Paul Kagame in Las Vegas, Menelik's First Phone, and Struggle for ICT in Ethiopia

Samuel Kinde
March 2008

In his book, 'Atse Menelik', the legendary Ethiopian journalist and prolific writer Paulos Gno Gno quotes the story of telephone in Ethiopia as described by the author D. Pariset (Al tempo di Menelik), '..the first telephone was installed in Menelik's palace in 1889 and the news of the displeasure among many clergymen who resented the new technology finally reached the Emperor's ears. Eight representatives of the clergy approached the throne of Menelik and appealed to the Emperor that the telephone in the palace was in fact the work of SeyTan - the Devil and that it should be removed from the palace and destroyed in public. Menelik then informed the delegates that their concern was 'legitimate' and he will get back to them the next day. Subsequently, he called up his nobility and the Patriarch and bitterly complained that the clergy is interfering in his vision of growth for his country by claiming that the telephone technology is the work of the Devil. He went to say that the priests are bent on sabotaging his work and are - in the process - forcing him to even consider abandoning the Orthodox faith just to distance himself from the backward clergy. Upon hearing such a shocking declaration from the Emperor, the nobility and the Patriarch rushed to assure the Emperor that they will calm down the priests and begged him to stay with the Orthodox faith".

Such was the resistance that the then technology-hungry and progressive monarch encountered almost 120 years ago from the backward elements of our society in his attempt in introducing telephone technology in Ethiopia much ahead of even some European countries. While a full century and two decades have passed since then where reason and hunger for technology eventually prevailed over ignorance, the story of telecom technology in Ethiopia remains essentially the same, i.e., that of the forces of progress battling huge barriers from the old thinking and ways of doing things based on fear and suspicion.

In a different setting separated by time and location, just a few weeks ago, Paul Kagame, Rwanda's current president and among today's few forward-looking and progressive African leaders was invited to deliver a key-note speech at CES, one of the world's premium ICT industry conventions held in Las Vegas, USA. Along with him were also a number of distinguished ICT ministers from various parts of Africa currently considered progressive enough by their ICT colleagues around the world. Standing tall and confident in this global stage, what Mr. Kagame said with passion and certain air of knowledge to thousands of ICT industry leaders and professionals regarding what his country is doing in this industry serves as the inspiration for this article. Further, the backdrop of what Menelik faced as an obstacle in 1889 and - more importantly - what African ICT officials and entrepreneurs said in informal talks during the event further added currency to this inspiration.

As the Rwandans, Ugandans, Malawians, Ghanaians, Senegalese and Nigerians who are currently considered progressive in the ICT world basked in the limelight in this global stage - mainly due what they have been able to accomplish in ICT - attempts by the Ethiopian engineer's group to draw attention on the country's potentials were met with "sorry, first bring down the barriers and then let us talk" kind of responses.

Perhaps, the story of what transpired in this international event could be better told by presenting the jest of the conversations verbatim. Visualize, if you will, a group of African professionals, entrepreneurs, and ICT ministers chatting during a coffee break in the corridors of the meeting halls once the event's star, Mr. Kagame, had delivered his key-note speech. Mr. Kagame had just charmed the audience with his vision for his country where the private industry leads expansion of ICT industry creating thousands of jobs while the government focuses on bringing ICT to its own government structure - achieving a clear distinction between the role of government and the job-creating and efficiency of the private industry. It is not always that such professional events bring so many of what the Ghanaian economist George Ayittey refers to as 'the cheetah generation' of Africans and the group seemed determined to make the most use out of this opportunity.

"We envy you folks walking away with all these commitments to bring ICT jobs to your countries! Where do you think we failed miserably to the extent no one takes ICT in Ethiopia seriously anymore?" the Ethiopian group asked almost rhetorically pointing out that several start-up companies as well as the investment community could not stop talking about what they termed as the new Renaissance of Africa in these few progressive countries while shunning others like Ethiopia.

