Ethiopia presents an intriguing case of dichotomies with regard to new communications technologies. It has among the lowest rates of Internet penetration in the world, while also showcasing an opposition and diaspora that has leveraged social media and the Internet to significant political effect. One of the poorest countries in the world, its government has nonetheless built up one of the more sophisticated Internet surveillance states, with demonstrated capabilities far beyond those of similarly resource-constrained states. With the opening to democratic politics in the last three years, and the critical elections in 2021 representing a potential turning point for this state, understanding the role of social media in Ethiopian politics is critical. This article describes the current state of new communications technologies in Ethiopia, examines technical capacity both from the perspective of population and government, and discusses the role that social media will play in the aftermath of the divisive 2021 elections.
The Internet and the Ethiopian people
The Internet and the Ethiopian government
The worrisome legal framework
Ethiopia is often portrayed as a country full of political contradictions and cultural paradoxes (Levine, 1972; Aspen, 2001; Tronvoll, 2009). The same pattern holds within the realm of new communication technologies, where the country is ranked among the least connected in the world by metrics such as Internet penetration, while being a prime example of online organization of opposition. The state confronts shortcomings in almost all metrics of capacity, while also ranking among the most technically capable in the world in terms of online communication surveillance and censorship (Human Rights Watch, 2014; Mechkova, et al., 2020).
Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa at about 115 million and is at a critical crossroads of potential democratic transition. This paper seeks to describe social media and new communications technologies in Ethiopia both from the perspective of the population and the state and develop these contradictions into a clear picture of the state of play beyond the 2021 elections.
An outlier among sub-Saharan cases in particular, Ethiopian digital activists were successful at mobilizing protestors and pushing for reform as early as the 2005 elections (Gagliardone and Pohjonen, 2016). During the subsequent authoritarian regime, the government therefore had a particular interest in expanding its technical capacity to control online and digital communication, leading to one of the more digitally capable autocratic regimes in the world. Digital activism was instrumental to mobilization and coordination of the protest movements and mass demonstrations in 2015–18 that forced Prime Minister Hailemariam to resign and brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power (Forsèn and Tronvoll, forthcoming). Abiy was in charge of the previous regime’s digital surveillance operations, and also represents the first Ethiopian Prime Minster to himself be an active social media user .
Digital activists in the diaspora have also increased their influence by returning to Ethiopia over the last several years, including most notably Jawar Mohammed, who built an online presence of millions of followers in exile before returning to Ethiopia to become the foremost opposition figure in the country before his arrest in end of June 2020. Digital platforms have played a critical role in the lead-up to the 2021 elections and will continue to do so in its aftermath, with their use being cornerstones of both opposition and pro-government movements.
In this article we will first explore the historical context of the current moment in both Ethiopian politics and social media usage. Then we will examine the use of new communication technologies by the population and by the government, respectively. We will then analyze the worrisome legal institutions governing the Internet and social media in Ethiopia, and conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for the future of Ethiopia after the critical 2021 national elections.
Digital activism was influential in Ethiopian politics for the first time during the lead up to the 2005 elections. The unprecedented opening of democratic space at this time led to a surge in voting for the opposition that threatened the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) grip on power. The government responded with a crack-down on opposition and mass arrests in the post-election period (Abbink, 2006). During this period prior to the rise of modern social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Ethiopian bloggers became influential. They managed to stir pro-democracy and anti-government sentiments despite the fact that Internet penetration was just 0.22 percent and mobile phone penetration stood at 0.55 percent. The pro-democracy bloggers’ online postings were picked up and translated by various private media outlets and disseminated widely in Ethiopia, until eventually several of the most influential bloggers were arrested .
The shock of almost losing power led the EPRDF government to introduce a raft of new legislation curbing civil society and restricting democratic space in the country (Aalen and Tronvoll, 2009). Freedom of expression and media was severely restricted, journalists were arrested, and newspapers were closed down (Gagliardone, 2014). Ethiopian journalists and freedom of expression activists were driven into exile en masse, or put in detention. Organized political opposition activities were practically banned outside of Addis Ababa, and only in the capital were opposition leaders allowed to have a public presence to present a façade of democracy. The EPRDF made sure that a 2005 scenario was not repeated in 2010, as they secured all seats but one in parliament, signaling the ‘end of democracy’ in the country (Tronvoll, 2011).
