By Zeke Endris, Sept. 30, 2012
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia gave a sudden hope to the self-appointed western Human Rights entrepreneurs and their local benefactors who have long been calling for a regime-change in Ethiopia. These elements had become desperate, especially after the peaceful election 2010, to the extent that they started openly lobbying Ethiopia’s development partners to stop supporting basic social services.
However, the events in North Africa at the beginning of last year revived their hopes. As usual, they did some flawed, hasty analyses and concluded that activities on social networking media – like, Facebook, twitter, etc, were the primary factors of those uprisings, therefore those media are the magic bullet for creating mayhem and regime-change in Ethiopia.
Consequently, these elements, who have always wanted the privatization of telecom services – without regard to its negative impact on prospective users in rural areas, suddenly started preaching us about citizens’ right for telecom services.
As usual, there were few and measured replies from the government. And, justifiably so. Its actions were speaking loud enough for anybody who bothered to listen. Indeed, for an objective observer, the self-righteous sermon of these self-anointed priests of telecom was misplaced and unnecessary, as the Ethiopian government had long started expanding communication infrastructure at a break-neck speed.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet subscription grew by thousands percents each year from year 2000 to 2009. As far back as 2005, when the role of mobile telephone for rural development was less obvious, the government had set ambitious targets; like, enabling every Ethiopian access telecommunication services within 5 km of her residence, increasing Tele-density for fixed line by fivefold and Tele-density for mobile by fifteen-fold, expanding the number of Internet users by more than eleven fold as well as providing 15,000 (almost all then existing) Kebeles with at least five telephones lines.
It should not be overlooked that, unlike the so-called rights groups, the Ethiopian ruling party, EPRDF, had long known and promoted the dynamic role of telecommunication technologies. The expansion of telephone services in the rural areas were hoped to deliver much more than faster exchange of market information for farmers. Indeed, it was with the explicit objective of expediting public mobilization for development and entrenching participatory democracy that the government launched major ICT projects in 2005; such as, among many, the School Net (to connect 600+ high schools); the Woreda-Net (to connect 600 Woredas) and and the HER Net (for higher education institutions). The fact that a Ministerial level steering committee was set to oversee these projects speaks volumes.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to anticipate that these telecom facilities will empower the mass, thereby enhancing its ability to assert its rights and make demands. In fact, the EPRDF not only anticipated that prospect but also wished to make it a reality. Empowering the mass is the underpinning of Revolutionary Democracy, unlike the elitist form of democracy promoted by the detractors of EPRDF.
That was why, the government, unsatisfied with its impressive achievements, set yet another breath-taking telecom service expansion targets in its current 5-year plan in 2010.
EVEN AFTER THE UPRISINGS in North Africa last year, when the self-appointed human rights advocates, suddenly fell in love with the idea of making telecom accessible to the mass (rather than just for business men and the middle class), the Ethiopian government didn’t blink on telecom expansion projects.
To the contrary, just weeks after the ouster of the Egyptian President Hosini Mubarak, Ethio-Telecom announced tariff changes that evidently enhanced the mobile section of the population as well as cross -regional communications. One of the changes was the elimination of the special tariff that was applied to calls between different ‘service zones’ and from mobile to fixed phone calls. The previous zonal tariff barrier was problematic among university students, where mobiles phones of different zones would be found in a single room or dormitory. It was also prohibitive to fresh-employed youth, who moved to a different city. Similar notable changes were also introduced with regard to the tariff for the subscription and use of internet services.
In fact, since 2011, Ethio-Telecom, with a strong backing from the Ministry of Information and Technology, was engaged in an aggressive and innovative marketing strategy to increase the number of mobile subscribers, in addition to expanding the infrastructure. Not to forget, the improvement in the procedure for connecting one’s mobile phone to the internet this now takes a single free phone call to the Ethio Telecom.
As a result, as of last June, the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at 17 million (from about 5 mil. in 2011) and the number of internet service users reached 2.5 million (from 100,000 in 2011), according to the data from the relevant Ministry.
Despite all these self-evident progresses, the detractors continued with their mantra that Ethiopia is opposed to telecom connectivity. In fact, they went as far as making up stories, like, Ethiopia criminalized Skype, plans to ban Facebook, etc. Indeed, they had to. As false alarms of a ban on social media and the unrealistic belief that a regime-change can be brought through mere Facebook propaganda helps them appear relevant and also galvanize their political and financial backers. But that was not all. Despite their detachment from reality, the detractors had a few things they could cite to have pretence of rationality.