"We ask the same questions to your telecom ministers and officials every time we meet them in international events - why aren't you allowing privatization of ICT in your country just like everyone else?" confided an ICT official from a progressive West African country. "I will give you an example. We had an ICT meeting back in October 2007 in Kigali, Rwanda (Connect Africa Summit) where I posed similar questions to officials from your country. I never received satisfactory and authoritative answers."

"Did they tell you that Ethiopia's conditions are so different and unique that only the government can solve them?" a quick question followed from the Ethiopian side.

"As a matter of fact, to my utter disbelief, I had heard that explanation back in 2006 in the eLearning conference in Addis itself. But I have not heard that explanation again since then - at least, not in Kigali. That explanation is just too annoying, especially for this age."

'Well, what do you think is the problem, then?" was asked the official.

"It is obvious. The policy and chain of commands seem to point out all the way to the top of government in your country," the official remarked in a tone that suggested frustration as well as some precautions. "The responsibility starts and ends there," he added.

"I have been to your beautiful country at least three times the past few years. Every time, I am there I am perplexed and wonder what is wrong with your country when it comes to ITC,' added an entrepreneur from Uganda who was barely 30 years old.

Pressed for more details, the entrepreneur added, "For example, look at the tax that you guys levy on PCs and mobile phones. The last time I visited Addis, it was something like 25% tax. We don't tax a single cent for PCs in Uganda." He added, "You guys managed to take flower growing business away from Kenya because you are offering the growers less tax than Kenya or Uganda. Why do you then shoot yourselves in the foot in an industry that really matters like ICT? You are not going to be able to create well-paying jobs and assume leadership in Africa just by growing and selling flowers. You need to be able to attract technology and the more fundamental transformation it can bring about," he added.

Case closed, the thought came.

"Our rulers are afraid that ICT will be used to bring about protests and government change," an explanation was suggested.

"Well, if anyone had to be afraid of that, it should have been us," said another entrepreneur from Rwanda. "But that is not what we did. Let people use ICT freely. Let them learn about events inside and outside our country. If we are always afraid of being overthrown, what is the difference that we brought? The more people learn, the less they seem to hold grudges. There will always be people with all sorts of ideas whether you allow internet access or not. Let them talk openly. We have done that for the last 10 years and in the last election, as you remember, Mr. Kagame won almost 94% of the votes. You guys have no excuse."

"Remember in Uganda, until 10 years ago, we had similar problems. At the grass-root level, people really understood ICT and the promises it carries for economic growth and were hungry for open access. But the country's president did not get it or else was afraid of the technology. Lucky for us, people did not leave him alone. Everywhere he went, he heard the same request. In every meeting, people asked him why he kept a tight lead on ICT, especially on Internet service provision. Then, after years of unrelenting public pressure, the President gave in and seemed to understand what was at stake. Not long after that, we started seeing liberal and progressive policies in place. Now, we have a dynamic and growing internet user base all over Uganda. It seems that we are ahead of you at least by 10 years," the entrepreneur from Uganda opined.

"You know that we meet in such platforms once in a while. What would be your advice for us?" a question was asked from the Ethiopian side.

"Do what we did in Uganda," advised the young entrepreneur. "Challenge your leaders. No authority can stop the spread of technology and people's desire for being part of the global world. This force of technology is too immense".

"We have been lucky in Ghana. As you know our leaders have been progressive and they understand the power of this industry. But without the grass-root support and activity, this alone Is not enough. Listen to the Ugandans," advised a Ghanaian entrepreneur as he headed to the airport.

"How about international bodies and aid organizations? Why do you think they are not able or willing to put pressure on the government?" the Ethiopian group further probed.

"Most international organizations like EU and US government agencies are very much desperate to show results - any results, for that matter to the point that they are willing to compromise and keep quiet," added the entrepreneur from Uganda.

"So, how do we get them on-board?"