The following 2015 election process created little excitement in Ethiopia, as people in general perceived that the outcome of the elections was a foregone conclusion. A research project monitoring the use of social media during the 2015 elections observed that little antagonistic online speech was expressed, and, if so, it was not directed towards any single group of people but to the elections themselves, which were largely dismissed as a futile process . This did not prevent the political parties from having an active presence on social media with political campaigning. The EPRDF, tapping into government resources, had an advanced social media strategy and a complex and well-staffed organizational structure to execute it. However, in its campaign the party relied more on a conventional grassroots mobilization strategy; its social media activity was criticized as being static and one-directional, not interacting with its potential voters. The opposition on the other hand had a more proactive online engagement with their constituency and they were significantly more active online than government politicians . Nevertheless, the restrictions put upon opposition activity led to the incumbent EPRDF government securing a 100 percent win of seats in the House of Representatives in the 2015 elections (Arriola and Lyons, 2016).
The draconian measures put in place to curb democratic space in Ethiopia worked to increase polarization in society and entrenched political divides. The EPRDF’s ideology anchored in Marxist and Maoist doctrines, touted ‘revolutionary democracy’ as superior to liberal visions (Vaughan and Tronvoll, 2003). Revolutionary democracy stresses consensual decision-making founded on communal collective participation and representation. It is diametrically opposed to the liberal democracy model founded on notions of individual participation, freedom of expression for a plurality of interests and views, and representation based on individual choice. Consequently, until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, opposition parties were generally labeled as ‘anti-peace’, ‘anti-people’, and ‘anti-development’ actors by the government, further reinforcing the political polarization of Ethiopian society.
Following the leadership changes in the EPRDF in April 2018, an immediate and radical opening of democratic space occurred. The government fundamentally altered its relationship to the political opposition and to civil society, accepting and even endorsing their role as checks-and-balances to power (Tronvoll, 2018). In the initial phase of Prime Minister Abiy’s tenure, a far-reaching reconciliation of political forces was facilitated by measures such as inviting exile-based political groups and individual activists back to the country, releasing political prisoners, and promising to respect human rights and democratic values, while emphasizing the need for pluralism in the political discourse. These liberal reforms were soon suspended, and the country has since early 2020 fallen substantially in regards to respect for human rights and democratic liberties.
The Internet and the Ethiopian people
Figure 1 is a density plot depicting the percent Internet penetration (i.e., what proportion of the population regularly uses the Internet) for every country in the world grouped by region. Ethiopia is annotated, along with four comparative cases of Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Egypt to illustrate where socially and politically comparable states rank. With 15 percent Internet penetration, Ethiopia ranks among the lowest in the world, including among our comparative cases, although it sits at the median of Sub-Saharan cases in general. Part of this is an artifact of the physical reality of external connectivity. Sudan and Egypt have comparatively easier access to the large trunk lines passing through the Red Sea.
One may assume that Internet penetration in part at least would be driven by how free and democratic a society is, as well as level of economic development. Economic resources are naturally needed both at the national and individual levels, to enable an infrastructure for Internet access and for affording individual subscriptions, phones, and tablets. But the cases highlighted here also demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case. Ethiopia and Rwanda are among the poorest countries in the world with a GDP/capita around US$800, Kenya ranks higher at around US$1,500, while Sudan and Egypt score at about US$2,500 (these figures from the World Bank). In terms of democracy, Kenya scores the highest at 0.49 in 2019 on V-Dem’s electoral democracy index that runs from 0 to 1, followed by Ethiopia (0.33), Rwanda (0.26), Sudan (0.21), and Egypt worst at 0.19 (Coppedge, et al., 2020).
Social media penetration rates in Ethiopia lag behind Internet usage and are estimated to be around 5.5 percent of the population, with some 6.2 million social media users in the country as of January 2020 (Kemp, 2020). That figure is growing very slowly, increasing only about four percent over the last year.
Figure 1: Percentage of Internet penetration, grouped by region.
The social media market in Ethiopia is dominated by Facebook, with approximately six million users in the country as of February 2020 (NapoleonCat, 2020). Facebook is becoming a preferred alternative to radio, television, and newspapers (Kumlachew, 2014). While users often operate multiple social media platforms, Facebook accounts for about 60 percent of the social media market share, with no other site breaking the 20 percent line. Twitter has about 10 percent market share and is rarely used with smart phone integration, as evidenced by the fact that less than 300,000 GPS identified tweets have been posted from Ethiopia in the last decade. The communication app Telegram is disproportionately popular in the country, a fact credited to its relatively low bandwidth requirements combined with its built-in encryption capabilities (Dahir, 2018).
Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net country report on Ethiopia claims that “telecommunications infrastructure is almost entirely absent from rural areas” where 80 percent of Ethiopians live, and provides anecdotes of users making regular treks to nearby hills just to get cell phone reception (Freedom House, 2019). This situation is rapidly changing however, as Ethio Telecom expands its national connection links and increases capacity, also in smaller rural towns .
On average, an unlimited mobile Internet account costs US$170 per month, which is nearly three times the average monthly income of Ethiopians. There are hardly any unlimited Internet subscribers in the country, however, as people generally pay the lowest monthly charge, about US$3 . According to survey data from Pew, a fraction of four percent of the population has smart phones of any kind in 2016. This would represent one of the lowest rates in the world at that time (Poushter, 2016). However, there are 47 million mobile phone connections (41 percent of the population) and from spending much time in the country — also in the country-side — and knowing the many issues associated with gathering reliable data on material assets through surveys in Africa, we find it plausible that the four percent smart phone coverage is a significant underestimation and that the percentage today is considerably higher.
Yet, the figures indicating comparatively low coverage and usage are consistent with Figure 2’s rendering of the level of usage of social media by average people in order to organize off-line action (Mechkova, et al., 2020). This Likert scale ranking classifies Ethiopia on this metric as “Rarely. Average people do not typically use social media to organize off-line political action”, with a value among the lowest of countries in the world.
Figure 2: Average use of social media to organize action.
However, one should not focus too much on rates of coverage in isolation. Even a low level of social media usage can be critically important in the hands of a technically capable few, especially when there is a large and connected diaspora community as with Ethiopia. Despite repeated, complete shutdowns of the Internet in 2016, hundreds of social media videos showing state violence were distributed online, showing a substantial public capacity to work around such barriers (Advox, 2016); as also the experiences from the 2005 process show (Gagliardone and Pohjonen, 2016), as well as the recent Internet shutdowns during the protests of 2020. One person with a smart phone can naturally convey this sort of visuals to a fairly large number of people. The person with the smart phone can also transmit the information via other media, including as messages available to users with regular phones.
The diaspora’s importance online has gone hand in hand with more traditional methods of communicative resistance, such as the rebroadcast of expatriate satellite television channels of ESAT and OMN into Ethiopia (Advox, 2016). Prior to the 2018 reforms, the government electronically jammed these channels, blocked their Web sites, and filed criminal charges against the responsible organizations (Human Rights Watch, 2015). The diaspora also leveraged the Internet to support these television channels. For instance, consider EthioTube, an opposition video platform initially hosted on their own Web site but having since transitioned to YouTube with a dedicated channel with 113,000 subscribers.
Figure 3: Elite use of social media to organize off-line action.
Contrast average relatively low average usage in Figure 2 with Figure 3’s rendering of elite usage of social media to organize off-line action (Mechkova, et al., 2020). Ethiopia ranks relatively highly on the latter measure. It is in the top half of sub-Saharan Africa, and with a ranking that rates favorably even in comparison to a large share of countries in western Europe and North America.
This is in part reflective of the outsized impact that the political activist Jawar Mohammed has had online. A Stanford graduate and a former expatriate in Minnesota, Jawar has developed a massive following online: 1.84 million Facebook followers and 158,000 followers on Twitter. He founded the International Oromo Youth Association, which was instrumental in organizing protests in the Oromia region in 2016, as well as the Oromo Media Network as a medium to disseminate Oromia focused news and political activism. OMN had 1.1 million viewership in early March 2020 . After returning to Ethiopia, Jawar Mohammed brought both his personal social media activity and the media platform of OMN to bear on his own entry into politics, which made him such a formidable opponent to the incumbent Prime Minister.
Jawar Mohammed was an early supporter of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, throwing his social media presence behind Abiy during the latter’s bid for power. However, as he and many of his followers now believe that PM Abiy Ahmed deviated from the original objectives of the Oromo Qeerroo protest movement, Jawar switched allegiance to the opposition and signed up as a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party. Jawar also relinquished his U.S. citizenship in order to be eligible to run for elections in Ethiopia on an OFC ticket. This led to a massive increase in OFC’s popularity, clearly visible in the huge crowds OFC leaders attracted when they toured Oromia .
