Ethiopia shuts down phone, internet services to Tigray region

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Photo credit: Michael Tewelde | AFP

The Ethiopian government on Wednesday started restricting telephone and internet services to the troubled Tigray region, hours after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response to an ambush on the military.

Information access rights group Access Now indicated that the region had been closed to the world after Addis Ababa imposed a six-month state of emergency, accusing the region of threatening the sovereignty of Ethiopia.

“The government of Ethiopia has again shut down the internet,” Access Now said.

“Mobile network, fixed-line internet and landline telephony have been cut in Tigray, as PM (Abiy Ahmed) declares a state of emergency and orders military intervention against Tigray People’s Liberation Front.”

The Front is said to have ambushed a military camp commanded by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces in Tigray and “attempted to rob” weapons from the camp, according to a statement issued by Abiy’s office on Wednesday.

Calls not going through

By Thursday morning, calls to sources in Tigray were not going through while they remained offline on their internet platforms. Addis Ababa did not clarify on the cut-off claims.

Ja kenn Publishing PLC, the Ethiopian group that owns the Addis Standard issued an editorial demanding open channels to access the region and report on the incident.

“Reporting on conflicts is never an easy task, but it is important that journalists are able to reach sources on the ground to update the world on the condition and safety of civilian citizens who are possibly caught in the crossfire of such conflicts,” the news organisation indicated.

“As an independent media based in Ethiopia and concerned about the safety of civilian citizens, with a responsibility to provide the local and international community with factual updates, and in this age when we struggle with the proliferation of fake news, we kindly ask the government to let the truth be upheld and allow the restoration of all means of communication in Tigray regional state.”

Flights ban

Authorities in Ethiopia often restrict internet communication especially when there is a security problem. In July, Ethiopia shut down the internet for about a month after deadly protests that followed the assassination of activist and popular musician Hachalu Hundessa.

Tension rose on Wednesday evening after the TPLF, which runs the autonomous Tigray region, one of the ten federal regions in the country, responded by banning any type of flights in the area.

A statement issued by the local administration also warned against any military movement near its borders. It also threatened to take actions against any forces attempting to cross the regional borders.

While Addis Ababa had ordered troops to launch attacks on the TPLF, the region claimed in a statement that all the federal forces that were stationed in Tigray had decided “to stand with Tigray in a struggle to remove pm Abiy led unconstitutional government.”

It further called on all Federal forces to abandon central government and to join TPLF-led struggle.

Some analysts said the PM may have made a blunder by escalating tensions rather than cooling them. Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan researcher on the Gulf and Horn of Africa geopolitics tweeted that the ethnic diversity of the Ethiopian forces could make it difficult for the order to be obeyed.

“Ethiopian military most ethnically-diverse institution, has strong national ethos, relatively better inoculated against ethno-nationalism,” he said on Wednesday.

“It would be interesting to see how it responds to Abiy's call for offensive. This could fragment army — which can be a dangerous scenario in itself.”

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