"It is the same story here as well. Engage these people as well with no exceptions. The worst thing you can do is to keep quiet. With no action and complete silence, you might even start seeing US and European companies like Cisco selling your government content-filtering software paid by aid money from donors. You have hundreds of thousands of your people living in Europe and the US. Use all the influence you can. At the end no one has managed to keep his people shielded from modern technology and your country is no exception."

Lessons learnt
As the events winded down, the Ethiopian group was left with nothing but lessons. But these lessons, perhaps, may turn out to be what we need most at this point.
i) Do what the Ugandans did. Leave no stones unturned in this struggle for Ethiopia's rightful thirst for progress in ICT.
i) Engage politicians - whether ruling or opposition - wherever, whenever at whatever circumstances. Build the critical mass of voices of reason and basic citizenry right.
ii) Engage donor countries and organizations. Challenge them to use their influence instead of appeasing a backward practice. They are reasonable people. They will respond to a reasonable argument. They also care about their image.
iii) No authority can stop the spread of technology and people's desire for being part of the global world. This force of technology is too immense.
iv) The fight for such access is a just fight and historical fight. The fate of one of Africa's largest countries could very well be decided by this technology alone.

A small incident, again narrated in Paulos Gno Gno's book, 'Atse Menelik', describes what the forces of resistance will continue to offer against technology to hold on to old and discredited ways "Two years after Menelik introduced telephone to his palace, a second one was installed in the home of Afenigus Nessibu, the then minister of justice. One Sunday afternoon, however, the telephone set developed a short-circuit and delivered a minor electrical shock to the Afenigus as he was chatting on the phone. When the clergymen heard of this incident, they seized the opportunity to publicly declare that this is a clear sign that the device was indeed the work of the Devil and unfit for the country and its people. Subsequently, they grabbed the telephone set and publicly burnt it."

In 1899, eight years after the burning of the Afenigus' telephone set by the clergy, the Emperor stuck to his wish and vision and was able to inaugurate the Harar-Addis Ababa telephone line.

Post Script
Back to the daily routines of life after this interesting meeting with some of Africa's visible Digerati class, the following e-mail came to a mailbox of the author (in response to an earlier article) underscoring - once again - what continues to be at stake, i.e., ICT jobs and income that Ethiopia is turning away.

"My Company is planning to open a branch abroad this year which initially will create 30 jobs but eventually many more. The jobs are working on computers data processing; but English language knowledge is not required. The initial criteria we are using to asses potential countries are: Personal safety /low crime rate, low corruption, good Internet access, English as an official language, close to GMT, ease of doing business / business friendly laws, and consistent power supplies.

You can guess which one of the above is badly letting your country down. I believe trade is better than aid and I would have really liked to have chosen your country. It is very important to me that I do good things in this life and establishing an office and generating jobs in your country would have been a good thing and something I could have been very proud of. Unfortunately though, without decent internet access, my business plan will not work and I'm afraid I have to remove Ethiopia from my list. I was moved to write this letter because I wanted you to know, you are right, restricted Internet access is holding back your country and costing badly needed jobs. I know we are only talking about 30 jobs but how many more companies have or will make the same decision without writing a letter but just crossing Ethiopia off the list? Good luck and I hope you can persuade your Government to sort out the problem. " (signed, D.H).


Paulos Gno Gno, 'Atse Menelik', Bole Publishing, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1990.
Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, Atse Menelik Ina ye Ityopia Andinet (Emperor Menelik and Ethiopian Unity), Kuraz Publishing Co., Addis Ababa 1990.
Dante Pariset, Al tempo di Menelik, Milan, 1937.
Samuel Kinde, "Is Ethiopia Offline or Wired to the Rim?", MediaETHIOPIA, 2007.

For comments and feedback: you may reach the writer at samk at digitaladdis dot com.

The author's previous articles on the state of Internet connectivity in Ethiopia can be accessed here. Part 1 (2001), Part 2 (2002), Part 3 (2007).