Jawar Mohammed showed the potential of social media to both inflict havoc, as well as pacify conflict. The case in point is the event of October 2019 when he wrote on Facebook that he believed his life was in danger since the government allegedly wanted to withdraw the police protection at his house, which immediately ignited widespread protests and destruction across Oromia regional state . Noteworthy here is that Jawar never asked his followers to demonstrate , nevertheless they did so as a protest against the government. After two days of rampaging left 86 people dead, Jawar demonstrated his influence on the masses when he called for an end to violence and it immediately ceased: “Open the blocked roads, clean the towns of barricades, treat those who have been injured during the protests and reconcile with those you have quarreled with.”  This demonstrates how the most powerful figures on Ethiopian social media have the capacity to translate that online support into off-line action. That capacity for challenging the regime culminated in his June 2020 arrest and subsequent terrorism charges. Jawar, together with other OFC leaders, remains imprisoned, in the wake of repeated protests by supporters organized online and off-line.
There are dozens of Ethiopian social media activists and political commentators with tens of thousands of followers or more. Similar to the organization of opposition parties, most of them are ethnically situated, analyzing, and advocating what they perceive to be their ethnic groups’ interests. They are often critical to established political parties, including the regional authorities, and are commonly perceived to augment ethnic and political polarization in society.
The Internet and the Ethiopian government
In contrast to the relatively low usage of the Internet by the population, but perhaps in response to the high levels of use by the elites to organize mass social actions, Ethiopia’s government maintains a staggeringly high capacity for monitoring and controlling the Internet. The electronic intelligence agency, Information Network Security Agency (INSAT or የመረጃ መረብ ደህንነት ኤጀንሲ), co-directed under the previous regime by current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has sweeping powers to conduct surveillance of the Ethiopian population. Figure 4 shows just how high Ethiopia’s government’s capacity for filtering the Internet ranks among the rest of the world (Mechkova, et al., 2020). On this metric, Ethiopia outperforms nearly every sub-Saharan African country, and ranks high with the rest of the world, having adequate capacity to block access to most specific sites if it wants to.
Figure 4: Government Internet filtering capacity, grouped by region.
Prior to the reforms of 2018, Ethiopia blocked hundreds of specific Web sites and frequently cut off Internet access entirely in parts of the country. For instance, in 2016, the government shut down the Internet in Oromia four different times, and during mass protests shutdown all mobile Internet services in the capital of Addis Ababa (Dahir, 2016). Such blocking and shutdowns temporarily ceased when Abiy Ahmed took power, and in June 2018 the government unblocked hundreds of Web sites, including those of opposition news platforms. In addition, the government unblocked the Web sites of the OMN (Oromia Media Network) and ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television).
However, the government has demonstrated it still retains the capacity and will to implement shutdowns as it desires. One example is when in June 2019 the Internet was shutdown nationwide, nominally to prevent cheating on national high school exams (Freedom House, 2019). Furthermore, since 3 February 2020 the government disconnected mobile phone networks, landlines, and Internet services in three zones in West Wollega, Oromia regional state . These areas are under military command post-rule, and state security forces are engaged in active counter-insurgency warfare against Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) units present there. The total communication shutdown was grounded in an effort to prevent actors of the insurgency, as well as the civilian population which is distrusted by government forces, to communicate effectively. With the coming of the COVID-19 virus to Ethiopia in mid-March, the communication shutdown was increasingly criticized by both national and international observers, as it prevented the dissemination of life-saving information to the population . After a massive social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter by Ethiopian activists, the regional president of Oromia announced on 31 March that Internet and phone services in Western Wollega would be restored with immediate effect . However, a new Internet shutdown took place after the murder of Hachalu Hundessa in end of June 2020 and for one month, severely undermining pandemic reporting and mitigation efforts.
