Social Media: An Unlikely Stage for Ethiopian Social Discourse

On June 19, 2015, the White House Press Secretary announced that President Barack Obama would be visiting Ethiopia. In what transpired to be a historic moment, a sitting US President visited the East African nation, a critical ally of America in the global fight against terrorism, and the African Union (AU) headquarters located in Addis Abeba. The announcement sparked widespread debate on social media where some welcomed the news with cheerful comments, while others voiced their concerns with what they considered to be a wrong message signaled by the President’s visit to the Ethiopian authorities.

Ethiopian social media platforms were littered with praises of the President’s visit and opinions that the visit reflects a seal of approval by the US administration on developments in Ethiopia were expressed. A certain Tweeterati, @johnny_mgdIno tweeted “Giant photos of Obama and PM Hailemariam set above the red carpet. #ObamaInEthiopia.”  On the other hand, highly vocal condemnation regarding Obama’s Ethiopia visit surfaced on social media, stating that Obama’s visit would do little to nothing in furthering democratic and human rights causes in the country, @nazrawi1 tweeted “What happen to the young and activist #ObamaInEthiopia?”

Obama’s visit captured the imagination of Facebookers and Tweeterites in Ethiopia before, during and after the visit. From issues of the president’s convoy, the deserted streets of Addis Abeba along the President’s route, hovering US Black Hawks over the skies of Addis Abeba ahead of the visit, and the rainbow that appeared on the sky as Air Force One landed at Addis Abeba Bole International Airport, to issues of Obama’s historic speech at the AU headquarters and the amount of money Obama and his entourage spent on hotels and other services in the country dominated the online conversation in Ethiopia.

The ending Ethiopian year, 2007 E.C., saw a rise in social media platforms serving as information and news sharing stages as well as an open medium for conducting global dialogue on local and universal issues in the country. Political, social, economic and business issues, among others, gained the attention of Ethiopia’s rising number of social media communities. Ethiopians; young and old, men and women, the Diaspora and those residing in the country alike, actively voiced their opinions and depicted their sentiments on social media by sharing and commenting on the various triumphs and dark hours the country faced during the ending year.

Heated online conversations took place on wide-ranging social phenomena that took place in 2007 E.C.  In particular, the Ethiopian migrant crisis in the Middle East and across the Mediterranean into Europe through the Libyan Desert garnered significant engagement. The barbaric acts of Daesh a.k.a ISIL/ISIS/IS on Ethiopian migrants led to an outcry of condemnation and anger against the terrorist group and expressions of condolence to the families of the victims were widely circulated. Discussions also touched on socio-economic and political realities in Ethiopia, in light of xenophobic attacks on Ethiopian migrants in South Africa. Africa. @ummiekiya tweeted, “solidarity for the innocent children of Ethiopia butchered by #ISIS and burned to death by #Xenophobia.”

Conversations also addressed efforts by the government and global humanitarian organisations to evacuate Ethiopians from security hotspots in North Africa and the Middle East. As such, news of Ethiopians being rescued and evacuated from Libya attracted a large audience. Moreover, after the security of Yemen deteriorated following the Saudi-led aerial intervention, evacuation efforts of Ethiopians stranded in the conflict received attention, where some praised the efforts while others launched sharp criticisms against the government for what they perceived as a slow response. @aababaonline tweeted “#EthiopianMigrants Return from #Libya.”

Twitter and Facebook also witnessed sustained engagements by users on justice issues. The gang rape and murder of Hannah Lalongo, 16, was not only a topic which gained considerable attention, but it set in motion an online campaign to bring the perpetuators of the crimes to justice through trending hash tags, such as #JusticeforHanna. The issue of bloggers accused by the government for allegedly conspiring to unlawfully undermine the constitutional system of the country also gained momentum with the hash tag #FreeZone9Bloggers.

In the political sphere, aside from the much talked about historical visit by the US President, several other major issues were subjects of lively online conversations. The tripartite negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the subsequent monumental visit of the Egyptian President to Ethiopia had received considerable traffic. The momentous public diplomacy delegation that paid visits to Egypt and the Sudan also garnered significant traction.

The May 2015 Ethiopian general election also dominated online discussions. A number of politicians and political parties developed social media strategies for their election campaigns and posted messages and engaged with their audience through the medium. Digital conversations after election results were announced by the National Electoral Board also generated a significant attention. One twitter user, @Soli_GM tweeted, “The election is not about competition but showing power that EPRDF is 100pc in control not even 99.6pc.” Despite relatively rising trends, the election period saw a limited tendency by official institutions delving into the huge potential of social media to transmit messages and communicate with public.

Apart from long-tailing political proceedings, Ethiopian social media platforms hosted lively conversations about an incident which took place at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C. in September 2014 and the story of the defection of Ethiopian pilots to Eritrea while flying an Ethiopian fighter helicopter in December 2014. The issues were highly divisive, judging by the opinions expressed on the social media outlets.

The US-Africa Business Summit which took place in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2014 drew a lot of attention for the promises it held for the business community with heightened US engagement with Ethiopia in trade and investment. Other overarching economic and business issues which dominated the Ethiopian social media scene in the ending Ethiopian year were in regard to rising cost of living. People discussed rising inflation rates and key commodities missing from the market on social media.

Though Ethiopia is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the world with 1.9pc of the population having access to the internet out of a hundred people, according to a study by the World Bank, social media usage in the country is rising in relative terms among people with internet access. But as Ethiopia continues to lag behind the rest of the world, segregated by the digital divide, social media has become an unlikely stage for those who have access to the internet to make use of this thriving medium to communicate and engage in local and global dialogue.






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