Ethiopian politics in the Social Media
THE SOCIAL MEDIA WERE DOMINATED by opposition propaganda. The opposition, especially those in the Diaspora, opened several real and fake personal accounts, groups, pages on Facebook, to promote their organizations – which have a few members in the real word – and to disseminate unfounded, inflammatory messages. They tried to organize a revolution through Facebook, at least four times since 2011, though nobody turned up on the date they set for street violence. Of course, these Facebook activities did never manage to attract no more than 3 percent of the 600,000 plus estimated Ethiopian Facebook users. And, it was obvious that the numbers showed the size of curious spectators rather than real supporters. Just like a crowd gathered on the street to see a traffic accident. Yet, due to superficiality as well as ideological reasons, such Facebook activities were given several mentions by journalists and pundits in the West - as if a real revolution was in the making.
On the other hand, the Ethiopian government almost ignored the political battle on the social media. While many countries, rich and poor alike, including some of our neighbors, tried to influence Facebook and Twitter, even using paid ads, few Ethiopian government agencies bothered to open a Facebook and Twitter account and almost none use it effectively. It seems the government believes the social media should be left for socializing rather than political mobilization. Well, that may be a debatable but an understandable attitude from a government focused on mobilizing people towards infrastructural projects on the ground rather than a political beauty contest in the virtual world. Nonetheless, the self-appointed human rights promoters interpreted the situation in a manner they found it convenient: Ethiopian Facebookers are hostile to the government. Thus, they prophesized, the government will ban this and similar social media before a revolution realizes.
WHAT SKEWED THEIR REASONING was not only their morbid excitement and eagerness to defame the Ethiopian government, but also their poor grasp of the variables that influenced the nature of the Ethiopian political discourse on Facebook. Indeed it is often the case on Facebook that while thousands vilify Ethiopian political and economic endeavors, as hundred of thousands watch them silently or with little reaction. But this is hardly a measure of the government’s popularity rather a function of several historic and cultural factors that shaped political activism in this country. Saving an extensive discussion another day, let’s see a few those peculiar or highly relevant to the social media discourse.
The primary factor is the prevailing attitude that one should not spend much time and energy defending the government, unless a personal benefit is involved. This erroneous idea robs Ethiopian Facebookers their motivation to undertake their civic duty by defending development initiatives as well as by exposing misinformation and defamations against their beloved country.
But de-motivation is just one aspect of the matter. Speaking in favor of any governmental initiatives or against erroneous media reports about Ethiopia is the surest way to be labeled a ‘paid-supporter’ or ‘government-affiliate’ by the opposition as well as their western patrons. That is, unless that Facebooker has somehow somewhere previously built a strong credential as an extremist, or a sympathizer.
On the other hand, those who speak-ill of the Ethiopian state are motivated not only by their hatred but also by the flawed perception of such activities as an intellectualism, independence and bravery. Needless to say, the Western media and organizations are consciously trying to feed this misperception.
A somehow related factor is that while the anti-regime activists enjoy the license to vilify those labeled ‘pro-government’, any strong word by the latter is considered as a real threat, even as an official one. This double-standard is not only a prevalent one, but also adhered to even by those otherwise reasonable participants. This, coupled with the prevalent lack of Ethiopian civility, especially among the Diaspora who dominate Facebook, turns off most women and many other people, except those who consciously refused to be intimidated and stay the course.
There are also, no less important factors, such as, a culture discouraging self-expression; the fear that even a balanced remark may be misperceived by officials, employers and concerned persons; lack of technological acquaintance; and lack of relevant readily-available info/data.
Of course, these factors also affect the haters. However, as explained above, they have internal and external motivations and ample supply of quotable statements from overrated Ethiopian and foreign activists, in addition to the absence of pressure to back-up their claims with evidences. Quite to the contrary, positive messages about Ethiopia, in the worldwide web, are often than not found in bulky documents and lengthy audio/video materials, which are not only difficult to download but also unfit to the short-attention span of most Facebook users and their succinct discussions.
