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NewsInternet blackouts, fuel shortages hobble business, humanitarian response in Amhara region

Internet blackouts, fuel shortages hobble business, humanitarian response in Amhara region

Internet blackouts, fuel scarcity, and transport disruptions in the Amhara region pose serious difficulties for the public and humanitarian agencies attempting to reach millions of people in need.

The federal government’s decision to restrict access to mobile and fixed-lined internet as well as social media platforms has drawn condemnation from human rights advocates such as the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD) and Access Now.

The restrictions began in August 2023 amid escalating tensions between the federal government and the Amhara Fano militia and have had a palpable and devastating effect on residents, businesses, aid operations, and education.

A March 2024 report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reveals the delivery of aid in the Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions is hampered by fuel shortages, road closures, and limited internet connectivity. This lack of internet access is also causing delays in disease outbreak investigations, further exacerbating health risks.

In February, Amnesty International released a long-awaited report on the human rights impact of the conflict in the Amhara region. The organization notes the report was slow to come out due to the internet shutdown, partial communication blackouts, an ongoing sweeping state of emergency affecting freedom of speech and media, and fear of reprisals.

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Medina Idris, a fresh IT graduate residing in Dessie, is among the victims of the internet shutdowns. Her dreams of launching a digital marketing platform were dashed as the internet connection in her town was shut off last year. The few places in town that still have Wi-Fi access are cautious about extended usage and often restrict personal computer use.

“I’ve been stuck since graduating,” said Medina. “What can I do? I don’t have family I can stay with. I can’t go to Addis Ababa for better opportunities.”

Medina is hardly the only one pushed into a corner by the communications blackout.

Shumet Beyene, a high school senior residing in Dessie, aspires to follow in the footsteps of his elder sister and secure a scholarship to study abroad. He says the internet blackout is a serious hamper on his ability to search and apply for scholarship opportunities.

Mulugeta, a Lalibela tour guide who requested his last name be withheld, says he has been unable to maintain a connection with past clients who promised to refer him to friends and other would-be tourists.

The economic impact of the shutdown extends beyond the Amhara region.

Ethiopia ranked second on a list of countries that have suffered the highest levels of economic losses due to internet shutdowns in 2023 compiled by Top10VPN. Ethiopia lost a staggering USD 1.9 billion, second only to Russia, according to the report.

Studies have also demonstrated that internet shutdowns have limited effectiveness in preventing unrest, but the government continues to stick to its communication blackout policy.

Internet disruptions, however, are far from the only problem plaguing the Amhara region.

Fuel scarcities allegedly arising from hoarding have resulted in long queues at pumping stations and a proliferating illicit fuel trade.

Bewket Atalel, a rickshaw driver in Woldiya, describes a scenario that has become all too common in the region over the last few months:

“Fuel trucks unload, gas stations claim they’re out, then fuel reappears in barrels for illegal sale at double the price,” he told The Reporter.

This illicit trade leaves law-abiding drivers waiting in long lines, often with no success.

Hailegebriel, a rickshaw driver in another small town, shares the frustrations. He has also been left with no choice but to buy black market fuel at double the price. He told The Reporter that gas stations refuse to accept electronic payments for fuel – only cash.

“We need peace,” said Hailegebriel, whose last name is being withheld. “Law and order must be restored.”

Road closures are also an imposing problem for the residents of the Amhara region. A woman residing in Woldiya told The Reporter she has no means to take her son, who requires specialized eye treatment, to medical centers in the capital.

The road to the capital through Debre Birhan has been closed since February, forcing travelers to pay higher fees for a ride to Addis Ababa via the longer route through Afar.

“I shouldn’t have to choose,” she said.

The pervasive sentiment is a yearning for peace. Medina, Shumet, Mulugeta, Hailgebrieal, and the unnamed mother all plead for an end to the conflict.

“We need peace; the public needs peace,” said Hailegebriel.

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