traditions die hard
As Great Britain
gears up for a general election in May, so the people of Ethiopia
are also bracing themselves for their take on democracy and
Tucked at the centre of the troublesome Horn of Africa, Ethiopia's
last general election in 2005 ran true to the region's turbulent
The current Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, led his freedom
fighters to victory but 20 years later he is still in power
and looking to secure another term of office.
The greatest threat to retaining power is the people's access
to communications - paradoxically, the nation's best chance
at raising itself out of the bottom group of least-developed
countries in the world.
The internet arrived at the Gondar College of Medical Sciences
in 1999 - right in the middle of the Ethio-Eritrean war. Gondar
is so close to Eritrea that people could easily nip to Asmara
for the weekend.
The war changed that and the mass deportations of Ethiopia-born
Eritreans were equalled only by the influx of wounded soldiers
to temporary military wards at the hospital. It really wasn't
the best time to establish communications with a global community
but the doctors working at the college had won a World Health
Organisation prize for their community health work and requested
a computer centre be set up.
A suite of networked computers were duly installed, complete
with UPS to compensate for the frequent power cuts. More importantly,
a telephone line was designated exclusively for the internet
dial-up connection (remember them?), ruffling a few feathers
of colleagues waiting patiently for a phone. But the leap
into the communications age brought about by logging onto
the worldwide web was the most remarkable.
Gondar, the former capital of Ethiopia, is 500 miles up an
all-weather track (virtually impassable in the rains) from
Addis Ababa and although it retains a historical and religious
significance, had fallen into decline. Suddenly, the latest
medical innovations could be perused and noted in minutes
(depending on the strength of the dial-up) and friends and
family scattered overseas could be contacted by a click of
For the instructors, doctors and students it was more the
age of enlightment. Access to up-to-date, quality research
on tropical diseases and HIV/AIDS meant improved care for
patients. Offical figures at that time placed a HIV/AIDS burden
on the population of ten per cent infected but doctors at
the hospital were counting a fifth of pregnant women as HIV+.
Rumours of drugs that prevented mother-to-child transmission
were immediately confirmed as fact. The government could be
pressured to buy and distribute life-saving treatment. There
was hope where there had only been desperation and stigma
because the disease, once whispered about as friends and colleagues
wasted away to an early death from "cancer" or "TB",
was up for open discussion.
The difficulty was access to information leads to the spread
of ideas and governments used to a pliable and fairly docile
electorate are particularly wary of new ideas that can threaten
their power-base. The internet connection was frequently "unavailable".
Requests for a satellite link offered by non-governmental
organisations were turned down. The people were not ready
for the information highway.
Of course, the people still got news from abroad either huddled
around tiny short-wave radio sets tuned in the BBC World Service,
expensive phone calls to the diaspora (the international phones
never seemed to be disrupted) or just the drum beats carrying
the latest from around the country. And as soon as a truce
with the Eritreans was agreed, the internet connection was
But the illusion of control kept violence at bay, at least
until the last general election. By 2005 the mobile phone
had become the government's nemesis, as texts flew round organising
student protests and opposition rallies before the authorities
could crack down. It might be harder to cut the signals this
time but achieving a democracy takes time and Britain's Houses
of Parliament are less than perfect.
The frustration is knowing that communication through radio,
TV, the internet, or just talking openly is the proven way
of raising speople out of poverty and disease as they struggle
to live beyond their 40th birthday.