Internet Shutdown in Ethiopia Almost Two Years Ago: What Do We Know Now?

In November 2020, in the hours before the outbreak of war in Ethiopia, a intentional internet outage was imposed on its northern region.

Network data from internet observatory NetBlocks confirms that the internet was shut down regionally in Ethiopia as of 1am on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 local time. The measurements corroborate widespread reports of a data and telephony outage in the northern Tigray region, which continues into midnight.

The blackout has continued since then and some recent reports tried to estimate the result.

Tigray having become an inaccessible island, it is impossible to present an accurate assessment of the impact of the Internet blockade. Because, ironically, this would require the Internet or any other means of connecting to Tigray to study the damage inflicted on Tigray by the blockade. However, this does not mean that one cannot make a reasonable prediction by analyzing the damage that the complete shutdown of the Internet at the present time can cause to an economy and a society that was already struggling. Families have been separated for more than a year; promising start-ups have been forced to close; universities have ceased to function; banking services are not available; and all other Internet-based businesses went bankrupt.

An island is right. Brooking gives a striking contrast between Ethiopian infrastructure and neighboring states.

Although the country is the second most populous in Africa, its 110 million inhabitants are among the most digitally isolated on the continent. The country’s internet penetration of 18% is just below Guinea and above the Democratic Republic of Congo – a stark contrast to neighboring Kenya where internet penetration is 85% and at Nigeria, where it is 73%.

Freedom House further explains how forced outages have been handled.

Communication restrictions have also hampered the documentation of rights violations and the distribution of humanitarian aid; security forces blocked food supplies to cause mass food insecurity, weaponized sexual violence and attacked aid workers. Ethio Telecom blamed “law enforcement operations” for the shutdown, broadcasting CCTV camera footage of armed individuals forcing their way into their Mekelle compound and disabling the source of distribution of ‘electricity. […] As a landlocked country, Ethiopia does not have direct access to submarine cable landing stations; instead, it connects to the international internet via satellite, a fiber optic cable that crosses Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and another that crosses Djibouti to an international submarine cable. All connections to the international internet are fully centralized under Ethio Telecom, allowing the government to cut traffic at will.

The US State Department says it as this.

Telecommunications, electricity and other public services remain largely unavailable in the Tigray region as well as in other conflict areas.

All of this raises the question of what can be known about a region like this being forcibly closed to all communication with the outside world.

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