In addition to simple Web site blocking and Internet shutdowns, the government of Ethiopia has earlier demonstrated additional, sophisticated capabilities. Monitoring of traffic occurred, both at the IP address and domain level, but also at the deep packet inspection level, that is, screening of content in real time based on keyword lists (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
While sophisticated, these techniques were made simpler for the government to deploy by virtue of the comprehensive government monopoly on mobile and Internet services via the state-owned Ethio Telecom. In 2019, Ahmed’s government announced plans to privatize Ethio Telecom outside of government control. In addition, even if privatized, the physical geography of the Internet in Ethiopia makes such activities relatively easy. There is a very limited number of connections to the outside world. Land-locked Ethiopia cannot directly tie into international submarine cables, despite the backbone cables connecting East Asia to Europe that pass tantalizingly closely through Bab al-Mandab, a strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Ethiopia’s bandwidth is tightly constrained through a trio of connections: limited satellite feeds, a cable through Sudan, and a cable through Djibouti (Freedom House, 2019).
Our comparative cases benefit similarly from highly centralized telecommunications systems that allow the government to exercise control. In Figure 4, one can clearly see evidence of the governments’ concern for mobilization via the Internet in Rwanda and Egypt in particular. They have invested large resources to be able to police the use of Internet and filter content that they find threatening.
The capacities for monitoring derive mainly from the large investment by China in the Ethiopian telecommunications industry, primarily by the Chinese telecom company ZTE [中興通訊股份有限公司] (Freedom House, 2019). ZTE has provided sophisticated telecom monitoring technologies, including a tool called ZSmart that allows interception of SMS messages and recording of phone calls (Human Rights Watch, 2014). During interrogations, the government would play recordings of mobile phone calls and read private e-mail messages aloud to arrested journalists and bloggers (Freedom House, 2019). In addition, leaked materials showed that the government sent security force employees abroad to China for training on these tools (Advox, 2018).
Figure 5 illustrates just how potent the Ethiopian government’s technical capacity is in comparison to other countries. The figure graphs Internet penetration rates on the horizontal axis against the government’s cybersecurity capacity as measured by the Digital Society Project on the vertical axis. The red dot is Ethiopia, with the twelfth highest capacity in the world and the only country above a three on this indicator with less than 45 percent Internet penetration. In fact, every country with higher capacity than Ethiopia on this indicator has a minimum 75 percent Internet penetration, and at least 10 times the per capita GDP. This speaks to how much of a threat the EPRDF perceived online activity to be to their hold on power; and continues to be for the current Prosperity Party government.
Figure 5: Government cyber security capacity vs. percentage Internet penetration (all countries).
In addition to monitoring, censorship, and shutdowns, the Ethiopian government has engaged in a variety of active measures online. Troll armies have been deployed online in astroturfing campaigns on social media, also engaging non-government actors in support. There are accusations that Abiy’s government is continuing these tactics (Freedom House, 2019), and, after the outbreak of the war in Tigray, such campaigns have intensified. Leaked records show that Ethiopia has been paying for online commenters to post pro-government messages on social media en masse (Advox, 2018), in addition to training over two thousand individuals for this work (ECADF, 2014). In June 2021, Facebook announced the removal of an extensive network of accounts and pages engaged in coordinated disinformation on behalf of Abiy’s government from within Ethiopia (Gleicher, 2021).
Malware attacks on the opposition were enabled by contracting various foreign spyware vendors, as Cyberbit/PSS (Israel), FinFisher/FinSpy (U.K. & Germany), and Hacking Team Remote Control System (Italy). Citizen Lab specifically identified how FinFisher was used in conjunction with Ethiopian opposition where photographs used as bait and spiked with additional code that loaded the FinSpy software in their data systems. Having infected a computer, FinSpy “captures information from an infected computer, such as passwords and Skype calls, and sends the information to a FinSpy command & control (C2) server.” (Marquis-Boire, et al., 2013). The FinSpy command and control server for these images was traced to an Ethio Telecom IP address block (Marquis-Boire, et al., 2013).
Similarly, the PSS software was used specifically to spearfish the Ethiopian diaspora by the EPRDF (Africa Times, 2017). Once a computer is infected, “the spyware’s operator would gain access to virtually any information available on the device, including files, browsing history, passwords, emails, and what the target types into the computer. The spyware can also take screen shots and activate a computer’s microphone and camera for live surveillance.” (Human Rights Watch, 2017)
The worrisome legal framework
While the bulk of these technological abuses occurred prior to the reforms initiated in 2018, there is reason to be worried about how the hard-earned and very high capacity for state interventions can be used by both the current government (despite initial commitments to democratic principles) and future governments. The capacity to use these tools has not disappeared with the change in power, and apparently also its willingness to use it if deemed politically relevant as demonstrated with the three-month long total communication shutdown in Wollega, Oromia in 2020. In addition, the current head of government — Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — was in charge of the Information Network Security Agency a decade ago and certainly knows what can be done if the government perceives a need for strict action.
