More than a month after a much-publicized Ethiopian peace agreement, six million people in war-ravaged Tigray are still largely cut off from the world. Their voices have been silenced by one of the world’s most prolonged internet shutdowns, and there is still no end in sight.
The shutdown, including phones as well as internet access, has left many Tigrayans struggling to learn the fate of their families in the devastated region in northern Ethiopia, where a brutal war erupted in November, 2020 as the national army tried to crush a rebellion by the regional government.
“My entire family, my father, aunts and uncles, are all trapped in Tigray,” said Maebel Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan activist in the United States. “I’ve been unable to speak to them. I don’t know who’s alive and who’s not.”
The ceasefire agreement between Tigrayan and Ethiopian officials, signed in Pretoria on Nov. 2, includes a commitment by the Ethiopian government to restore basic services in Tigray. But most services are still not functioning today, and only a small flow of humanitarian aid has resumed.
Teklehaymanot Weldemichel, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has been unable to talk to his parents in Tigray for the past 18 months. Even indirect messages, through a relative, have stopped since August.
“Imagine the pain of hearing about killings, kidnappings, looting and destruction in the area and not knowing the whereabouts of your family members,” he told The Globe and Mail.
“The separation, and the feeling of being lost, being disconnected from people that you care about and that you would do anything to be with – it’s painful.”
The shutdown has affected the powerful as much as the impoverished. Even the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Tigrayan, has said that he cannot reach his family members in Tigray.
Despite the internet shutdown in Tigray and more than 20 other internet suspensions across Ethiopia over the past seven years, the United Nations chose to go ahead with the annual meeting of its Internet Governance Forum last week in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. More than 5,000 participants from 170 countries attended the forum, which was officially dedicated to “universal” access to the internet.
Several Ethiopian officials gave speeches at the forum, declaring the importance of digital technology but failing to make any mention of the Tigrayan stoppage.
Tigrayan activists and civil-society organizations, in an earlier letter to the UN forum, said the decision to hold the annual meeting in Ethiopia this year was a display of “indifference to the silencing of minority populations, journalists and others” and would make it easier for the government to continue the internet shutdown.
On Friday, in a speech to the forum’s closing ceremony, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen spoke vaguely of “turning the page” on two years of warfare and “diligently implementing the peace deal.” But he did not mention the internet shutdown.
A few moments after he ended his speech, a forum delegate heckled him loudly, shouting repeatedly: “What is the timeline to reconnect Tigray?” He did not respond.
At an earlier event during the forum, Ethiopian Minister for Innovation and Technology Belete Molla said there was “no timeline” for restoring basic services such as electricity, phones and internet access in Tigray, although he pledged that it would happen.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, at the forum’s opening ceremony, appeared to justify the shutdown by insisting that the internet has “supported the spread of disinformation” during the Tigray war.
Internet disruptions, largely by authoritarian governments, have been rising around the world in recent years, with 182 shutdowns in 34 countries last year, according to the digital rights group Access Now.
NetBlocks, a watchdog group that monitors internet freedom, says Africa has been more affected by shutdowns than any other continent, and Ethiopia has suffered more disruptions than any other African country.
The “digital darkness” is inflicting severe damage on Tigrayan people, Access Now said in a recent report. “It is exacerbating violence, sowing fear and confusion, and shrouding heinous crimes against humanity,” the group said. “People can’t get adequate access to health care in a broken, disconnected system.”
Senator Jim Risch, the top-ranking member of the U.S. Senate’s foreign relations committee, said there was no excuse for the U.S. government’s decision to send delegates to the UN forum in Ethiopia.
“Our participation legitimizes a government whose track record on internet governance includes imposing an internet blackout on Tigray for two years – crushing free speech and hiding horrific human-rights abuses,” he tweeted last week.
Global Affairs Canada confirmed that the Canadian government sent representatives to the UN forum. Asked whether Canada considered a boycott as Mr. Risch had suggested, Global Affairs spokesperson Grantly Franklin said the government deemed it important to participate in the UN forum “to advance digital inclusion.” The forum “gave voice to those working to counter internet censorship and shutdowns,” he said.
“In direct discussions with Ethiopian officials, in consultations with like-minded partners and through public statements, Canada has emphasized the urgent need to restore all services, including the resumption of internet access,” Mr. Franklin told The Globe.