On November 4, 2020, war broke out between the Government of Tigray on one side and an allied force consisting of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), and various ethnic-based militias on the other side. Although the Ethiopian Government dubbed the war a “law enforcement operation”, it soon became clear the forces adopted a scorched-earth campaign to devastate Tigray. Tigray was totally disconnected from the Internet a few hours before the war broke out, and remains disconnected, despite some resumptions in some areas before the Ethiopian and allied forces were routed out of most of Tigray. Indeed, all services – banks, telecommunication, transport, etc. – have been totally stopped for more than a year now.
This document attempts to assess the impact that the shutdown of the Internet has had on the people of Tigray.
Overall Impact of Internet Shutdown on Society
In 2020, before the war started, Internet penetration in Ethiopia stood at 19%. Given that Internet connection is concentrated in cities and towns in the country and that Tigray has a higher urban population rate, it is reasonable to expect that internet penetration rate in Tigray is slightly higher than the national average. On the surface, given the relatively low penetration rate, one would be tempted to believe that internet shutdown cannot have caused significant damage. However, a closer look at Tigray’s economic dynamic reveals that its economic lifeline – industries, tourism, and the service sector – all relied on the availability of the Internet. The shutdown of the internet, therefore, must have had a deleterious impact on the economy.
A brief assessment of how the shutdown of the internet has affected various sectors is presented below.
The internet shutdown happened at a time when Tigrayan institutions were determined to make an effort to digitalise their infrastructure. Mekelle University, the biggest university in Tigray, had developed an e-learning system and digitalised its operations. When the internet was suddenly shut down the university was effectively rendered useless. Goitom Tegegn, the then director of public communication of the university, explains in a letter he has written to Federal Government officials how the university was forced to stop teaching, research, sever its research collaborations with other universities; how scholars were forced to bin off their manuscripts because they could not communicate with publishers and collaborators.
Banks in Tigray also relied on the Internet to function. When the Internet was shut down, all banking services in Tigray came to a grinding halt, catching people off guard. This meant that the people were unable to access their savings. The TPLF-led Government had for the past three decades run a campaign to encourage people to save their money in banks. The Tigray people have therefore developed the habit of depositing their hard-earned money in banks. This otherwise good habit came back to bite them when the banks were suddenly put out of reach due the shutdown. Even hitherto well-to-do people were turned into beggars instantly.
Call centers, startups, and all other Internet-based businesses were similarly forced to lay off their employees and close down.
The destruction of livelihoods, bankruptcy of businesses and crippling of institutions was not the only impact the shutdown of the Internet has had. More devastatingly, Tigrayans were denied a means to tell their story. The allied forces, having successfully muzzled the Tigrayans, perpetuated their own narrative without any possibility to be challenged. When the allied forced went on a murder spree in places like Axum (a fact that even the Government’s own human rights commission reluctanlty and belateldly established) in an Orwellian campaign of “law enforcement operation”, survivors or journalists had no way of refuting what is otherwise a blatant lie. It was only late in the campaign when some journalists got scant access to Tigray that people started to see a fraction of the horror that had been unleashed on Tigray. The shutdown of the Internet, coupled with the absence of any other alternative channel, subjected Tigrayans to double jeopardy: First, tens of thousands of civilians were murdered; civilian infrastructure destroyed and/or looted; tens of thousands forced to flee their homes in the name of “law enforcement operation”. Then, they could not tell the world about what had happened to them. They had to accept that the murder of their loved ones was in the service of law enforcement.
Tigray has a large diaspora community, partly because consecutive governments have marginalized it. As a result, most people who could leave Tigray have done so. A large number of people in Tigray relied on help from relatives abroad. The sudden shutdown of the internet cut off this very critical economic lifeline for many families. Many families have lost their livelihoods as a result. But the impact extends beyond loss of livelihoods. Tigrayans abroad have been subject to trauma and depression due to the inability to help relatives in Tigray whom they know are suffering. In a harrowing personal account, a Tigrayan writer tells a story of how, at the end of each day, she feels triumphant that she has not committed suicide under the weight of the extraordinary trauma that grips here.
Tigrayans who reside abroad relied mainly on the Internet to connect with their families. For the past fifteen months, that means of communication has been suddenly snatched away from them by the Ethiopian Government. Nor does there exist an alternative way of reaching out to Tigray as everything else has been shut down. This has meant enormous trauma for Tigrayans abroad as they are unable to check the whereabouts of their loved ones in Tigray. This grim reality is made even more painful by the daily news of atrocities and deaths that come out from Tigray. It is hard to imagine how incredibly painful it is for one to read news of deaths of people in their home town and not be able to check if their family members are not among the dead. It is now common practice for Tigrayans to pore through video clips that emerge from Tigray and desperately look through every video in the faint hope that they might see someone they know featured. For example, in this tweet, an influential Tigrayan activist expresses her happiness after seeing her father on a video after a long time of having lost contact with her family in Tigray.
Even people who live in Tigray are totally isolated from each other. A person who lives in Mekelle cannot have any idea about their relatives outside Mekelle because neither transport service nor telecommunication service exists (transport service is impossible because the region has long run out of fuel).So that when there is a drone attack in a particular Tigrayan city, of which there has been a lot, people cannot check on their relatives to ask if they have been lucky enough to survive. What life must look like in Tigray is impossible to fathom for those of us used to traveling, chatting and placing a telephone call to a loved one at will. What, indeed, does a society that cannot travel; doesn’t have any form of remote communication; doesn’t receive and is bombed every morning look like? The temptation is to compare it to stone-age societies but that wouldn’t be right for stone-age societies didn’t have to deal with drones raining down bombs on them. Tigrayans have been denied the perks of the 21st century and served the curses of modern technology instead.
Generally, the complete shutdown of the internet has precipitated a total societal collapse. Public institutions have been rendered useless; families have lost contact; livelihoods have been destroyed and businesses have closed down.
Internet cafes business, their employees and the service they gave to the public
Internet-cafe was a booming business in Mekelle and to a lesser degree in the cities and towns of Tigray. Since people did not generally have wifi-connections at home, they relied on Internet cafes to do mundane things like making a call to relatives abroad. Internet cafes opened opportunities to many people to perform basic functions like browsing the internet to read or download resources, finding scholarships, writing emails, and submitting manuscripts. The growing number of people who relied on Internet cafes also meant that low-skilled people were employed. The shutdown of the Internet has killed off this burgeoning ecosystem.
Remote workers and Students, research collaborations
Atsbeha Gebreselassie completed his masters degree at the University Di Milano in Chemical Engineering. He then got a job at Eindhoven University’s Professional Doctorate Program in 2020. But just before the start of the program, he went to Tigray to visit family. But before he could return, the Covid-19 lockdowns came and he was told to follow his courses online from there until the lockdown was relaxed. He rented a house, set up internet connections and was following his courses. But then the war came and the communications blackout was imposed. He was disconnected from his university. After months of trying, the university said it was to stop his contract. His brother who lives in the Netherlands intervened to explain and the university was generous enough to understand his situation, terminate his program for 2020 and readmit him in October 2021. But the blockade and communications blackout made it impossible for Atbeha to communicate and leave the country. The university had to cancel his contract forever.
Atsbeha is just one example of professionals and students that relied on the internet for their jobs and careers. Many professionals and students from the four universities in Tigray, the many private and public colleges, and government and private institutions were following some training or higher education abroad. All of that has been abruptly disconnected.
Many others were also remote, online workers for different companies from outside Tigray. Misgana Berhane was a trainer at Google Digital Skills For Africa based in Mekelle. She used to give training on digital skills including setting up business online, google’s search engine and its relevance, social media engagements, traditional and digital markets, aspiring a career in the digital market, digital start-ups and on how to become a community advocate.
The four universities in Tigray, colleges and other public and private institutions had institutional collaborations and joint projects with foreogn universities and institutions. Those have also been disconnected. This is also due to the fact that the universities have stopped their normal teaching and research works as the federal government has closed their bank accounts and stopped releasing budgets for them.
Internet-based communities and advocacy groups.
1. Tigrai Codes
Tigrai Codes was a non-governmental organization created by volunteers to spread computer literacy in Tigray. It focused on teaching middle- and high-schoolers computer coding. It was a move spurred by Tigray’s general drive to modernize. Passionate university lecturers were the backbone of the organization. They dedicated their spare times to teaching young people the basics of computer coding. They traveled to different cities and towns in Tigray to conduct on-site teaching. The organization had generated a huge amount of optimism in Tigray and during its short life it had benefited a lot of young people who would otherwise have had no opportunity to learn coding. Feven Destalem, a prep-school student at Hatse Yohannes, the biggest highschool in Tigray, tells the BBC how Tigrai Codes introduced her to the world of coding and her dream to become a roboticist.
When the Internet was shut down, it was forced to halt its operations as it could not organize any event without a means of communication. Many young people like Feven who would have benefited from learning how to code were denied a great opportunity.
2. Tigrai Hiking Group
Tigrai Hiking Group was a non-profit and non-governmental movement started by a group of hiking enthusiasts to encourage Tigrayans to exercise and explore Tigray and advertise the beautiful landscapes to the outside world to boost tourism. Many people joined the movement. They traveled to various destinations within Tigray and shared their travel logs on their social-media platform. The platform had become popular. Many people joined the movement and subscribed to their social-media platform to read about Tigray and marvel at breathtaking pictures hikers posted. When the Internet was shut down, the movement ceased to exist.
3. Ykhono Movement
Ykhono (in Tigrignya, ይዀኖ), roughly translated to “enough is enough”, was an online-based movement started by a group of women to raise awareness about gender-based violence and gender equality. It was a hugely successful movement. The women campaigned to end the culture of rape. They broached topics that are otherwise considered taboo in a conservative Tigrayan society. Mehret Berhe, one of its founders, says they were “currently working to establish a non-governmental organization that works on reducing gender-based violence in Tigray through different forms of activism”.
When the war started, one of the leaders of the movement fled to Kenya fearing for her life. And because it was a movement that was powered by people who lived in Tigray and abroad, it could not function without the Internet. As a result, with the Internet shutdown, the people in the movement dispersed and the movement itself came to a sudden end.
Youtubers, their business and their community
Several Youtubers and youtube-related businesses have been disconnected and lost their source of income. Youtubers and youtube-based businesses hire camera professionals, editors and they survive a community. Those have all been lost now due to the internet shutdown. Some example of youtube-based businesses are Kezahta Talk Show, Awramba times, Rim Tibebat , Assey Tube, Mekatecha Entertainment, Selamta Tube, Gere Emun Entertainment, Awash Entertainment, Lele Entertainment , Golagula, Yataup, Brana Tube. Other diaspora-owned youtube businesses such as Liham Melody that were outsourcing the production, editing and uploading of videos to professionals in Tigray have also almost halted their activities.
With Tigray rendered into an unreachable island, it is impossible for one to present an accurate assessment of the impact of the blockade of the Internet. For, ironically, that would require the Internet or any other means of connecting to Tigray to study the damage that has been inflicted on Tigray by the blockade. This, however, does not mean that one cannot make a reasonable prediction by analyzing what damage the total shutdown of the internet in this day and age can do to an economy and society that were already struggling. Families have been separated for more than a year; promising start-up businesses have been forced to shut down; universities have stopped functioning; banking services are unavailable; and all other Internet-based businesses have gone bankrupt. In this document, an attempt was made to present an assessment of the damage the Internet shutdown has had on Tigray based on a little information and data available online. However, there is no doubt that a more thorough assessment based on on-site observation would paint a far more grim picture. Finally, it is important to remark that the war on Tigray has been a multi-thronged attack on Tigrayanness. The shutdown of the Internet is but one asset that has been taken away from Tigray.