Viewpoints | Aug 10,2019
Ethiopia is exotic, mysterious, elusive, wondrous and shrouded with so many inexplicable marvels that it never tires the senses to witness the comings and goings of life that one encounters daily. It is not just the ancient rituals, melodic songs, colourful food, magnificent moorlands, the Afro-alpine mountains and highland meadows that woo the spirit, but also the people who live in inexplicable docility and silence, tolerating everything and each other.
But this tolerance and acquiesce comes at a high cost to the nation. At a time when the world has ventured into autonomous vehicles, virtual realities and non-stop information flow across global networks, Ethiopians quietly slosh along in an atmosphere of discontentment and insecurity about their daily lives.
Last week the internet was shut down for four days by the government. Outwardly, most of the people seem to shrug off the incident.
“There is no connection?” inquires a colleague trying to go online in the office.
“It’s been shut down,” responds a coworker, delivering the news nonchalantly.
“Oh!” exclaims the man and sits down to carry on with the rest of the workday, the conversation soon turning to other matters as if the internet blackout is a non-event.
The government, exercising its vast and infinite power, shuts down the internet service across the entire country at will and without informing the citizens ahead of time. Meanwhile, modern Ethiopians - suave, educated, internet-savvy and sophisticated – universally dismiss the entire episode as if nothing more than a minor inconvenience has happened.
Never mind that the country is under an electric power rationing regimen decreed by the same government. Disregard, too, that water supply has been severely curbed for months throughout urban areas. Everyone, it seems, abides by the constant disruption of services without complaint and waits for the next calamity to fall.
And a calamity did fall!
The reason for the internet interruption, although the state has issued no official statement, is rumoured to be to prevent online leaks of correct answers to the annual national exams. It is not the first time that the state has interposed itself between the free flow of information and the citizen.
In dumbfounding hubris and obliviousness, the learned minister of the former Government Communication Affairs Office in May 2017 intoned that the intention of disabling the internet services was not “for fear of exam leaks and online distribution. It was, rather, a move to eliminate distractions, so that students would find their focus to study during the exams.” As if his feeble reasoning justifies the superfluous action of the government!
One is left gasping for air in realising that those in charge of running the country are capable of such simplicity and feebleness in matters of state. Those in charge seem to be oblivious to the fact that their unconsidered and wanton actions carry dire consequences in the economy and development of the country.
In an age when the internet is the lifeline for the lives of billions of people, business, nations, institutions and just about any human construct, it is unthinkable that the state elects to disable the internet and plunge the country into information and communication darkness.
Rather than seeking more straightforward solutions to prevent cheating on national exams, the state takes an action that undermines the trust the people have in their government; and damages Ethiopia’s image in the eyes of the world, foreign investors, tourists, institutions and international organisations. It will be no wonder if this action renders us the poster child of a maladroit governmental system.
“But wait!” exclaim the erudite among us and proclaim: "Most African countries and even India shut down the internet from time to time."
This is tantamount to holding a beauty contest among gorillas (kezenjoro konjo men yemerartwal), to use an old Ethiopian aphorism. Sadly, our progress and modernity is measured against the experiences of other botched nations, rather than aspiring to be like the Netherlands and Sweden where freedom, democracy and the quality of life of every citizen have outshined.
From a distance, Ethiopia seems to be struggling with a bureaucracy and a government edifice that has lost its way and is plunging head first without charting a course. It resembles a flailing ship that has lost its rudder and is sailing aimlessly in a tempestuous sea.
There isn’t much even a skilled and capable captain can do to manoeuvre a damaged ship other than to rely on his skills and count on fate. It will make no difference if the captain rearranges the decks and demotes his chief officer and promotes the second officer; reassigns the third mate to watch position, and switches his chief engineer to communications duties. To save his ship, he needs to send his skilled crew to the bowls of the ship and fix the rudder and regain control of the vessel again.
Much the same way, the shuffling and re-shuffling of ministers, the assignment and re-assignment of ministers of state, the appointment and re-appointment of commissioners and director generals will make no dent on the morbid state edifice.
The arbitrary dictums of unqualified and un-enlightened officials that decide on the disposition of our land, heritage, people’s properties, liberties, and human and civil rights must be curtailed to restore citizens’ trust in the government. A room full of chattering, but otherwise unelected ministers with doctoral degrees do not guarantee leadership, capability or accountability.
Enlightenment is what is needed, but finding such lofty aspirants in the top ranks of our government is a mere aspiration to be desired but not to be attained. Regardless, educated high officials are easy pickings and can be whittled down or even can be reformed very easily. They are unlike the uninformed hordes of low-ranking officials who are sheltering by the thousands in the deep recesses of the warren offices of the municipalities, weredas, zonal administrations and regional mandarin bureaus.
We need to rid ourselves of provincial officials that are dragging us back into the Dark Ages and replace them with capable and skilled leaders that will create an Ethiopia that can sit proudly on the same stage as the top-ranked nations of Europe.
PUBLISHED ON Jun 22,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 999]
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