In the same month, authorities are exciting Ethiopia as a host of a major international conference on information technology, the nation has made a headline across the world for having a complete shutdown of the Internet beginning mid-last week, for the third time in just a year. To the dismay of many, including those in the government, this shutdown will remain in place up until the middle of this week.
A traumatic experience last year, where national exams for school leaving certificates had leaked causing the government to cancel them, has left its scar. The Administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is determined to ensure that such an incident will not ever happen again.
That much is understandable.
There are a number of countries – developed and developing – which have gone through the same act of criminality. What is now new is the advent and impact of digital and telecommunications technologies where such materials could be availed to for far too many people within split seconds.
Stealing copies of national exams is neither new nor limited to Ethiopia. Countries such as Canada, Kenya, Sweden, and India have suffered as much but without the need to take such drastic measure that has unintended collateral damage on the national economy.
If the administration is cautious of a possible leak of the exams before millions of students sit for it last week and this, it ought not to be surprising. The government appears to be contemplating other possibilities too. It is worrying that disruptive forces may distribute illegitimate copies of exams, claiming they were leaked, with a clear intention of creating havoc and confusion.
Ensuring this will not happen and that students sit for national exams in a serene setting as it can be had understandably is the state’s responsibility. Granted, the authorities in charge of administering these national exams have had the full year to prepare themselves for eventualities, learning from their tragic experience of last year.
Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see the authorities have chosen to take a course of action members of the public find costly, if not unacceptable and outrageous. Yet, it should be nothing surprising, for the decision to suddenly unplug the service of the Internet and deprive the public the use of vital infrastructure tells a lot about how those in charge of governance run the affairs of the country.
It can only be unforgivable ignorance if the officials who have made the decision to shut down the Internet were to think its use is a matter of luxury in Ethiopia. Nor is it foresightedness to consider it a tool of delight to the few urban elite as opposed to the majority in rural Ethiopia. No less than 15pc of the population have access to the Internet.
It is no small feat for the state monopoly, EthioTelecom, in revenue terms, too. Only last year, it had collected revenues of six billion Br from Internet and data users, constituting 0.6pc of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.
It is also unfortunate not to realise the most significant positive impact Internet communications could have for secondary economic activities in the current Ethiopia. Far too many businesses, both public and private, depend on the use of such infrastructure.
The much talked about the business of attracting foreign direct investment depends on online communications; the tourism sector cannot function without a flow of information in real time; the global financial transactions and local ATMs require networking and Internet connections.
Needless to say, millions of individuals, tens of thousands of businesses and organisations depend on the availability of Internet connection to perform many of their daily routines, to earn their daily bread and provide services to their clients and citizens.
Brookings Institution found that the 30-day disruption of the Internet last year cost Ethiopia’s economy over 8.5 million dollars. It does not take a genius to figure out how much the economy had been affected by the blanket shutdown of the Internet during the one and a half month under the state of emergency.
It may also sound naïve to think Ethiopian authorities would join their counterparts in advanced economies, accepting access to the Internet is a fundamental human right whereby citizens exercise their rights to freedom of expression and opinion. But this underscores the importance of the Internet to the functioning of an advanced economy and the governance of modern society.
Despite all of these, Ethiopian authorities disabled the Internet and data services on mobile for seven days because they wanted to avoid the mayhem like a year ago.
But, were there not other options to consider to prevent potential exam leaks before moving on to decide the most disruptive action? Was it not possible to provide physical security deploying members of the army and installing surveillance cameras? Or have the students sit for an exam on weekends, thus reducing the extent of the impact?
It appears here, in the failure to brainstorm other possibilities and alternatives, that the inherent problems of the ruling EPRDF and its leaders in governing the country are their complete disregard for the deliberative decision-making process. Shutting down a major public infrastructure suddenly and without prior public announcement once again exposes the transparency crises the ruling party suffers from and the act of impunity by its leaders.
It no doubt can be taken as disrespectful to see a presser from the Government Communications Affairs Office, dispatched a day later of the shutdown, rationalising the disruption in Internet services. It claimed this was done to help administer exams in a quiet environment for grade 10 and 12 students.
It is the third time for the government to conveniently disable the Internet within a year without looking for any possible alternative of preventing potential exam leaks, or riots for that matter. Truth be told, cases like this need not only demand a mechanical solution. They also require improvement of governance and legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the people.
Incidents of leaking exams and distributing them to the wider student population should not only be taken as personal misconducts. They might also be witnesses to tell the type of governance the state applies and the relationship it has with its citizens.
It is all about lack of accountability of the very people who serve the government, which is not surprising to observe in the current state of Ethiopia. When no one is held accountable, it amounts to no one being responsible.
The arbitrary acts of the government in depriving citizens the right to use public infrastructure should also be an element of no surprise. It is a government with too many of its senior officials who act with impunity, without feeling the burden of informing citizens of their policies and decisions.
The current shutdown is one more incident exposing the structural crises in accountability and the culture of impunity in the governance of the ruling EPRDF.
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