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Ethiopian Times
National elections cast dark shadows over 13 months of sunshine in the land of Solomon and Sheba - 22 Mar 10
Ethiopian women weaving traditional baskets
Old 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 national voting.

Tucked at the centre of the troublesome Horn of Africa, Ethiopia's last general election in 2005 ran true to the region's turbulent form.

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 a mouse.

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 magically restored.

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.