Defying Ethiopia’s digital crackdown
Tigrayans, an ethnic group representing just six per cent of Ethiopia’s population, ‘own’ the country’s coalition government. This, the view of the Ethiopian Border Affairs Committee NGO, reflects the resentment felt by much of the majority ethnic group, the Oromo people, towards the ruling elite.
The lack of representation felt by the Oromia region, which is made up mostly of Oromo people and contains Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, has fuelled a series of protests over the last two years. There are ongoing restrictions on free expression, association, and peaceful assembly, described as draconian by Human Rights Watch.
These tensions can be seen in the compelling battle for control of – and access to – the internet. This war is largely being waged between the ruling regime, led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front Party, and a new generation of software-smart young professionals in Addis Ababa.
While there are policies restricting access to the internet across the world, they have never been attempted on the scale seen in Ethiopia. The country has 100 million people but only one internet server provider, owned by the Government. A state of emergency directive approved in October 2016 places heavy restrictions on the use of social media and other online communication.
‘It was completely shut down two days before the state of emergency was declared,’ recalls 27-year-old Abraham, a web developer at a digital marketing start-up. ‘Over time, access to email sites became available, for people who have access to WiFi. Most people in Addis, let alone the rest of Ethiopia, don’t have access to WiFi. Every other website was blocked.’
One week after the state of emergency was called, any internet communication that could be taken to ‘create misunderstanding between people’ was made illegal. The Government was most concerned by Facebook, through which it said videos of arson were being posted by protestors to inspire copycat attacks. Activists also posted videos of police and security forces assaulting Oroma rebels. Five year prison sentences became the deterrent for publishing such material, but for most even basic access the internet has been impossible.
But the Oromia region’s new generation of graduates have shown that the country’s majority ethnic group – currently wholly unrepresented in parliament – have the digital skills to win the communication wars of the future, should they choose to.
‘The circle of developers in Addis is small, but we all talk and so we were quick to establish the VPNs (virtual private networks) that would enable us to access data as soon as it was first blocked,’ explains Abraham from his office in downtown Addis.
Phone communication was also blocked at the time, but developers and others who knew how to get around the shutdown asked around until they found a contact that had both an unblocked VPN app and an app sharing device that did not rely on an internet connection.
‘The Government fought back, switching off the ports connecting the unsecured VPNs to the internet,’ Abraham continues, ‘but we then found others that were still connected, and so on until eventually the Government decided just to unblock the internet again, for Addis at least, two weeks ago. Although access to social media is still technically blocked, the Government no longer seem to be attempting to disconnect VPNs.’
In the capital, the Government seem to have admitted defeat in their attempts to mute the citizens most determined to get online. Abraham appears to have found the battle an amusing intellectual challenge rather than a political crusade. ‘One should be not denied his right to free internet,’ he jokes.
Abraham's compatriots have found the government’s repressive tactics anything but amusing, however. If apps like Super VPN and Xender – a tool that enables people to share and open VPN apps even if they are not logged on – that have quickly become commonplace in Addis make their way to southern Oromia, they will be greeted as political tools rather than technological novelties, and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will again feel the heat.
Toler, a 25-year-old graduate juggling two jobs, believes the government’s digital policy has allowed it to cling on to power in the short term, but that its financial impact will be more devastating than the protests have been.
‘Our economy is very small,’ he says. ‘People focus on the growth, but we have a tiny economy, in its infancy. The internet policy meant Ethiopia only performed to 20 per cent of our capacity in the last two months. 40 per cent of our exports will directly go towards paying off our debts.’
Toler is well placed to evaluate the cost. In his day he is an economist at one of the country’s leading banks, able to connect to WiFi transmitted by the hotel adjacent to his office.
He shows me a PDF on his Samsung Galaxy of World Bank statistics emphasising the debt Ethiopia is in to China.
‘From an economic view, I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this,” he says. ‘For the economy to change, the politics has to change. The “development state” - growth first, human rights later - this ideology has to change. I’m very scared for the future of our country, all of us are.’
Toler is trying to grow a fashion chain in his spare time and claims to have lost up to 200,000 Birr ($8,780) in revenue due to the internet restrictions. ‘I’m relatively better educated than an average Ethiopian and I know how to use these technologies like VPNs. Imagine what the policy has meant to the average person who runs a business and doesn’t know how to use all this complicated stuff. Ethiopians have got used to relying on WhatsApp and Viber to discuss prices and that sort of thing, but most haven’t been able to access these apps since October.
Until very recently, he couldn’t use the internet from his shop, and had to go to nearby hotels or malls to use their WiFi.
‘I’m probably the one per cent of the population close enough to a WiFi connection to do that sort of thing,’ he says.
With people like Abraham and Toler spreading awareness of apps like Super VPN, which allows users to browse the internet without any restrictions, the unanswered question is whether the return of social media will see it harnessed to challenge Tigrayan rule again.
See also: Digital democracy: action and contacs.
‘A lot of people care about the nationality (ethnicity)’, says Toler, ‘but I don’t care what the backgrounds of our politicians are, as long as they have the mindset to change our country.
‘For all the weaknesses Ethiopia has, we also have enormous opportunities as a country. We cannot allow the economy to be disrupted by internet shutdowns.
‘We have a population of 100 million people. You can sell anything to 100 million people.’
Ethiopia's digital communication battleground may hold lessons for future internet wars and government policies of politicians around the world.