The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has not only caused the loss of lives and mass displacement but also loss of millions of dollars in revenue by businesses due to another full year of total internet shutdown.
Despite electricity being restored in Tigray’s capital Mekelle after a truce was signed between the government and Tigray fighters to end two years of war last November, internet blackout is still ongoing since the war broke out in November 2020.
A new report by Top10VPN, a London-based VPN review firm that assesses internet privacy, security, and freedom shows that Ethiopian businesses have lost $145.8 million due to internet blackout in Tigray last year. It affected over 1 million internet users.
There was no internet connection for a total of 8760 hours (365 days) in 2022, crippling digital payment systems, businesses, and efforts by human rights groups to use social media to document reported crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Tigray, home to over 5 million people before the war.
The report notes that the internet shutdown in Tigray region is “one of the longest we’ve ever documented. As in other areas of the world, the main reason authorities implement shutdowns is to stifle the free flow of information during elections, conflict, or protests. Internet shutdowns are, above all else, a method of control but that doesn’t mean they’re always successful.”
Digital rights researcher at Top10VPN Samuel Woodhams tells Quartz that repeated shutdowns are not good for Ethiopia and they “could have long term consequences, with a drop in foreign investor confidence and a decline in local tech-driven growth.”
There is still no clarity on when internet services will be restored in Tigray. “There is no timeline,” Ethiopia’s innovation and technology minister Belete Molla told delegates on Nov. 30 during the UN annual Internet Governance Forum in Addis Ababa.
Woodhams says by emphasizing the economic impact, the Ethiopian government will recognize how internet shutdowns harm the country.
“Governments, ISPs, and tech companies need to be more transparent about their role in disrupting access to the internet. We also need to work collectively to ensure people experiencing shutdowns have the support, tools and skills necessary to circumvent them,” he says.
Other African countries also lost millions of dollars in economic value due to restricted internet access, with Nigeria losing $82.7 million after 287 hours of social media shutdown in 2022 according to the survey. It affected 104 million users. In 2021, Nigeria lost $1.45 billion when it banned access to Twitter.
In Sudan, where the government continues to use internet shutdowns to crack down on pro-democracy protests since a military coup last October, a loss of $17.8 million was recorded last year. “Internet access was cut twice in early January and again in June as protests were crushed and protestors killed. Internet access in Sudan was also deliberately disrupted by the government 11 times in June to prevent cheating in exams,” the study says.
Following a failed military coup, a period of unrest, and the army’s announcement that it had taken complete control of Burkina Faso last year, the government shut down the internet for a total of 380 hours, leading to an economic loss of $12.6 million. Close to 4 million people could not access online services.
A 20-hour Facebook access restriction in Algeria during exams and a four-hour partial internet outage on June 13 last year caused a loss of $8 million. Over 25 million people were affected.
“In two incidents during the weeks leading up to important parliamentary by-elections, authorities in Zimbabwe throttled internet speeds and cut internet access during opposition party rallies,” notes the report. A loss of $1.6 million was incurred in 2022, affecting over 5 million users.
While the cost of mobile internet is reducing across many African countries, the continent’s internet speed is still below the global average, keeping it miles behind the rest of the world in the move towards a digital economy.