The Unconquered Nation, Crippled By Bureaucrats

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Seems like it’s Sub-Saharan Month around here: first Sarah Lacy went to Nigeria, and now here I am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and Africa’s fourth-largest city. It feels like a boomtown. There are cranes and construction sites everywhere, throwing up gleaming new glass-and-steel buildings full of shops selling computers and mobile phones. The major thoroughfares throng with people making, trading, repairing, unloading, selling, and generally hustling.

Don’t get me wrong: this is still a poor country. Electrical outages are regular occurrences, the taxis that patrol the city’s broad avenues are rusting Ladas, and the side streets are harrowed dirt strewn with garbage, lined with tin shacks, and patrolled by beggars and feral dogs. But I’ve only seen occasional pockets of the poisonous stagnation I’ve found so often elsewhere south of the Sahara. This feels like a place where things happen. It’s a city and country that could be on the cusp of a genuine transformation, catalyzed by technology—were it not for a single, gigantic roadblock: its own government.

“Oh, they’re great,” one expat deadpans about Ethio Telecom (ETC), the government monopoly that controls all phone, mobile, and Internet service across the nation, and everyone in the room bursts into laughter. He shakes his head. “No, no. They’re terrible.” It’s not just the censorship, though that’s bad enough: the entire blogspot.com domain is blocked, along with various Facebook pages and newspapers. But what upsets people more is ETC’s sheer incompetence.

A very brief acquaintance with Ethiopia’s Internet cafes will confirm everything they say in a hurry. Connection speeds are highly variable, trending towards painfully slow, if and when you can connect at all. Ethiopia still hasn’t linked up with the SEACOM fiber that brings broadband to East Africa; as a result, the entire nation has only 1.2 gigabits of bandwidth for its 85 million people, more of whom are coming online every day. You do the math.

If you have a connection problem, things get even worse; by all accounts, ETC’s customer care makes Comcast seem like Rolls-Royce. A local security hacker and penetration tester (“white-hat only,” he assures me with a grin) grimaces with disbelief, remembering: he also works at a large NGO, and the last time they had a serious connectivity issue, “I had to go to (Ethiopia Telecom’s) data center and fix it myself.”

But surely one could end-run around the problem with a VSAT dish? The creator of the entertaining “ETC sucks” Facebook page shakes his head: “There’s no VSAT, it’s impossible.” The government forbids them for all except the most powerful of organizations; he estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen in the country, for places like the UN, World Bank, African Union. The red tape doesn’t stop there: you need a permit to import “anything with an IP number,” which takes a month—and they usually say no.

This is a proud nation, and with reason: Ethiopia is the only African nation which defeated their would-be European colonizers and remained independent throughout the colonial era. But they need to start looking to the rest of Africa as an example. “They’re so far ahead of us in Kenya,” the local hacker says forlornly, meaning the fierce competition among mobile and Internet providers there, and the access and innovation that has thrived as a result.

Alas, Ethiopia’s government seems fond of monopolies, protectionism, and bureaucracy. I believe mobile Internet access is a transformational force that could turn African nations into economic lions to rival Asia’s tigers—but only if it’s fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. And that will never happen here while every bit of Ethiopia’s Internet is controlled by a dinosaur monopoly with no competitive incentive to improve.