The Unconquered Nation, Crippled By Bureaucrats – by Jon Evans

June 1st, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Seems like it’s Sub-Saharan Month around here: first Sarah Lacy went to Nigeria, and now here I am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and Africa’s fourth-largest city. It feels like a boomtown. There are cranes and construction sites everywhere, throwing up gleaming new glass-and-steel buildings full of shops selling computers and mobile phones. The major thoroughfares throng with people making, trading, repairing, unloading, selling, and generally hustling.

Don’t get me wrong: this is still a poor country. Electrical outages are regular occurrences, the taxis that patrol the city’s broad avenues are rusting Ladas, and the side streets are harrowed dirt strewn with garbage, lined with tin shacks, and patrolled by beggars and feral dogs. But I’ve only seen occasional pockets of the poisonous stagnation I’ve found so often elsewhere south of the Sahara. This feels like a place where things happen. It’s a city and country that could be on the cusp of a genuine transformation, catalyzed by technology—were it not for a single, gigantic roadblock: its own government.

“Oh, they’re great,” Jörn Schultz deadpans about Ethio Telecom (ETC), the government monopoly that controls all phone, mobile, and Internet service across the nation, and everyone in the room bursts into laughter. He shakes his head. “No, no. They’re terrible.”

It’s not just the censorship, though that’s bad enough: the entire domain is blocked, along with various Facebook pages and newspapers. But it’s not what most angers the people here at iceAddis, the new “innovation/collaboration/entrepeneurship” space modelled after Nairobi’s legendary iHub. (I’ll tell you more about it in a separate post.) What upsets this crowd is ETC’s sheer incompetence.

A very brief acquaintance with Ethiopia’s Internet cafes will confirm everything they say in a hurry. Connection speeds are highly variable, trending towards painfully slow, if and when you can connect at all. Ethiopia still hasn’t linked up with the SEACOM fiber that brings broadband to East Africa, explains Markos Lemma, another iceAddis founder; as a result, the entire nation has only 1.2 gigabits of bandwidth for its 85 million people, more of whom are coming online every day. You do the math.

If you have a connection problem, things get even worse; by all accounts, ETC’s customer care makes Comcast seem like Rolls-Royce. Fitsum Assalif, a security hacker and penetration tester (“white-hat only,” he assures me with a grin) grimaces with disbelief, remembering: he also works at a large NGO, and the last time they had a serious connectivity issue, “I had to go to (Ethiopia Telecom’s) data center and fix it myself… They send their workers to China for training, but I don’t know what they get.”

But surely a place like iceAddis could end-run around the problem with a VSAT dish? Lemma (who has set up an entertaining “ETC sucks” Facebook page) shakes his head: “There’s no VSAT, it’s impossible.” The government forbids them for all except the most powerful of organizations; he estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen in the country, for places like the UN, World Bank, African Union. The red tape doesn’t stop there: you need a permit to import “anything with an IP number,” which takes a month—and they usually say no.

This is a proud nation, and with reason: Ethiopia is the only African nation which defeated their would-be European colonizers and remained independent throughout the colonial era. But they need to start looking to the rest of Africa as an example. “They’re so far ahead of us in Kenya,” Assanif says forlornly, meaning the fierce competition among mobile and Internet providers there, and the access and innovation that has thrived as a result.

It’s ironic that Ethiopia’s current government are the same people who overthrew the brutal Marxists called the Derg twenty years ago; alas, they seem to have inherited some of their archenemies’ fondness for monopolies, protectionism, and bureaucracy. I believe mobile Internet access is a transformational force that could turn African nations into economic lions to rival Asia’s tigers—but only if it’s fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. And that will never happen here while every bit of Ethiopia’s Internet is controlled by a dinosaur monopoly with no competitive incentive to improve.

  1. Guest
    | #1

    That is true. People in power kept development buried undergound. With lack of competition, still the country is behind with electricity, with all technology trelated issues, health care, sanitation, and bureaucracy. With the fear of uprising from opposition groups, the government has tighten its security to lengthen its grip of power. People just have to wait for the right time and day for all the mistrust and abuse of power to come to am end. On the other hand, the weak oppsition group is all power hungry bunches who don’t even come to terms. They don’t even support the current growth in the country. The economic problem is not only in Ethiopia but world wide issue and can’t blame Meles for it. Well, I have to go Peace!

