By Hindessa Abdul
Ethiopia[‘s dictator] has minted a new ministry of Communication and Information Technology. It is not yet clear what it is officially entrusted to do. The most obvious thing though, the country has largely missed out on information technology. The state’s monopoly on telecommunication didn’t help improve matters. To the contrary, it was part of the problem. Lately there has been some talk of liberalizing the sector. A French company is expected to take over the management of the dreaded Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC).
“We plan to ensure universal access and Internet connectivity to all the tens of thousands of rural kebeles (districts) of our country over the next two to three years.” Prime minister Meles Zenawi. (AP, April 5, 2005). That is the Internet equivalent of three meals a day!
Sometimes back, the newly appointed minister while heading the Ethiopian Information Communications Technology Development Agency (EICTDA) was quoted as saying: “Ethiopia’s investment in Information and Communication Technology is considered to be one of the highest in the world”. Though we don’t know where he got the figure from , he unabashedly added : “the government has invested over USD 14 billion over the last decade.” (The Reporter, August 25, 2007)
Where is the beef?
The Phone – With a motto of “Connecting Ethiopia to the Future”, ETC has actually thrown the country in communication doldrums. Just a little over 3 million people have mobile phones. Ethiopia’s mobile phone penetration rate stands at 5% while that of sub-Saharan Africa is 39%. “Elsewhere in Africa, the debate is about the relative merits of Blackberries and iPhones. In Ethiopia, it is simply about getting a phone,” wrote the Economist in its May edition.
The government has been resisting liberalization on this sector not wanting to share the profits with others. A couple of years back a top government official defending the monopoly was quoted as saying the mobile phone is a cow yet to be milked. That is at the expense of the population. Not only is the number limited, as the government controls the network, it can deny services at will. From 2005 to 07 Ethiopians were denied text messaging services because the ruling party fared miserably in the usage of the medium to garner support while the opposition parties were efficient in mobilizing supporters using the new media. When the government finally felt confident of its firm grip on power, text services resumed.
Internet – When it comes to the internet, the picture is even grimmer. Ethiopians not only are at the mercy of one single provider, but they get the most expensive service. A study on broadband internet connection access sponsored by UN tells a gruesome reality. Ethiopia is the second most expensive place to get a fixed broadband connection only preceded by the Central African Republic.
According to International Telecommunication Union, Ethiopia has around 360,000 internet users which is a mere 0.4 % of the total population. While some countries have already passed a law making broadband internet connection to each household an obligation so government can provide services online (Finland), Ethiopia seems to be in a medieval period. 15 years after the Internet has become a global phenomenon, it is only the lucky few who can chat over Skype or use web cams to communicate. And when it happens, in most cases it is with relatives and friends living abroad rather than Ethiopians living in different corners of the country.
It is not unusual to see people in Internet cafes reading magazines while surfing the internet. So much for the “highest in the world” investment.
Hope you like jammin’ too
If there has been a success in the government’s endeavor to develop the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector so far, it is the blocking of websites and jamming of electronic media broadcasters. Ethiopia began filtering websites well before many countries as early as 2005. ETC’s monopoly helped ease blocking the sites and monitoring personal email exchanges, hosted in its servers. The Open Net Initiative, a leading internet freedom watchdog said of Ethiopia as “the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to actively engage in political Internet filtering.”
And it is right there where the motive of establishing the new ministry lies. To undertake the jamming and filtering more vigorously. Not playing a suicide bomber when jamming broadcasters. Remember when they knocked of poor ETV from the spectrum in their bid to jam ESAT!
As former security chief at the Bole International Airport, the newly appointed minister Mr Debretsion Gebremichael, knows a thing or two about jamming. Some are already calling him jammer-in–chief for the role he played so far. For that “unrelenting service”, last month he has been promoted to the 9 member TPLF executive committee. And his latest appointment is an extension of that. The move tells loads about where the rulers’ priority lies.
Even with the abysmal state of the internet connection in the country people have been yearning to tap from the benefit of ICT. Recent studies indicate that there are about 143,000 Facebook users in Ethiopia. (Kenya with less than half the population of Ethiopia has close to a million Facebookers). Not that hooking to the social networking sites is the yardstick for ICT development, but it gives some idea about the level of expansion of the sector. People have long understood the benefits. The government which is supposed to expand the sector is trying their best to control it in every possible way, hindering the growth. Never forget that even with the most minimum access to internet, Ethiopians were among the first bloggers in the Sub Saharan Africa.
What’s to be done?
* The most straightforward thing to do is just expand the broadband connection. There were already talks about ETC signing contract with SEACOM, a Mauritius based company which was supposed to connect the country through submarine fiber optic cable to the rest of the world via Djibouti.
* Avoid ETC’s monopoly. ETC, at its current state, cannot connect Ethiopia to its past, let alone the future.
* Stop filtering online media and jamming electronics broadcasters. The World Wide Web carries information and ideas. ICT is not about the computers and the gadgets, it is about the information carried and transmitted through it.
* Finally, no need to reinvent the wheel by churning out new ministries.