Afwerki was born on 2 February 1946 in Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. He graduated from Prince Mekonnen Secondary School in Asmara, then attended the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. In 1966, Afwerki was a second-year engineering student when he interrupted his university studies to join the ELF as a combatant.
Despite his powerful role and his long leadership of the EPLF, Afwerki has kept a low profile in public life. Unlike many heads of state in Africa who have cultivated a cult of personality in their style of rule, few details are known about his background, and he is rarely photographed. He often attends official functions wearing jeans and sandals. His trademark is his simplicity. His struggle to build an unshakable unified Eritrean nationalism has gained him popularity among his people.