The August surprise
THE REAL NATURE OF THE ETHIOPIAN social media landscape would have been an abstract and hypothetical debate, had it were not for what unfolded last month. You might expect that the chief promoters of regime-change and the defamation campaign would know the reality is different from what they say publicly. Apparently, what we observed in the past few months indicates they were also deceiving themselves.
Following the disclosure of that the late PM Meles Zenawi was on medical treatment, the extremist, who misunderstood the usual silence of the majority Ethiopian Facebookers on political issues, took the liberty to openly wish a misfortune for the Great Leader and a major chaos in the country. The reaction was not as warm as it used to be.
Many reminded them, not only that a morbid excitement is contrary to Ethiopian civility, but also casts doubt on the author’s thoughtfulness for the fate millions and the continuity of various landmark projects. An even a larger crowd was started to re-think its previous perception of the extremists. It has become obvious for many that what drives the extremists is not independence of thought rather selfish motives, not intellectualism rather vengeance, and not bravery rather un-patriotic cowardice. The extremists failed to notice this change of attitude, thus continued to make grisly public remarks.
But August 16 was a watershed. That was the day when the late Patriarch Abune Paulos passed away. The usual offenders made repugnant statements as usual. To their surprise, in fact to the surprise of us all, they were not received by a cheering crowd, nor by a silent one. Indeed, the silent majority had already said enough is enough. And, it took matters to its hands.
With no exaggeration, as anyone can check this right now, more than 90% of the responses were stern rebukes. It was clearly the voice of the majority; even the extremists grudgingly admitted it. However, many of them chose to deceive themselves by considering the reaction a result of religious norm and concerns rather than a denunciation of extremism and hate-politics.
THE USUALLY SILENT MAJORITY, However, spoke even more clearly and decisively the next week, when its Great Leader passed away. Ethiopian Facebookers from diverse background took the initiative to denounce repugnant statements, expose unfounded claims and re-assert their support for various projects launched by the later leader. The scale, intensity and consistency of this reaction was indisputably a result of a change bigger and profound than a mere sympathy and admiration for Meles Zenawi.
I am talking about a change impacting the various variables that previously made possible a Facebook where thousands vilify Ethiopian political and economic endeavors, while hundreds of thousands watch with little reaction.
Unlike the past, this time the vast majority had little excuse for those who continued to vilify their Great Leader. For one, it was a time of final good-bye, thus there was no point in holding back their gratitude to the selfless leader. The usual excuse that only short-comings should be talked about could not work anymore. In fact, acknowledging Meles’s works was taken as a sign of integrity.
The majority was no more deceived by the usual camouflage of the haters. It was clearly understood that the intellectual and brave thing to do was to make a balanced remark. Anything short of that was understood as an evidence of being driven by hate, hidden personal agenda and extremism. Some of the haters tried to improvise their approach by toning-down and obfuscating their messages. Others chose to lay low for a few days, until the ‘moment passes’ neither succeeded to deceive the masses, however.
The majority was able to observe even more clearly the true colors of the haters just a week after the passing of Premier Meles Zenawi. The haters showed their disdain for the mass by openly insulting it for grieving the loss of its leader and for reaffirming its resolve to see through ongoing projects. They didn’t spare repugnant adjectives and labels.
Ethiopian Facebookers were flabbergasted one more time. But that was not all. At the time when the nation was concerned about a smooth transition of power, the extremists couldn’t help making their morbid excitements known. Worse, their doomsday predictions were proven detached from reality again and again. The cumulative effect was that it has become evident that the haters are anything but not informed critics or concerned citizens. In fact, their irresponsibility, detachment from reality and vengeance could not go unnoticed. Thus, the silent majority was forced to draw the lines on the sand.
IS THIS A LASTING CHANGE? That is a million dollar question. The extremists will surely improvise their approaches – in fact, they are already doing so – and renovate themselves to keep on spreading hate, misinformation and promote instability. Their masks are torn but not beyond full repair. And, there is a determined group of Ethiopian and foreign actors who will continue to provide sound bites and deceptive statements to feed the hate campaign.
On the other hand, it is not clear whether the government will take the tasks it can no longer postpone. That is by making all its Ministries, regional organs and information outlets seriously engage in the social media and tailor their messages with that that in mind. In short, include the social media in its E-Gov plans. Otherwise, it would not be surprising if the silent majority resume its passivity as the extremists reclaim lost territories.