Thumbs down, Ethiopia, for silencing social media

One would think that for a country that has taken the world by storm in launching many major hydropower projects, aggressively pursuing its growth and transformation programme and boasting Africa’s most financially viable state-owned airline, Ethiopia would do better than blame its leaked matric exam papers on social media; but then it looks like the whole world is battling to understand how the digital economy works.

A report on read: “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber were inaccessible starting Saturday morning.”

It further cited government spokesman Getachew Reda telling the BBC that this was “a temporary measure until Wednesday. Social media have proven to be a distraction for students”. This as Zimbabwe had just tried a similar stunt to quell dissidence against the Harare administration’s failure to pay public servants’ wages and the country’s precarious forex situation.

Forget what has been called the wariness of Ethiopians about whether this crackdown reflects a sincere belief that social media are a distraction for students. This was also seen in some quarters as a spillover from the earlier postponement of national exams after the English paper was leaked via social media.

Reports suggest that some Ethiopians suspect that this is another ploy by Addis Ababa to silence opposition.

My gripe is of a different nature. Why do we keep on fighting reality instead of adapting to change?

Ethiopia is one of my favourite countries. The financial viability of government-owned Ethiopia Airlines, the insistence by the leadership of this East African country to forge ahead with hydropower projects to make it an exporter of energy to the region, and its launch of a high-speed train, cutting travel time in and around the capital by two thirds, are some reasons I am a fan of Ethiopia. This is why my loyalty will not allow me to let this indiscretion slide.

Information is one of the four “i’s”, according to Kenichi Ohmae in his book, The End of the Nation State, that drive human behaviour – no longer loyalty to national identity. To paraphrase Ohmae, people make decisions about where to stay on the basis of information available, infrastructure, investment opportunities and they do so as individuals.

Therefore, to make any African country a success, I propose that our leaders – both private and public sector – should master the world in which information is king.

Fighting social media for leaked exam papers? That is not a winning formula at all.

Ethiopia has the undersea fibre-optic cable coursing through the Indian Ocean right past it. When its neighbours like Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania are cashing in big on this digital ground-breaking infrastructure, the closed mentality of Ethiopia has left it barking up the proverbial wrong tree.

It is not social media leaking exam papers; it is dishonest people. It is not social media that distract learners; it is the ineptitude of parents, educators, school managers, education administrators, legislators and other leaders of society in using the new world order of communication to conduct their business.

Whereas one of the Nepad priority projects, driven by the AU, is that of eLearning, Ethiopia is going against the grain in shutting down social media. Ironically, the AU is headquartered in Ethiopia’s capital.

Let us stop asking young Africans to concentrate while we deliver our sonorous chalk-and-talk lessons. Instead, we should teach our teachers to use social media to understand their learners better, share knowledge, promote peer accountability and hopefully find security measures to safeguard exam papers.

Maybe, to take it even further, we ought to learn how to place disproportionately more weight on continuous assessment instead of end-of-term examinations. After all, mastering of tactics to pass year or term-end exams is hardly an indicator of our functional literacy or the ability to apply what we learnt at school.

Anything will do; but shutting down social media will get us nowhere. The sooner we understand that, the better. Thumbs down, Ethiopia on this one; you can do better!

Victor Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business; anchor of Power Hour, Monday to Thursday, on Power FM; and weekly columnist for Sunday Independent – Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica

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