By Nikki Pfadt, Senior Analyst, Subsaharan Africa Section
Analytical Question: State of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia | Date: 26 March 2020
International organizations have recently called upon the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, to end an internet shutdown in the Oromia region of the country that is blocking millions of Ethiopians from accessing vital information about COVID-19. However, due to the fact that Ahmed has been persistent in his efforts to suppress his political opponents, both physically and virtually, we can judge with moderate-to-high confidence that he is likely to continue the internet shutdown for at least several months.
The internet shutdown has gained worldwide attention recently as public and political figures within Oromia and outside of the region have spoken out against it. Jawar Mohammed, a social media activist turned politician in the Oromia region, and a known political adversary of Ahmed, has reached out to the press to raise awareness of the lack of information available to Ethiopians about the coronavirus. Ethiopia’s first case of the coronavirus was declared on March 13, even though the shutdown was imposed a month earlier. The presence of COVID-19 in Ethiopia has ramped up outreach from human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
The internet shutdown includes mobile phone service and is currently only in the region of Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populated region state with about 35 million inhabitants. People are unable to access information about COVID-19 health risks and prevention tips, and the shutdown impedes progress in getting medical attention if need be. They are also not able to communicate with family members during the pandemic. Oromia is Prime Minister Ahmed’s homeland, but his political opposition is also based in the region. He has refused recent requests to lift the shutdown.
The internet shutdown is the latest in a series of attempts by the current government to crackdown on their opposition based in Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). There has been a string of arrests and detentions in Oromia, about 5,000 in the past six months, involving both known political figures and civilians ranging in age from 13 to 76. These run-ins with federal authorities have almost always resulted in extreme violence. These incidents are reported frequently and are supported with evidence. National elections are still scheduled for August this year, which is increasingly prompting clashes between the government and Oromo activists. The internet shutdowns were meant to prevent access to information and to suppress anti-government expressions on social media, but as the coronavirus pandemic grips the world, withholding information from its citizens puts the Ethiopian leadership in a serious predicament. The international disapproval that Ethiopia is facing is also likely to be an obstacle in attaining foreign assistance to fight COVID-19. The United States has not directly commented on the shutdown.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented, unexpected blow to the entire world. The internet and the information-sharing facilitated through it has played a significant role in facing the pandemic. Citizens of Ethiopia and Oromia, as well as human rights organizations both inside the country and internationally, have all called upon President Ahmed and the Ethiopian government to lift the shutdown immediately. As this situation gains attention in the media, it is highly likely that Ethiopia will face pressure from abroad. However, because President Ahmed has tight control over the federal government and has staunchly carried out anti-opposition measures over the past year at least, we can assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Abiy Ahmed will keep the internet shutdown in place for several months at the very least.
Human Rights Watch “Ethiopia: Communications Shutdown Takes Heavy Toll.” Human Rights Watch, March 9, 2020.
“Internet Shutdowns in 2019: India Continued to Top List of Worst Offenders” Accessed March 26, 2020.
Press, The Associated. “Worried Ethiopians Want Partial Internet Shutdown Ended” The New York Times, March 24, 2020, sec. World.
Tasfaye, Ermias. “Amid Blackout, Western Oromia Plunges Deeper into Chaos and Confusion.” Ethiopia Insight (blog), February 14, 2020.
US News & World Report. “U.N. Expert Urges Ethiopia to Stop Shutting Down Internet.” Accessed March 26, 2020.
“UNPO: Millions of Ethiopians Can’t Get COVID-19 News as Refusal to Restore Communications Threatens Public Health.” Accessed March 26, 2020.
 The Associated Press, “Worried Ethiopians Want Partial Internet Shutdown Ended,” (March 2020).
 UNPO, “Millions of Ethiopians Can’t Get COVID-19 News as Refusal to Restore Communications Threatens Public Health” (March 2020).
 Tasfaye, “Amid Blackout, Western Oromia Plunges Deeper into Chaos and Confusion,” (February 2020).