It takes a great deal of time to travel anywhere in Addis Ababa. The traffic requires you to be enormously patient. Using Ethiopia’s telecom services requires a similar level of patience. You send a text message to someone you’re supposed to meet, to let her know you’re running late, likely because of a traffic jam. But you might well arrive long before the message shows up on your friend’s phone, which could be hours or even days later. In Ethiopia, more than 40 percent of text messages are not delivered on time, or simply never reach the recipient.
Calls often drop in the middle of a conversation, and the airtime on pre-paid mobile phone cards is usually less than what’s advertised. During the rainy season, it’s not unusual to experience extended network outages for hours at a time, even in the capital. In the first half of 2014 alone, state media reported that more than 25 network outages occurred nationwide. And when the networks are up, they’re painfully slow: to upload a file as small as 2 MB or less on standard Gmail can take up to five minutes.
EthioTelecom, the country’s sole, government-run telecom company, has cycled through at least three CEOs, offered multi-million dollar service expansion contracts to Chinese companies, and made countless public promises to improve service “very soon” since 2010. Despite years of EthioTelecom getting increasingly favorable news coverage, there has been no major improvement in the service—if anything, their service has worsened.
Yet when the Ethiopian government wants to communicate with the public, telecommunications services work very well. An ordinary citizen needs an official permit to broadcast an SMS message to more than 10 people, but on occasions like the 40th anniversary of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), celebrated on Feburary 18, countless Ethiopians received mass pro-government text messages marking the occasion.
The government also exercises tight control over access to Internet services. Solomon, a good friend of mine and recent graduate in political science, wanted to start a personal blog with his country’s domain name, .et. He applied to buy a domain under .et, but was told he needed to register as a business before the state administrator of top-level domains would consider his application. When Solomon expressed frustration with EthioTelecom’s customer service, an employee called security and had Solomon removed from the building.
Why is there just a single—and poorly functioning—Internet service provider for Ethiopia’s 90 million people? We know better than to ask this of public officials. Such questions will only be seen as an attempt to undermine national sovereignty, or to sell the country to foreign neoliberal capitalists.
The control exerted by the state over Ethiopia’s telecommunications services is usually justified in the name of preserving Ethiopia’s economic sovereignty. To a large extent, Ethiopia exploits its position as western powers’ stable ally in the volatile Horn of Africa. Bordered by Sudan and Eritrea, and with a genuine terror threat emanating from neighboring Somalia, the government can use a sweeping and abusive anti-terrorism laws as a tool to suppress any hint of dissent.
Mobile text message services were suspended for three years following the 2005 election, the only contested election in the nation’s entire political history. In May 2011, the entire country was disconnected from the global Internet for hours, because the government feared the Internet would fuel an Egyptian-style “revolution” in Ethiopia. At that time, state-controlled media outlets routinely depicted social media as being “bad for the health of society.”
More than a century ago, when Emperor Menelik II connected the palace and the treasury through a telephone line, the sound of disembodied voices frightened the nobility and the priests. They tried to banish the telephone line, calling it the work of demons. It sometimes feels as if the current rulers are re-enacting these scenarios by putting telecom technologies out of the reach of most Ethiopians and shrouding their efforts in political ideology.
For Ethiopians like my friend Solomon, who experiment with expressing themselves online, punishment by the state or by EthioTelecom is a familiar pattern. In 2012, I got together with a few colleagues and started a collective blog called Zone9. After just three weeks we found out that our blog was not accessible in Ethiopia. We never believed the government would consider our blog a serious political threat—we were simply trying to form an identity as one voice in Ethiopia’s post-civil war generation with an engaged heart and a thick skin.
And we wanted to give our government the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that we received lots of advice to the contrary from journalists who had experienced the regime’s brutality first-hand. We refused to be co-opted by the various Ethiopian political forces, which tend to be divided along ideological, ethnic and religious lines. Our objective was not to confront the government, but to use Ethiopia’s tiny web space as much as possible to kindle genuine public discussions at the grassroots level. We were writing about issues of public interest.
In a bid to lengthen the lives of our blogs we tried to generalize our criticism, rather than focus on specific wrongdoings of the government. In the space of just a few months we launched more than ten blogs, moving each time, tweaking their web addresses to bypass censorship. We alternated between platforms, from Blogger to WordPress and back to Blogger. This was of course a poor digital media strategy, but it was no child’s game. And then we overstepped the limit. This resulted in some of us being beaten by the police and charged with inciting violence, and even terrorism. This is what happened to nine of my friends, who are currently suffering in prisons in Addis Ababa.
We learned that we were wrong to assume that the government would not touch us, that they knew our vulnerabilities and would not arrest us. The most significant thing we did was to ask the government to start respecting the country’s constitution and to rectify poor telecom service issues like the ones I described at beginning of this piece. Our campaigns were able to attract many from Ethiopia’s relatively small online community, but our activities were never criminal.
On my colleagues’ charge sheet, the prosecutor presented a full transcript of the wiretapped phone conversations I had with my friends while I was still in Ethiopia, as evidence of a “crime” we committed. They recorded telephone conversations we had about our private lives, about our training in digital security, and everything in between. The government accused us of collaborating with political groups of whom we had been openly critical.
The Zone9 bloggers were simply grasping for a bit of agency through the Internet. But we are now trapped between the local greedy power circles of those who run the Ethiopian government who are using global anti-terrorism rhetoric to crush anything they fear could threaten their power and stability as leaders. Meanwhile, nearly a year after their arrest, my friends continue to live behind bars, with little ability to see family, no access to the outside world, and no clear legal justification for their continuing detention.
This essay won third prize in the #GV2015 Summit competition, “How Do Internet Policies Affect Your Community?” Endalk Chala is a PhD student in Media Studies at the University of Oregon and a founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective in Ethiopia. He joined Global Voices in 2011.