably one of the few countries in the world, if not the only one, where a citizen needs a government visa to exit his or own country.

Although he had the reputation of being tough and uncompromising as leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s struggle against Ethiopian occupation, few expected he would be as extreme as he has turned out to be.

So why is Afewerki nasty like no other African liberation movement leader? It is relatively easy to mobilise to get rid of a European colonial overlord. If nothing else, the fellow is obviously a foreigner who has no business ruling an African country.

Second, and most important, you can explain way why he is bossing you: He has superior technology, and a rich industrial economy.

But with a fellow African, you are at the same level, so the sense of inferiority that comes from being colonised by another African country must be very deep. Likewise, victory is bound to feel a little hollow.

To mobilise against Ethiopia, the Eritrean resistance leader had to dip into the very darkest side of tribal politics.

Once you have been to that dark corner, as Afewerki has, your mind and soul are too twisted for you to embrace liberal notions of press freedom and freedom of worship.

We saw the same thing happen when the rebels (formed from the ranks of the indigenous Africans) in Sierra Leone took up arms against the Creole (mixed blood) elite at the coast; and in Angola when Jonas Savimbi, also representing the indigenous Africans, took the war to the Creoles in their beach villas.

So, there you have it. Afewerki is actually a terrifying man. He eats journalists for breakfast.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..