Ethiopia offers no date for end to blackout in Tigray region


NAIROBI, Kenya — There is “no timetable” for restoring internet access in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, a senior government official said on Tuesday.

The restoration of Tigray’s internet service is being carried out in parallel with the resumption of telephone and electricity services, although no date has been set for those goals, Ethiopia’s Innovation and Technology Minister Belete Molla said.

He was speaking at the UN’s annual Internet Governance Forum, held this week in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“The Ethiopian government is designing a package that is not just about the resumption of the internet, it is about the resumption of everything because that is what we need as a people and as a government,” Belete said of the internet shutdown in tigray “There is no schedule.”

Tigray, home to more than 5 million people, has been largely without internet, telecommunications and banking since war broke out between federal government troops and Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces in November 2020.

A ceasefire agreement signed earlier this month between the warring sides in South Africa committed the government to restoring basic services to Tigray, but the communications lockdown has not yet been lifted.

Renewed fighting in August halted aid to Tigray, which is facing a humanitarian crisis. Aid has now started reaching the region, but the World Food Program said last week access to parts of Tigray remains “restricted”.

With the Tigray blackout still ongoing, the UN’s decision to hold its flagship internet access event in Ethiopia has drawn criticism. This year’s conference aims to take steps towards “universal, affordable and meaningful connectivity”, particularly in Africa, where 60% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are offline.

Ethiopia has shut down the internet at least 22 times since 2016, according to internet rights group Access Now. The blackout affecting Tigray “is the longest uninterrupted shutdown in the world,” said Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now.

Aid workers and human rights groups say the communications blackout has hampered the delivery of aid to Tigray and fueled human rights abuses by promoting a culture of impunity among armed actors. UN investigators have accused all sides of the abuse, including killings, rape and torture.

At the opening ceremony of the internet forum on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared to defend the shutdown in Tigray, saying the internet “encouraged the spread of disinformation as Ethiopia dealt with an armed rebellion in the northern part of the country.”

This version has been corrected to show that Africa’s population is 1.3 billion, not 3 billion.