Last week, for the third time in the past year, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF) unplugged the internet. The reasons are a bit fuzzy. Some T-TPLF officials say the shutdown aims to prevent “student cheating on national exams.” During a similar clampdown last year, T-TPLF spokesman said the internet was unplugged because “social media have proven to be a distraction for students.”
Shutting down and criminalizing use of the internet has become a weapon in T-TPLF’s cyber warfare strategy against the Ethiopian people, particularly the youth.
In 2012, the T-TPLF enacted the so-called “Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences” criminalizing use of third-party Internet VOIP services (Skype, and Google Talk) to “limit the free flow of information.”
In 2012, the T-TPLF also enacted the so-called Telecom Fraud Offence Proclamation No. 761/2012, which cleverly reinvented the 2009 “anti-terrorism law” and sought to punish, intimidate, harass and jail those who use computers and the internet to express dissent.
The recent shutdown raises some questions. First, the students are said to “cheat” on the national “exams” because they allegedly obtained illicit copies by theft or other means. If the “exams” were “stolen” from the vaults of the T-TPLF test makers, who conducted the theft? If they were hacked out of T-TPLF servers, why weren’t the servers robustly secured?
Second, assuming a single illicit or stolen exam existed, does the T-TPLF really believe duplicating and disseminating that copy by non-internet means would be a challenge to Ethiopian students? Does the T-TPLF actually believe Ethiopian students are so dumb and unimaginative that they will have no other way of disseminating “stolen” exams but Facebook and Twitter?
It is doubtful and illogical to believe the “exams” were “stolen” by students and disseminated. It is highly unlikely any students would be allowed any access to the exams before administration.
It is highly likely that a T-TPLF operative with access to the “exams” stole and sold them to a buyer for the equivalent of a king’s ransom, or made it accessible to T-TPLF cronies who in turn leaked it publicly for conceivably a variety of reasons. That would smack of corruption.
It is also highly likely that the T-TPLF itself calculatedly leaked the exam so that it can use it as a pretext to clampdown the internet and disrupt whatever level of youth digital activism is taking on social media today. Certainly, there was enormous digital activism last year when the T-TPLF shutdown the internet.
Could it be a situation of “monkey-see, monkey-do”?
In mid-May 2016, the Iraqi government successively shut down the country’s internet system to prevent students from “cheating” on their exams. In the Iraqi case, the blackout was limited to three hours on three exam dates. The T-TPLF clampdown occurred in mid-July 2016 and continued for days as it did in 2017.
It is no secret that the T-TPLF is obsessed with social media and would go to any lengths to block and prevent access to it. Political commentators on social media are at great risk of getting locked up.
Last month, Yonatan Tesfaye, spokesperson for the Blue Party, was sentenced to six and one-half years on “trumped up charges” of “inciting violence on his Facebook wall.” Getachew Shiferaw, editor-in-chief of Blue Party’s Negere-Ethiopia was also jailed for 18 months in May on trumped up charges of incitement and secretly working with a foreign government.
The great Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, recipient of the prestigious Pen America’s Freedom to Write prize, the 2017 International Press Institute (IPI)’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero award and so many others, was sentenced in 2012 to 18 years in prison for blogging on the internet.
It would be adding insult to the intelligence of Ethiopia’s youth and inflicting injury on their integrity to paint them all with a broad brush as “cheaters.” Since no investigation has been conducted to establish if the “exams” were actually stolen by student(s) or disseminated by them, the T-TPLF’s not-so-subtle scapegoating of Ethiopian students as “cheats” is unwarranted and patently unfair. What is indisputable is the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that a “student(s)” stole and disseminated the exams on social media.
Assuming for the sake of argument that an illicit copy of an exam had been willfully obtained by crooked student(s), there would be infinite ways of disseminating it without the need of social media or the internet. Young people are far more resourceful and clever than the older generation may think when it comes to application of technology in general. If they need to, they can and will revert to other low-tech modes of communication to get the job done.
I believe the allegations of “stolen exams” are bogus. Standardized tests are given throughout the world every year to millions of students without breach of security. With proper high-level security protocols and administrative procedures, unauthorized leaks are minimized to near zero.
I must confess that I find the T-TPLF’s crocodile tears over “stolen” exams, “cheating prevention” and preserving the integrity of the “national exams” laughable.
