Digital freedoms can be switched off anytime. | Photo: Thomas Jensen via Unsplash

Internet Shutdowns in Ethiopia: The Weapon of Choice

Internet shutdowns refer to deliberate disruptions of entire channels of digital communications, typically ordered by state authorities to exert control over the flow of information within a given area. Being a recurring feature since 2016, the use of internet shutdowns in Ethiopia has further intensified under the prime minister Abiy Ahmed. While advocacy groups accuse Abiys regime of instrumentalising shutdowns as a tool of information control, this blog post suggests there are two additional strategic motives for how the incumbent government might be using them – a military tactic against opposition groups and a repressive measure against unruly regions.

Ethiopia finds itself amidst a process of political transformation which began after Abiy Ahmed assumed the office of prime minister in 2018 following mass protests ousting his predecessor. In his inauguration speech, Abiy made ambitious promises pledging peace, unity, prosperity and far-going political reforms including liberalisation of state-controlled telecommunications. In the first year of his tenure the new Prime Minister (PM) lived up to his promises as he rapidly opened Ethiopias political landscape, pardoned hundreds of political prisoners and laid the foundations for ambitious reforms in media. Abiy allowed gradual liberalisation of telecommunications and granted greater freedom to press, but the hopes for a durable change were never realised. Faced with growing regional and intercommunal violence as an unintended consequence of his reforms and ethnic politics, Abiy responded by reverting to repressive measures of the previous governments, including frequent use of internet shutdowns.

Shutdowns as a tool of information control

With more than 20 instances of internet shutdowns authorised since 2016, it can be argued that their utilisation has been institutionalised and normalised in Ethiopia Already in 2019, in the second year of Abiy’s tenure, internet shutdowns occurred eight times, often without governmental justifications. Several more shutdowns followed in 2020 and 2021, intensifying in both severity and duration. The official justifications cited ‘national security’ and ‘counterterrorism’, ‘exams cheating’ and prevention of incendiary content as reasons for the shutdowns. The validity of those justifications is frequently contested by advocacy NGOs, human rights groups and researchers who offer alternative narratives.

The most frequently alleged motive behind the shutdowns in Ethiopia is the use of internet disruptions as means of controlling the free flow of information. This narrative implies attempts by a federal government to prevent the dissemination of material that threatens the ruling regime by discrediting its actions. Information which managed to escape the blacked-out areas illustrated that virtually all the cases of internet disruptions in Ethiopia were accompanied by events whose coverage the government would be tempted to interfere with. This includes the reported human rights abuses during governmental counterinsurgency action in Oromia in spring 2020, or the reports of mass casualties amid the violent crackdown on anti-governmental protests in summer 2020. In the case of the latest shutdown (November 2021), the government was suspected of interfering with the spread of information about the defeats of the federal army, while the internet shutdown in Tigray authorised in November 2020 puts a thick layer of fog on the gravity of humanitarian crisis in the region up to the present day. In most cases the internet disruptions were further compounded by arbitrary detentions of journalists, which only further suggests that it was the government’s intention to interfere with the coverage of the situation.

The narrative that Ethiopia’s internet shutdowns are being used as a tool of information control, which limits transparency and makes reporting on the situation extremely difficult, is highly plausible. The broader literature on internet shutdowns further suggests that there might also be alternative, less frequently addressed motives behind the use of this instrument.

Strategic and military use of internet shutdowns

The shutdown in Western Oromia was authorised in January 2020 as a response to violent clashes between the governmental forces and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – the armed wing split from the regions political party. The blackout lasted almost three months and its official justification cited security concerns. The fact that the authorisation of this shutdown coincided with the government-led military operations against the OLA is a factor worth considering. Other cases of the internet shutdowns, for example in Syria, show that governments can utilise network disruptions in conjunction with larger repressive operations against opposition forces in order to decrease their capabilities to coordinate and implement attacks. The example of Nigeria further illustrates that state authorities can cut entire channels of digital communications while conducting counterinsurgency operations. Thus, governments can implement network disruptions as a part of a broader military strategy, which affords them a tactical advantage when confronted by opposition groups. The timing of the shutdown in Oromia and its coincidence with the government counterinsurgency action make it plausible that the Abiys government could have utilised this measure as a military tactic.

