IN early October the Ethiopian government started carrying out extended internet shutdowns, as it declared a state of emergency.
The country recently faced its most widespread and sustained protests since the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition came to power in 1991.
The government declared a state of emergency following a week of anti-government violence that resulted in dozens of deaths and property damage across the country, especially in the restive Oromia region. Since November 2015 when the latest phase of the protests started, more than 600 have been killed, according to human rights groups.
The state’s blockage of the internet is an attempt to prevent protesters from using social media to get supporters to attend demonstrations. Internet access to all major social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, was completely denied to the general public for days, and remains erratic.
Weeks after the declaration of the state of emergency, apart from at UN compounds and some diplomatic missions, internet services are still cut in many towns and patchy in the few parts of the capital Addis Ababa where it is available.
The disruption is forcing some organisations and international businesses in Ethiopia, to move some staff to Kenya where they can gain access to critical online resources.
HISTORY OF INTERNET BLOCKAGE
The latest restrictions are not new. The Ethiopian government regularly blocks the internet.
In July, it shut down access to all major social media platforms for a couple of days, in a move it said was meant to curb examination malpractice and get students to focus on their studies.
In August, the Internet was again shut down as anti-government protests continued to mount.
The October action, however, is the most widespread and longest since 2005 following a violent post-election period.
Photographs circulating the last few days on Twitter and Facebook show Ethiopians in Addis Ababa gathered at “hot spots” where there is a strong enough mobile phone signal to enable them get to some parts of the internet.
The only way to access the internet in Ethiopia is through the government-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, which has a monopoly over the telecom industry.
In a lengthy February article on the “tragedy of Ethiopia’s Internet”, the online technology magazine and video channel Motherboard (quoted at length here), examined how state control and the use of the internet as a tool for repression had hobbled the growth of the country’s digital economy.
Neighbour Kenya’s burgeoning tech scene Kenya, which has an internet penetration rate of 69.6%, has garnered the name “Silicon Savannah.” But in Ethiopia, the monopoly on internet access has created one of the most disconnected countries in the world.
Only 3.7% of Ethiopians have access to the internet, according to the latest data, one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. By comparison, conflict-ravaged South Sudan, which lacks most basic government services, has an internet penetration rate of 15.9%.
There are only ten countries with lower internet penetration than Ethiopia. Most of them, such as Somalia and North Korea, are hampered by decades-long civil wars or largely sealed off from outside world.
“As one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with one of the most storied cultures in the world”, Motherboard notes, “Ethiopia’s lack of internet access is astounding. It’s also troubling.”
Signs are that some organisations and companies in Addis Ababa, for whom access to the internet is critical for their work and business, are sending some staff to Kenya there they can get online access, in the interim.
It has not been possible to establish how widespread this response is, but an individual who spoke to Africapedia and Rogue Chiefs on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said there were quite a few “tech refugees” from Addis Ababa like him in Nairobi.
With Ethiopia already lagging behind many countries in Africa in the liberalisation of the telecommucations, it is likely that countries like Kenya could profit from the state of emergency in the Horn of Africa nation, despite its coveted population of 90 million, if its squeeze on the internet continues, and investors lose patience and put their money in already more open and innovative African technology markets instead.