It is an open secret for a long time that T-TPLF (operating under the front organization EPRDF) supporters and cronies get a free pass to university admission and post-graduation government jobs if they pledge allegiance. They don’t need to take any tests. They just show their party cards and get enrolled. In this regard, the U.S. state Department Human Rights Report stated,
According to multiple credible sources, teachers and high school students in grade 10 and above were required to attend training at their schools on the subject of revolutionary democracy and EPRDF policies on economic development, land, and education. After the training attendees reportedly were routinely provided with EPRDF membership forms; as a result, some students were under the impression that they needed EPRDF membership to gain admission to university in the future.
Indeed, all of the clampdown of the internet and censorship of the media flies in the face of T-TPLF’s “Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No. 590/2008 which provides, “Freedom of the mass media is constitutionally guaranteed.”
The T-TPLF talking about accountability and integrity is like the wolf-priest praying amidst a flock of sheep.
But most importantly, the T-TPLF’s clampdown on the media and internet must not be looked at in isolation. There is a long practice and pattern that must be considered. The T-TPLF has a long history of shuttering newspapers and mass media, jamming radio broadcast and clamping down on the internet.
In 2010, the late T-TPLF’s Meles Zenawi threatened and made good his threat to jam VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia. Zenawi preposterously claimed that VOA was promoting genocide, or as he put it, “VOA has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”
In 2011, Zenawi secretly tried to silence and censor his critics by having them permanently banned from appearing on any VOA broadcasts. In a 42-page “complaint,” T-TPLF catalogued a bizarre and comical set of allegations which he believes represent a pattern and practice of VOA reporting that showed bias, distortions, lies and impartiality.
In 2014, Voice of America Board of Directors, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Al Jazeera and others condemned the T-TPLF’s “flagrant violation of the clearly established international procedures on operating satellite equipment” by jamming transmissions. The T-TPLF has also jammed transmissions of the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) over 20 times in the last 7 years. The T-TPLF has used Deep Packet Inspection technology to censor and block news outlets, websites related to opposition groups, and circumvention software tools like Tor.
The T-TPLF has used spyware to monitor U.S.-based journalists in violation of U.S. law. According to Motherboard, a leading technology online magazine, “It’s clear that the government of Ethiopia is one of the most aggressive purchasers of surveillance technology out there. They are building mass surveillance capabilities to monitor everyone in the country, and using hacking tools to spy on dissidents and journalists at home and abroad.”
But the broader question is what the recurrent blanket clampdown on the internet will do to the country’s economy and role as a diplomatic hub of the African Union and various international organizations. The blanket shutdown is the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a gnat or a flea.
It is ridiculous to totally clampdown on the internet because a few allegedly crooked individuals stole copies of the national exam.
What are the economic consequences of an internet clampdown in Ethiopia?
The internet clampdown in October 2016 cost Ethiopia at least US$500,000 per day in lost GDP.
In 2016, the T-TPLF reported foreign direct investment in Ethiopia dropped by a fifth in the first half of 2016 after violent anti-government protests which targeted a few foreign-owned businesses. (That is based on data cooked in the T-TPLF’s statistics office.)
In 2015, Mozambique and Ethiopia were the only two countries in the top 10 to witness a decline in foreign direct investment by number of projects.
Ethiopia’s creditworthiness on Moody’s is a dismal “B+” (speculative and are subject to high credit risk) and “B” on the S&P and Fitch.
On January 18, 2017, the T-TPLF in a “Memorandum of Understanding” agreed to pay SGR Government Relations, Lobbying (Washington, D.C) $150,000 per month to “strengthen U.S-Ethiopia business outreach and grow foreign direct investment in Ethiopia.”
What a joke?!
What kind of an investor would pour millions of dollars in a country wracked by corruption, teetering on massive civil strife and poor internet infrastructure, service and disruptions to boot? Can Ethiopia afford repeated and random loss of internet connection given the fact it has “extremely poor telecommunications services and a largely disconnected population”?
Despite the T-TPLF’s claims of “double-digit” economic growth over the past decade (with loud hallelujahs from the chorus of international poverty pimps), Ethiopia is at the bottom in terms of internet penetration and infrastructure development. “Ethiopia, the second most populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile phone connectivity in the world.” It is “hampered by slow speeds and the state’s tight grip on the telecom sector.”
In 2006, Ethiopia became the first African country to censor the internet when it began filtering critical websites and opposition blogs.
