Telecom Sovereignty

I feel bad for the Ethiopian consumer on two fronts. For one thing, its purchasing power is pretty low and getting lower, if the measurement of the Birr against a basket of major currencies is anything to go by. Then there is the lack of adequate disposable incomes, with per capita income standing at a mere 660 dollars, according to the World Bank (WB).

But more than anything else, the Ethiopian consumer is starved for variety. For all that spirituality, materialism has become rife, perhaps thanks to globalisation, and its chief driving force the United States (US). Unlike the US, and some developed countries, though, Ethiopians, although buyers are not great at selling, since little is produced, to begin with.

Which somehow brings me to my point, why just a single telecom provider?

It has to do with the buying and selling. If Ethiopians are bad salespersons, it is because they have not been allowed the opportunity to compete, innovate and improve. Down from the national curriculum, those tedious, derivate courses students the country over have to abide by, to the government’s refusal to fully liberalise and privatise critical sectors like logistics, aviation and telecom, Ethiopians selling, thus buying, capacity is severely curtailed.

But do not tell this to Ethio telecom, one of the nation’s cash cows, and an enterprise that barks to the government’s tunes. When there is an unusually devastating unrest in some part of the country, its services, lo and behold, accidentally go down. And when a national exam is to be conducted for grades 10 and 12, it works with the Ministry of Education to combat cheating.

Assuming that knowledge is power, with its over 50 million subscribtions, according to the telecom provider’s own figures, it probably is the most dangerous state-owned enterprise there is. Together with its plan to introduce cloud computing, Ethio telecom contains the type of information the Soviets would have killed to have on their subjects.

Fortunately, unsurprisingly, the telecom provider is floundering. There are obvious signs. A couple of weeks ago, ambassadors complained of cuts over their prepaid internet connections. Of course, we do not require diplomats to inform us of telecom’s inadequate provision of the internet. Anecdotal evidence suggests that internet blackouts are many and close in between, becoming a burden on productivity and many of the nation’s businesses that have come to embrace the digital age, no thanks to Ethio telecom.

Shortages, much like the internet, though, have these days become plentiful. There is the scarce foreign exchange reserve of the country, which, granted, a typical Ethiopian would be hardpressed to notice. But one does not need to run a business to observe that electricity is in short supply, much as is potable water. And sugar has become such a collector’s item, commenting on its rarity is redundant.

What all of the above have in common is that the state distributes them. A standard feature of a government’s interventionist economic policies, having already given way to an inability to hold on to growth and prosperity, the state’s monopoly over these goods and services has gone in a downward spiral of inefficiency and maladministration.

It is also a symptom of the government, forever expectant of growth without necessarily providing the foundation. The ruling party’s dodged insistence to be the source and channel of all economic (and economic alone) growth, and finally proudly conclude, that without them, we would be nowhere, but at the yuck and grime of extreme poverty the Dergue left us at, is their ultimate justification for power.

Thus, it would be tricky, but equally unoriginal, to ask the state to relinquish the network provider.

Even better, why not liberalise the sector?

Overseas firms would not be starved of hard currency, as Ethio telecom is, according to its CEO, Andulalem Admassie (PhD). Such enterprises would also create competition, bring about efficiency, increase the number of products and services, and lastly, emphatically, become one less burden on the Ethiopian consumer.

Inefficiency though has rarely driven the government to make radical changes. Faced with an extraordinary public discontent, all the ground the ruling party is willing to give is to allow a slight electoral reform. The fact that the public and businesses complain of slow internet connections and that ambassadors could not adequately access their Wi-Fi is but a pond to the ocean of discontent they face.

If popular discontent is asserting the Ethiopian people lack representation, then, much like unlucky constituents, consumers are not faring all that better. Ethio telecom, the only gateway to the outside world that does not require a passport, cannot help but be, both deliberately and involuntarily, unfriendly. Customers always suffer when they lose the right – as is the case with Ethio telecom, the only institution allowed to provide network connections – to have a say on what and how much a firm can produce.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Nov 23,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 917]



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