  2. Sam
    | #2

    Jon Evans is a good observer. He might have been misled somehow about the development in Addis, but that is understandable. After the 2005 election, the EPDRF politicos found it essential to smooth out the rough edges they had had with Addis residents. They have spent substantial amount of money which the government has gotten from Wesern countries’ as aid to transform the city. That was the “robust” activity Jon seemed to have witnessed. But Jon rightly observed this effort to transform Addis might not bear fruit as the government might have desired. The government, according to Jon, is the very enemy of the change. Here is how he puts it: ” this [Addis] feels like a place where things happen. It’s a city and a country that could be on the cusp of a genuine transformation, catalyzed by technology– were it not for a single, gigantic roadblock– its own government.” How true! the government bureaucracy which has grown exponentially cannot let any government’s effort whether it is genuine or half baked to materialize. In fact, it has become known to anyone who pays attention that the government is unable to tame its own creation: the EPDRF created bureacracy. The bureacracy runs the show in Ethiopia. Why the bureacracy was given a free hand to run the show? Jon has a convincing answer. He wrote ” It is ironic that Ethiopia’s current government are the same people who overthrew … Derg twenty years ago; alas, they seem to have inherited some of their archenemies’ fondness for monopoly, protectionism, and bureacracy. Jon is really good. He got in their brain. word of caution: No government could not function without bureacracy. Bureacracy in a limited way is always necessary. Even the most liberal democracy cannot live without it. That is the bureacracy intended to serve everone equally with no preference. Just as an example: the burecracy in DMV in U.S.A. Yes, the waiting line is a killer. But the burecracy DMV established serve everyone equally. In Ethiopia we are talking about the burecracy purposely tailored to enrich a handful of individuals at the cost of the misery of millions. What is the fertile ground for the EPDRF created burecracy to flourish? Because as Jon righly observed everything is controlled by the government. A very fertile ground for a bureacracy that kills a nation dream to flourish. What makes it difficult to fight the bureacrats in Ethiopia is not difficult to decipher. Besides being bureacrats they have an EPDRF membership card– a nice thing for the bureacrats, but a lethal combination for the nation.

  3. Zebyideru Tedla
    | #3

    Mr self called Gust!

    You are a bloody fool. Shame on you.
    If not Melse,who else is then to blame? Better keep your mouth shut.
    Zenawi is a little darling of the double standard West. Thanks God all mighty the west is in state of confusion and bankarapcy.
    The big quetion is how long Meles can stay in power?
    Enough is enough.

    Hell with Woyane (TPLF) Ascaris!
    Ethiopia will prevail!

    Zebyideru Tedla

  4. Abel
    | #4

    Dear Jon Evans, The current regime will not live one day without your country’s financial aid. It is a very aid dependent country. They cannot live one month without western aid. So talk to your government. At the same time They are afraid of technology because the general population can use them to get them out of power. They are suffering from technology deficiency syndrome. They want to keep the population ignorant.

  5. ዋቆ
    | #5

    እረ እባካችሁ ብርሃኑ ነጋ በጤናው ነው ወይ ከኦነግ እና ከኦብነግ ጋር የሚሞዳሞደው? ከኔ የበለጠ ኦነግን የሚያውቀው የለም:: ኦነግ የወያኔ የአንድ ሳንቲም ሌላው ገጽታ ነው:: እኔ የምፈራው ኦነግ ኦብነግና ግንቦት ሃያ ሀገራችንን ከተቆጣጠሩ የእርስ በርስ ጦርነት ሳይታለም የተፈታ ነው:: ይህ ሁኔታ ደግሞ ለማንኛውም ኢትዮጵያዊ የሚጠቅም አይደለም:: ለኛ ለኦሮሞዎችም መዘዙ ብዙ ነው:: ኦነግ ስልጣን ቢይዝ እንደ ወያኔና እንደ ሻቢያ “በነጻው ክልሌ” ላለማለቱ ምን ማረጋገጫ አለን? በተለይም ኦነግ ኦሮሚያን ነጻ አወጣለሁ ብሎ በሚወስደው የሀይል እርምጃ በሻቢያ ንዴቱ ያልበረደው ሌላው የኢትዮጵያ ክፍል ሆ ብሎ ተነስቶ ሲሪላንካ በታሚል ታይገር ላይ የወሰደችውን እርምጃ ቢወስድና ለብዙ ንጹሃን ህይወት መቀጠፍ ሰበብ ቢሆንስ? እኔ አላማረኝም:: የኛ መሰረታው ችግር ኢትዮጵያ እንደ ሀገር ሳትሆን የአምባገነኖች መፈራረቅ ነው:: ለዚህ አቁዋራጩ መፍትሔ ደግሞ በአምባገነኖች ላይ ተባብሮ መነሳት ይመስለኛል:: ብርሃኑ ነጋም ይህንን ችግር የተገነዘበው አይመስልም:: ኢትዮጵያውያን ተባብረን ሳይቃጠል በቅጠል ማለት አለብን:: ኬንግዲህ ለርስ በርስ ጦርነት የተረፈ ጉልበት የለንም::

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