According to Akamai’s (global operator of network services) 2015 “State of the Internet” report, Ethiopia has an average connection speed of 1.8 Mbps (compared to a global average of 3.9 Mbps).
Internet penetration in Ethiopia in 2014 was 2.9 percent, the lowest in Africa. Similarly, the Internet World Statistics reports that out of population of 104 million, there are only 11.5 million internet users in Ethiopia (11%). Ethiopia has 4.5 million Facebook subscribers.
The dismal state of the internet in Ethiopia can best be put in perspective when considered in light of its neighbors. Kenya with a population of 45.5 million has 39.6 million internet users with an 82 percent penetration. South Sudan, with population of 13 million, which gained its independence in 2011 and currently in the throes of a civil war has 2.1 million users with internet penetration of 17 percent. Zimbabwe, with a population of 16 million and no national currency, has 6.7 million users with 41 percent internet penetration.
T-TPLF getting a taste of its own medicine? T-TPLF may soon find itself on the receiving end.
Under a May 2017 proposal, regimes that arbitrarily cut off internet access to their citizens could find themselves denied new IP addresses.
In May 27, AFRINIC (African Network Information Center), the regional internet registry (RIR) for Africa put forth a proposal for sanctioning countries that arbitrarily clampdown on the internet. The proposals include denial of allocation of resources to the offending government for a period of 12 months following the end of the shutdown. The sanction will apply to all government owned entities and entities and other related entities.
Repeated clampdowns could result in severe sanctions. “In the event of a government performing three or more such shutdowns in a period of 10 years – all resources to the aforementioned entities shall be revoked and no allocations to said entities shall occur for a period of 5 years.”
The T-TPLF may delude itself into believing that it is invincible and accountable to no one. Of course, that is what the T-TPLF believed when I warned them not to engage in criminal activities in the United States by illegally selling unregistered bonds. The outcome of that criminal activity cost Ethiopia USD$6.5 million.
My concern is that the T-TPLF ignoramuses will throw out the internet baby with the bath water simply because they can’t handle the truth when young people stick it in their faces on Facebook.
Regardless of how the T-TPLF thinks about the internet, they will suffer the most from cutoff of services.
Nearly 90 percent of the Ethiopian population has no internet access. The T-TPLF will be the biggest loser if they insist on shutting down the internet for a prolonged period of time. The largest utilizers of the internet are T-TPLF administrative operations and the large business enterprises, hotels and other activities owned by the T-TPLF and the conglomerates they own and control. Since the T-TPLF and their cronies pretty much control and dominate the country’s entire economy, they will feel the pinch most acutely. With an internet shutdown, their offshore accounts containing billions in stolen loot will be difficult to access. Even if they could open an internet back channel for their administrative operations, their businesses will suffer tremendously from an internet shutdown.
Without IP addresses provided by AFRINIC, not only will Ethiopia be excluded from the global digital economy, but the T-TPLF itself will find it difficult to operate. The Good Book teaches, “If you set a trap for others, you will get caught in it yourself. If you roll a stone, it will roll back on you. Those who dig a pit for others will fall into it.” The T-TPLF will fall in the trap it set for the multitudes of Ethiopians.
There is no way of putting the internet genies back in the bottle. China has tried and failed as have many dictatorships.
It is indisputable that the internet is making it exceedingly difficult for thugtatorships and dictatorships to cling to power and rule tyrannically. But there is no wall that can keep ideas whose time has come, out. The internet has created a walless, borderless, wireless, seamless, restless and fearless world.
That makes dictatorships and mightless, clueless, hopeless and lifeless. The T-TPLF cannot understand why they are unable to maintain a closed society in a global community of openness.
The T-TPLF and their ilk may not have the upper hand in the end. There are also private groups of internet guardian angels who have given dictatorships and thugtatorships a taste of their own medicine for clamping down on the internet.
In July 2016, Zimbabwe’s Government shut down the internet. In response, Anonymous Africa “launched a series of attacks targeting the government of Zimbabwe and its President for what they are calling systemic corruption.”
According to Hack Read, the attack “on Zimbabwean government website disrupted the online service of the country’s official portal (zim.gov.zw), ZANUPF – Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (zbc.co.zw).”
Unsolicited advice to the T-TPLF: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is Newton’s third law. It means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object.
In politics, that simply means when a regime exerts a force on the people, the people simultaneously exert a force equal in magnitude and opposite against the regime. No emergency decree can ever outlaw this law!
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino.