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Life in a state of emergency

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Life in a state of emergency

With the clampdown on the internet, restrictions on movement, and ethnic tensions growing, James Jeffrey finds that the ouzo in the dives around the Piazza continues to flow, and the bubble that is Addis Ababa is a sealed world with little relation to the hinterland.

Acouple of months into the state of emergency declared on 9 October, which has been accompanied by extra powers for the government – including the increased use of federal security forces, curfews, communication restrictions and suspensions of due process, it appears to be having the desired effect: protests previously rocking the Oromia and Amhara regions have subsided.

But in Addis Ababa, as across the rest of the country, residents are feeling the pinch of those communication restrictions that have blocked mobile data – what the majority of Ethiopians use to go online – and various online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, with other services rendered haphazard and unreliable. This has impacted everyone: from local businesses to foreign embassies and NGOs to ordinary Ethiopian families trying to go about daily life; not to mention foreign freelance journalists trying to follow events and make sense of it all.

The Ethiopian government, for its part, has been quite candid about employing such restrictions to help restore peace and security. It has singled out social media asa key factor in agitating unrest since November 2015, and which spiked in early October with millions of dollars’ worth of damage done to foreign-owned factories, government buildings and tourist lodges across the Oromia region, the ground zero moment for this protest movement.


“Ethiopia’s government, rather than just complain, should embrace social media to counter the perceived exaggerated narratives of diaspora activists.”


“Mobile data will be permitted once the government assesses that it won’t threaten the implementation of the state of emergency,” Ethiopian government spokesperson Getachew Reda – who has since been replaced – said at a 26 October press conference in Addis Ababa.

In the meantime, across the busy capital foreigners and Ethiopians alike are united in finding their smartphones far less smart, and in watching the timer icons on their computer screens spin round and round as they wait for web pages to upload.

“Not having the internet in the 21st century is hard – catastrophic!” says Ph.D. student Henok at a café on the Addis Ababa University campus. “Every media, all of them are restricted.”

Ethiopia’s social media dilemma

The impact of social media in Ethiopia reveals much about the state of the country’s political system and media environment, as well as offering lessons for the government to learn from.

Many observers say internet restrictions have less to do with silencing Ethiopia-bound Ethiopians than with stymieing influence from abroad. For successive waves of emigration from Ethiopia have formed a worldwide diaspora estimated at 2 million strong. Its largest communities are in the US, totalling anything from 250,000 people to about 1 million.

The US diaspora in particular has long maintained a strong presence in cyberspace, to influence the political process at home, and it appears to be rallying more than ever in response to these protests.

“Most activists in the diaspora are people who are pushed out of the political process and into exile by the current regime in Ethiopia,” says Mohammed Ademo, an Ethiopian journalist in Washington, D. C. “So they see themselves as stakeholders in the efforts to shape the country’s future. The upsurge in diaspora involvement and commentary is a response to the epochal events unfolding in Ethiopia and the hopes it has generated for change.”

 

But there is another side to this, with social media activity generating bogus claims or veiled ethnic barbs fomenting trouble.

“The problem is a lot of things people would view as gossip if heard about by mouth, they take as fact when they read about them on social media,” says Lidetu Ayalew, founder of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party.

Some involved in Ethiopia’s social media scene say that Ethiopia’s government, rather than just complain, should embrace social media to counter the perceived exaggerated narratives of diaspora activists. Instead it leaves the world of social media uncontested, or, for now, blocked, while relying on its monopoly of traditional media like radio and television.

“The government has created this problem for themselves,” remarked an Ethiopian journalist with a daily newspaper, explaining how Ethiopians embrace social media and diaspora satellite television channels to fill the void left by an under-developed independent media.

Parallel universe

While the blogosphere of social media has whirled in response to protests, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has remained a bizarre bubble, relatively cocooned from trouble in Ethiopia’s hinterlands, leaving this journalist caught between trying to do his job and being distracted by the city’s ever-potent Dionysian forces.

For during the first few uncertain weeks of the state of emergency, despite the country teetering on the edge amid heightening ethnic tensions, the music coming from the raucous dive bars in Addis Ababa’s old quarter, the Piazza, only seemed to sound more energising 

and liberating, as boisterous crowds shoulder-shook the night away with Ethiopian iskista dancing and wide grins.

“Min leutazeus?” – an Amharic phrase for “What are you having?” (i.e. drinking) – became an all-too- familiar refrain to my ears, while the addictively jaunty beats of Ethiopian music played on, looping over in my mind the next morning as I tried to sit down to work.

A sense of abandonment seemed to permeate the air, though that may have had more to do with my role as a freelance foreign journalist here stirring a subconscious need to seize each and every day, in case things really did fall apart, or the government decided to kick out foreign journalists. Even my dating life, normally utterly moribund, seemed to perk up with the state of emergency.

