Is Twitter Hurting Ethiopia?

(Photo: TIKSA NEGERI / REUTERS)

Foreign Affairs Magazine

November 7, 2016

Is Twitter Hurting Ethiopia? Rumor and Unrest in a Fragile Federation

On October 2, police and protesters clashed during a traditional Oromo festival held beside a lake in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, just over 20 miles southeast of Addis Ababa. The stampede that ensued left about 100 drowned or crushed to death. Social media soon pulsed with claims that a government helicopter circling overhead had fired into panicking crowds. A helicopter had indeed been there, but it was dropping leaflets wishing all a “Happy Irreecha”—the name of the festival. Still, social media, and the informal news cycle into which it feeds, whirled on.

The Irreecha incident is but one of many in a year of turmoil in Ethiopia. Protests that began last November, when Oromo farmers objected to government land grabs to expand the capital and clear space for potential foreign investors, have mushroomed into a movement against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, which is estimated to number between 250,000 and one million, has been particularly vocal online. Following the Irreecha incident, U.S. overseas activists called for “five days of rage.” Although it is not clear what effect this call may have had, a few days later in Ethiopia, bands of mostly young men attacked foreign-owned factories, government buildings, and tourist lodges across the Oromo region.

In response to the upheaval, on October 9, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency, restricting the use of mobile data, increasing Internet blackouts, and blocking social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. At an October 26 press conference Ethiopian government spokesperson Getachew Reda said, “Mobile data will be permitted once the government assesses that it won’t threaten the implementation of the state of emergency.”

Human Rights Watch has condemned the state of emergency for “draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that go far beyond what is permissible under international law.” Although there is no explicit ban on print media, the government has issued broad statements condemning writing or sharing material that “could create misunderstanding between people or unrest.” Already, the Addis Standard, a well-respected, privately-funded magazine, has announced that it will cease production of its print edition rather than subject itself to self-censorship.

But is the state of emergency truly a heavy-handed tactic by an out-of-touch authoritarian elite? Or is it a necessary step to counter dangerous vitriol coming from the likes of Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, determined to see regime change at any cost? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two.

Colleagues who live in Ethiopia and work in online media told me that activists have called for days of rage in the past, with no result. Overseas activists also have less influence on Ethiopia’s rural population, which often lacks Internet access. Local unrest could have more to do with well-founded anger over longstanding grievances. There are major concerns over whether the government understands the depth of grievances and the resolve of those who feel wronged, as well as whether it even possesses the capacity to enact the meaningful reforms needed for a long-term solutions.

“The oppressed stay silent, but eventually you reach a critical mass and then it boils over,” Yilikal Getenet, chairman of the opposition Blue Party, told me. “Hundreds have been killed but they keep protesting. They go to protests knowing the risks. So what does that tell you?”

Foreign observers, some local opposition, and ordinary Ethiopians who feel that the diaspora has gone too far, argue that the government’s crackdown is necessary to counter the dangerous vitriol coming from the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States that is bent on regime change at any cost. There is also the question of how much influence the diaspora has over those in Ethiopia who live in one of the most censored countries in the world and turn to the diaspora for news.

Lidetu Ayalew, founder of the opposition Ethiopia Democratic Party, explained what happens when they do. “The problem is a lot of things they’d view as gossip, if heard by mouth, when they read about them on social media, they take as fact.” One particularly prominent social media activist based in the United States, Jawar Mohammed, has 500,000 followers on Facebook who absorb the information and footage he posts on the protests, the veracity of which varies from plausible to impossible to substantiate. After the Irreecha incident, Mohammed was one of those who reposted claims about a government helicopter firing into the crowds. (Journalists at the scene reported soldiers shooting rubber bullets and possibly firing live ammunition into the air as a warning.) This is a pattern across much of the diaspora’s social media activity.

“They live in a secure democracy, send their children to good Western schools, and are at liberty to say whatever they want to cause mayhem in Ethiopia,” one foreign politico in Addis Ababa said of diaspora behavior in influencing protestors in Ethiopia. “They call it freedom of speech and they abuse it to their heart’s content.”

This could prove dangerous. In Rwanda, radio programs such as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines spread much of the toxic hatred that fueled the country’s genocide. Social media appears to be just as effective in spreading untruths and even ethnic barbs in Ethiopia. Many of these have an anti-Tigrayan slant, due to the perception that the EPRDF is run by a Tigrayan elite. To make matters worse, the Tigrayan ethnic group only represents about six percent of Ethiopia’s population, yet it dominates the business and security sectors. That is why much of the protesters’ anger is directed against “minority rule.” One Ethiopian journalist of Tigrayan heritage and who worked for an international wire service was singled out on social media. His reporting was ridiculed and he was called a government lackey. In August, after unrest in the Amhara city of Gondar, there were reports of Tigrayans fleeing the city in fear of their lives.

Diaspora satellite television channels broadcast from the United States, such as Oromia Media Network and Ethiopian Satellite Television, do produce some decent original reporting, but they are clearly one-sided and virulently anti-EPRDF. Their cumulative effect should not be underestimated in a country as diverse as Ethiopia, where historical grudges exist between the main ethnic groups.

For some time now, the diaspora, which numbers two million globally, has maintained a strong cyber presence with the goal of influencing the political process at home. Although they do not have a unified policy platform, they routinely criticize corruption, lack of jobs, and poor administration. The diaspora’s current fixation is to influence protests on the ground, which many see as a pathway for bringing down the government. Many overseas Ethiopians fled their homes after suffering at the hands of Ethiopia’s authoritarian government and have enough reason to wish it ill. But the militancy of some online activists—such as perpetuating wild and bogus claims about government violence—is making it harder for legitimate claims to break through and gives the government an excuse to dismiss unrest as being driven by nefarious external forces.

A major barrier to building a legitimate resistance against the government is that the local opposition in Ethiopia is in shambles. To be sure, it certainly has suffered from government oppression. But the fact the opposition is almost entirely funded by the diaspora, which won’t countenance any cooperation with the EPRDF, also hinders its progress. This mentality has polarized opposition politics and allowed no room for negotiation or compromise.

The clearest example of how this dynamic plays out is Ethiopia’s crucial 2005 election. The opposition won a surprisingly significant number of seats. But following allegations of vote rigging by the EPRDF, the diaspora pressured some opposition members to refuse taking office. The boycott was catastrophic. Had members chosen to work with the EPRDF, the Ethiopian political landscape would likely be hugely different today with a far more influential political channel for angry Ethiopians to voice concerns. Instead, the opposition splintered into disparate groups.

Amidst the tragedy, rage, and intrigue, blocked communications and restricted travel, it is difficult for journalists, foreign diplomats, and the average Ethiopians to understand what is actually going on. Social media can provide and opening for sorting through the noise and confusion. But in Ethiopia, social media is a double-edged sword, capable of filling a need for more information and of pushing the country toward even greater calamity.

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