East Africa

Is Ethiopia’s Digital War Worth it?

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With the most recent ethnic clashes in the Somali region, Ethiopia has now entered another crisis. According to government reports, 50 people have been killed and 50,000 displaced by violence that erupted last month along the disputed border that separates the Oromia and Somali regions.

The Oromo/Somali dispute is a microcosm of the wealth and power disparity that exists within Ethiopia. The state is built on a misguided premise: that a system of segregation based along ethnocentric lines can be both separate and equal. But in reality only one ethnic group, the Tigrayans, reigns dominant. Comprising of just six per cent of the country’s population, the Tigrayans have access to the highest centres of political and economic power. It is this disparity that lies at the centre of Ethiopia’s ongoing crises.

Through 2014 and 2015, residents in the Oromo and Amhara regions began to protest over land acquisition and their increased marginalisation. The Ethiopian government responded to the demonstrations with aggression, with the resulting clashes leaving more than 500 dead. Alarmed by the rising level of dissent, a ten month state of emergency was imposed and a heavy internet crackdown left many Ethiopians alienated from the outside world.

Some analysts have argued that the Tigrayan dominated government has capitalised on regional conflicts and used them to legitimise excessive use of force against demonstrators. This has tightened the government’s control over the country and attempted to silence those that have previously challenged its authority. The combined use of force and restrictions on internet freedom have been condemned by human rights organisations, who have accused the government of violating the privacy rights of the Ethiopian populace.

Cyber surveillance has been used extensively not only to fight terrorism and crime, but as a means of silencing dissenting voices in the country. Felix Horne, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept that “anyone that opposes or expresses dissent against the government is considered to be an ‘anti-peace element’ or a ‘terrorist.’” These labels also apply to journalists who have used the internet to express their dissatisfaction with the government. In 2016, the government shut down the country’s internet service more than three times whilst also jailing a number of dissenting journalists.

Digital resistance

Though Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, the country has some of the lowest internet usage on the continent with internet penetration at only 12%. But the reality beyond the figures is more complex, and it is hard to get a sense of how many Ethiopians actually have access to the internet: those that do often navigate through spyware, hacking, and other surveillance software that the government has allegedly deployed.

The draconian laws surrounding internet usage indicate the government is still afraid of Ethiopians both having contact with the outside world – and using it to communicate and organise themselves domestically. But in the Oromia region, younger generations have used their digital skills to fight the government’s digital war. Through a small circle

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