The legal framework limiting government abuse of technology in Ethiopia is particularly troubling (Yilma and Abraha, 2015). Figure 6 and Figure 7 show the regional rundown on legal status of privacy protection by law, and of legal protections of political speech online. The Computer Crime Proclamation adopted in 2016 (Federal Negarit Gazette of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2016), for instance, “creates a number of new criminal offenses that are likely to impact heavily on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and other human rights, by extending the reach of criminal defamation and creating various new criminal offenses, such as ‘inciting fear’ online, all punishable by imprisonment.”  A caveat on these data is the ongoing amendments and repeal of various laws, which is likely to offer better protection after the law revisions are completed. As the current available data indicates, however, Ethiopia is among the worst of all countries in sub-Saharan Africa on both measures. Rwanda and Sudan are worse but are also clearly even more extreme cases in the region, as is Egypt in the MENA region. Historical experiences and lessons learnt by current rulers play an important part here as discussed above. In terms of protection of privacy the country’s legal framework “explicitly allows the government to access many types of personal data on the Internet” (Mechkova, et al., 2020).
Figure 6: Privacy protection by law.
In terms of the legal framework for protection of political speech online, the situation may be in the process of getting worse. The ‘Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation’ (Federal Negarit Gazette of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2020) took affect on 23 March 2020, directly restricting social media activity. Its official objective is to prevent and control the dissemination and proliferation of hate speech and disinformation, as well as promoting tolerance, civil dialogue, and mutual respect among citizens. Yet, critics of the proclamation include distinguished constitutional lawyers, who point out that: “Several aspects of [it] lack clarity and are therefore are open to abuse by law enforcement agencies” (Alemu, 2020). The proclamation does not address these concerns. Hate speech, for instance, is defined as: “speech that deliberately promotes hatred, discrimination or attack against a person or an discernable group of identity, based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or disability” (Article 2(2)). The law furthermore makes organizations providing social media services responsible for the prevention of dissemination of information that may be classified as hate speech and disinformation, required to remove this information immediately within 24 hours of notification (Article 8(2)). The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression expressed criticism of this hate speech law, as well as of increasing media restrictions after the democratic opening in 2018 .
Just days after adopting the proclamation, authorities arrested journalist Yayesew Shimelis on charges of “attempting to incite violence by spreading false information”, in contravening Articles 5 and 7(4). The incident was based a Facebook post by Yayesew on 26 March 2020, where he wrote “that in anticipation of the danger COVID-19 poses in Ethiopia, the government has ordered the readying of 200,000 burial places”. 
Figure 7: Legal protection of political speech online.
In addition, the legislative context is further tightened by regulations ensuring a technical environment that is easier to monitor. For example, the purchase of SIM cards in Ethiopia requires real name registration with the government via Ethio Telecom, along with a government identification number and photograph. Individuals in Ethiopia thus have no possibility for anonymity from the government when they participate online using smartphones. The growing mass of digital data the state is collecting is indeed worrisome, given the absence of a robust legal framework that protects the data privacy of individuals (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa [CIPESA], 2018) .
In sum, the de facto situation of government surveillance and active measures against the opposition improved radically the first year after Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power. However, since 2020 it has lapsed, a negative trend continuing to this day. The government still has all technical capabilities and staff competence to monitor and penalize, and therefore the de jure requirements for their deployment remain dire.
There seems to be little doubt that social media will continue to play a key role in Ethiopian politics: as a medium of political campaigning; as a tool to mobilize voters; as a means to coordinate rallies and demonstrations; becoming a channel for rumors and false information; and, may itself become a contested political issue if or when the government enforces stricter controls of content, filtering of opposition messages, or using shutdowns in various forms. With millions of followers ready to respond to political messaging and calls for action, it is a potent instrument for potential mass destruction, as well as a tool for conflict mitigation, and political reconciliation. As evidence of the importance of the Internet and social media to freedom in Ethiopian politics, an open letter was posted from dozens of NGOs involved in Ethiopia to Abiy insisting on the maintenance of Internet freedoms (AccessNow, 2021).
