Existing and potential investors in Ethiopia’s telecommunications industry are unnerved by rising civil conflict in the Tigray region, a crisis that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is struggling to control, burdened by the country’s reputation for restricting digital communication channels and connectivity.
The Tigrayan conflict was triggered in November last year and resulted in disruption to telecommunications and electricity services.
Tigrayan troops have now regrouped and have been advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has largely been viewed as an attractive investment case for telecommunications, with recent confirmation of investment in operation by a consortium of Vodafone and Safaricom after securing a private operator telecom licence bid. Under this permit, the consortium would also launch mobile money services.
But progress has been halted, with the United States’ Development Finance Corporation (DFS) delaying a US$500-million investment citing the unfolding crisis.
Conflict between federal forces and military rulers from the Tigray military has persisted for more than a year and worsened in the past few days when Ahmed declared a state of emergency to prevent the take-over of the capital by Tigrayan forces.
This week Ahmed called on citizens to “organise and march through … with every weapon and power… to prevent, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF” in posts that have now been deleted by Facebook.
The social network said it removed the post “for violating our policies against inciting and supporting violence” in the country.
Global internet tracker AccessNow noted: “it’s important to acknowledge platforms like Facebook’s inaction when they knew they were being used to incite violence” in Ethiopia.
William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia with Crisis Group, said “Abiy has little incentive to offer concessions” that can placate the restive Tigrayan military leaders.
However, he predicts what he describes as “meaningful federal concessions” that could prove essential in calming the worsening situation.
“That may mean immediately restoring telecoms, banking and electricity services to Tigray and facilitating rather than choking aid to the famine-stricken region,” Davison said on Thursday.
The UN said this week “unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence” is unfolding under circumstances described by human rights campaigners and activists from Tigray as amounting to “an internet, telecom and electricity blackout”.