Internet shutdowns as a punitive tool

The shutdown in the Tigray region was authorised in November 2020 as tensions between the Abiys government and the Tigrays regional party (TPLF) escalated into a civil war. Just like in the case of the internet shutdown in Oromia, the authorisation of the shutdown in Tigray coincided with the launch of the offensive against the TPLF forces, suggesting a military-strategic motive behind it. No official justifications of the shutdown were issued, but the measure was accompanied by the accusations that the region was threatening the countrys sovereignty. Unlike in the case of Oromia, the internet shutdown in Tigray was not lifted after several months. Imposed as a military strategy, the shutdown was kept in place as a collective punishment as the federal forces failed to rapidly defeat the TPLF. The example of the shutdown in Tigray illustrates that this measure can serve multiple purposes and that the government can have more than one rationale for using it.

In contrast to typically short-term strategic use of shutdowns during mass protests in the capital region and big cities, the use of long-term targeted area shutdowns is likely to follow a different logic. The strategy of punitive use of internet shutdowns implies that these measures serve as a disciplinary tool to punish the populations of restive regions for protesting against the central government, demanding greater recognition and more political independence. The examples of the internet shutdowns in marginalised regions of Pakistan (Balochistan and the tribal region), China (Xinjiang), India (Jammu and Kashmir) and Cameroon (the English-speaking regions) illustrate how governments can use long-term internet shutdowns to repress, isolate and further marginalise those regions, disengaging them from participation in the national political debate and censoring their populations in expressing their grievances.

The internet shutdown in the Tigray region closely resembles these cases, although Tigray was not historically marginalised. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades, making the region one of the most prosperous in the country. As a result of the countrys centralisation under Abiy Ahmed and his intense power-struggle with the TPLF the Tigrays role in Ethiopias politics has been minimised, its autonomy reduced, its funding cut and its population plunged into an acute humanitarian crisis by the ongoing civil war. As of today, Tigray has been completely disconnected from the rest of the country for more than a year. The interruption in the work of banks, phone lines and medical services due to the shutdown and inaccessibility of information about sources of food and shelter significantly contribute to aggravation of humanitarian situation, while impediments to the distribution of humanitarian aid create famine-like conditions for hundreds of thousands civilians.

Neither water nor air

Internet shutdowns have become a weapon of choice for the Ethiopias government, used for a variety of strategic motives that go beyond mere information control. The cases of the internet shutdowns in Oromia and Tigray illustrate that this measure can serve as military tactic against the opposition forces as well as a disciplinary tool targeted against populations of disobedient regions. The current political and security situation in Ethiopia provides the incumbent government with multiple pretexts to utilise shutdowns. They present a convenient instrument to respond to the growing violence of the opposition and to cover excessive violence of the pro-governmental forces; to punish unruly regions by disconnecting them from the rest of the country; and to conceal the consequences of this disconnection from the rest of the world. Now that Abiy Ahmed has reverted to the oldtactics, it is hard to imagine that the routine use of shutdowns will end any time soon. This raises even more doubts concerning the PMs view of digital freedoms as a matter of secondary importance, as he warned that the internet was neither water nor airand could be switched off for as long as it was deemed necessaryRe-elected with a landslide victory in 2021, Abiy is to remain in power for years to come, and his former reputation of a unifierand peacemakerwhich won him the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize is yet to be deserved.
Olesia Andersen

Olesia Andersen

Olesia Andersen studiert Politikwissenschaft an der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (M. A.) mit einem Schwerpunkt auf Internationalen Beziehungen. Gegenwärtig absolviert sie ein Praktikum im HSFK-Programmbereich "Internationale Institutionen". Gemeinsam mit Dr. Melanie Coni-Zimmer arbeitet sie an einem Projekt zu Internet-Shutdowns. // Olesia Andersen studies Political Science at Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg (M. A.) with a focus on International Relations. She is currently completing an internship in the PRIF program area "International Institutions". Together with Dr. Melanie Coni-Zimmer she is working on a project on internet shutdowns. | Twitter: @olesia_andersen

Olesia Andersen

Olesia Andersen studiert Politikwissenschaft an der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (M. A.) mit einem Schwerpunkt auf Internationalen Beziehungen. Gegenwärtig absolviert sie ein Praktikum im HSFK-Programmbereich "Internationale Institutionen". Gemeinsam mit Dr. Melanie Coni-Zimmer arbeitet sie an einem Projekt zu Internet-Shutdowns. // Olesia Andersen studies Political Science at Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg (M. A.) with a focus on International Relations. She is currently completing an internship in the PRIF program area "International Institutions". Together with Dr. Melanie Coni-Zimmer she is working on a project on internet shutdowns. | Twitter: @olesia_andersen

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