For the first time Ethiopia has a Prime Minister active on social media. From his first day in office, PM Abiy Ahmed designed a proactive marketing strategy of his government and himself personally, investing millions of birr (ብር) in everything from the development of a new official government design, a new official PM logo, and even hiring a full-time professional photographer following and documenting his every step. A number of photos are posted daily on his various social media accounts, picturing the PM in action implementing his political ideology of medemer (መደመር)  and delivering ‘development’ to the people. With 1.18 million followers on his official Facebook site , Abiy is the second most popular Ethiopian of Facebook, only beaten by his key opposition rival Jawar Mohamed with 1.86 million followers .
The subsequent arrest of Jawar, the postponement of voting in four of Ethiopia’s 10 regions, eruption of civil war in Tigray (with human rights violations well documented via social media), and decision of two opposition parties (including Jawar’s) to boycott the elections entirely point to the elections being but one step in a long conflict being waged via the Internet. The aftermath of the 2021 elections will provide a compelling test of Ethiopian democracy, and the use of digital platforms by both the population and the government will provide lessons going forward as to the future role of social media in divided societies transitioning to democracy.
About the authors
Steven Lloyd Wilson is assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University and project manager for the Varieties of Democracy Institute.
E-mail: stevenwilson [at] brandeis [dot] edu
Staffan Lindberg is professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenberg.
E-mail: staffan [dot] i [dot] lindberg [at] pol [dot] gu [dot] se
Kjetil Tronvoll is the director of Oslo Analytica, as well as professor and research director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjorknes Univesity College.
E-mail: kjetil [dot] tronvoll [at] bhioslo [dot] no
1. Ethiopia adheres to the Semitic naming tradition of referencing individuals by their first name when only one name is used.
2. Gagliardone and Pohjonen, 2016, p. 26.
3. Gagliardone, et al., 2016, p. 73.
4. Gagliardone, et al., 2016, pp. 77–78.
5. See https://www.ethiotelecom.et/about-us/.
6. For rates overview, see https://www.ethiotelecom.et/mobile-internet/.
7. Personal communication with Jawar Mohammed, 11 March 2020.
8. See Terje Ostebo and Kjetil Tronvoll, forthcoming. The Oromo struggle and contested statehood in Ethiopia. London: Zed Books.
9. Simon Marks, 2019a. “Protests in Ethiopia threaten to mar image of its Nobel-winning leader,” New York Times (23 October), at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/world/africa/ethiopia-protest-abiy.html.
10. See the English posting on Jawar’s Facebook site explaining the event, at https://www.facebook.com/Jawarmd/posts/10104932193431623.
11. Simon Marks, 2019b. “After a massacre, Ethiopia’s leader faces anger, and a challenger,” New York Times (18 November), at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/world/africa/ethiopia-jawar-mohammed-abiy-ahmed.html.
12. See Human Rights Watch, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/09/ethiopia-communications-shutdown-takes-heavy-toll.
13. See statements by Oromia Physicians Association, at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3337217726293642&set=a.916729845009121&type=3&theater; and Human Rights Watch, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/20/millions-ethiopians-cant-get-covid-19-news.
14. See https://twitter.com/addisstandard/status/1244889293660860416.
15. Article 19, 2016, p. 2.
17. See Addis Standard, 2020. “News update: Prosecutors charge journalist Yayesew with newly enacted hate speech law” (21 April), at https://addisstandard.com/news-update-prosecutors-charge-journalist-yayesew-with-newly-enacted-hate-speech-law/, accessed 22 April 2020.
18. The Ethiopian Constitution provides a general right to privacy under its Article 26, and to correspondence and communication generated on electronic devices (Article 26(2).
19. Medemer is an Amharic term which translates as “addition” or “synergy”. It was launched by Abiy Ahmed as a term guiding his political reconciliation approach after coming to power.
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Received 26 June 2020; revised 1 July 2021; accepted 22 September 2021.
Copyright © 2021, Steven Lloyd Wilson, Staffan Lindberg, and Kjetil Tronvoll. All Rights Reserved.
The best and worst of times: The paradox of social media and Ethiopian politics
by Steven Lloyd Wilson, Staffan Lindberg, and Kjetil Tronvoll.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 10 - 4 October 2021