Ethiopia does not offer a date for the end of the blackout in the Tigray region

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

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

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

“The government of Ethiopia is planning a package that is not only about restarting the Internet, but about restarting everything, because that is what we need as a people, as a government,” Belete said of the Internet blackout in Tigray. “There is no timeline.”

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

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A ceasefire agreement between the South African parties signed earlier this month obliges the government to restore basic services in Tigray, but the communication blackout has not yet been lifted.

Renewed fighting in August halted aid shipments to Tigray, which has been hit by a humanitarian crisis. Aid has now arrived in the region, but the World Food Program said last week that access to parts of Tigray remained “limited”.

With the blackout still in effect in Tigray, the UN’s decision to hold its flagship event on internet access in Ethiopia has drawn criticism. This year’s conference aims to take steps towards “universal, affordable and meaningful connectivity”, especially in Africa, where 60% of the continent’s 3 billion people are offline.

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

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

At the opening of an online forum on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abij Ahmed appeared to defend the shutdown in Tigray, saying the internet “supported the spread of disinformation while Ethiopia was dealing with an armed insurgency in the north of the country.”