It all started to feel a bit surreal. While the country simmered with tension, the new Addis Ababa- Djibouti railway opened with typically gaudy fanfare. Svelte Ethiopian hostesses glistening in emerald green dresses on 6-inch heels tottered next to security guards carrying futuristic-looking assault rifles I’d never seen before. As Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made his speech praising the crucial economic role of this re- established railway link between the two countries, another journalist pointed out to me a column of smoke rising in the distance.

Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn

We didn’t manage to confirm its source, which was no surprise. When it comes to unravelling Ethiopia the onion analogy rules. There are innumerable layers to strip away before you can even hope to come to some sort of understanding of matters. I once hoped that as a journalist living here I’d make headway with the onion. But still, now, I feel I’ve only got that external rough layer off and am slipping against the shiny surface beneath.I doubt I’m alone, in fact I suspect the vast majority of the foreign community here don’t understand what is happening in Ethiopia. This would go some way to explaining why the foreign policy approaches of the UK and US, Ethiopia’s two main donors and hence those holding the most leverage with the government, appear so anaemic and lame.

This lack of understanding seems to naturally lead to underestimation. History clearly shows how Ethiopia’s two preceeding regimes, the imperial dynasty of Emperor Haile Selassie and the communist military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam, both crumbled after underestimating the Ethiopian people and then trying to instigate reforms when it was too late. The state of emergency suggests the government isn’t underestimating matters. Although I’m less sure whether it grasps the depth of grievances and the resolve of those who feel wronged, and whether it possesses the vision and capacity to enact the reforms needed for Ethiopia.

“You have to understand one thing about the Ethiopian mentality,” I was told by Abebe Hailu, now a dapper-looking human rights lawyer in Addis Ababa, who was a university student during the 1974 revolution that brought down Emperor Haile Selassie and ushered in 17 years of brutal communist military rule. “We lived in isolation from the 16th century until the end of the 18th century. So we developed our own psychology. The Ethiopian thinking is circular. The churches are circular, the mosques are circular, the injera we eat is circular. Everything is circular. In a circular mentality you simply go on and on arguing about the same thing. You don’t reach a decision.”

A grubby business

I first heard about the Irreecha disaster, when 100 people drowned or were crushed to death following a stampede at an Oromo religious festival, after police and protestors clashed, from a phone call while I was at a friend’s house and deep into a large glass of locally made ouzo. I’d been invited to join the press junket at the event 30 miles southeast of the capital at the start of October, but hadn’t thought it worth going. Hence after hanging up, my mind lurched in an ignoble direction: “Damn it, what a scoop I’ve missed,” I thought, before I regained some clarity: “Hold on, who cares you weren’t there; more importantly, what a human catastrophe.”

Journalism seems to eventually, irrevocably draw one into its darker recesses. When I first came to work in Ethiopia in late 2013, I typically wrote about entrepreneurial businesses amid the growing economy and cultural topics such as traditional food and dancing. People usually described these as human-interest stories, while, with a wry smile, telling me to keep up the good work. Admittedly such stories were far from searing investigative pieces worthy of journalistic awards. But I was comfortable with them for various reasons.

During Ireecha, the Oromo thanksgiving festival in Bishoftu, 100 people were killed in a stampede after clashes between the police and protestors. Here, a man is rescued from a ditch in the aftermath.

“The West knows how Africans die but not how they live,” is a refrain with which I can’t argue. Mainstream media’s interaction with Africa seems dominated by four themes: disaster/disease/ warfare/corruption. Hence I liked how my stories did a bit to demonstrate that good news did actually exist, by recounting how Ethiopians lived. Also, my writing wasn’t related to anyone suffering, a criticism of the journalistic process I remember discussing during journalism graduate school classes at the University of Texas in Austin, before I embarked on my Ethiopian adventure.

But lately I’ve found myself inextricably pulled toward writing about – and being paid for it – the suffering of others while trying to cover a protest movement that swelled from initial ostensible opposition to land grabs into a full- on anti-government movement.

Admittedly the world appears increasingly choc-a-bloc with heavy news: Brexit, a US election like
no other, ISIS, Syria, increasingly freakish weather. But having previously had no problem doing stories about condoms and milk farms in Ethiopia, the now apparent lack of interest of Western editors is perplexing. I sense much of this could be down to Ethiopia’s turmoil not offering a succinct story, and I’d be the first to admit it’s all pretty confusing. As already mentioned, Addis Ababa gives the impression little is amiss, with trouble usually occurring deep in the hinterland.

So, yes, it’s hard to piece everything into a nice, easily digestible story like the tragedy of Aleppo in Syria. Utterly destroyed, pictures from there look great in terms of editorial layout; the headlines write themselves, the internet hits duly follow. My experiences with Western editors have steered me toward the following unwelcome conclusion: journalism purports to espouse untold stories about the downtrodden, and yet it too often opts instead to feed the news cycle machine with what the non- downtrodden in the West crave, easy stories about unmitigated African disasters – after the fact, of course. Educating about developments before disaster strikes appears beyond comprehension, while also not usually making for such a gripping voyeuristic story. One US-based editor was quite clear: “We can’t take anything on Ethiopia, but get in touch again if there is a coup or the equivalent.”

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