Letter from Ethiopia - December 8, 2003

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

"Breach of contract" is what comes to my mind whenever I am reminded by either my own guilt or the MediaETHIOPIA people that my letters had vanished into thin air with the arrival of the Ethiopian New Year. Many excuses could be cited ranging from the arrival of the school year for children to one's own never-ending world of intrigues, office politics and the numerous details of earning a living. I must say, however, that I do enjoy the times I spend in sharing some of the ordinary and non-ordinary aspects of our lives here in Addis and I am grateful for the occasional letters I get from you my readers and the support from MediaETHIOPIA.

With the famine situation not having turned into a major disaster - thanks to the God of Ethiopia and the international donors - I see an opportunity to talk about other modestly trivial details of our lives here. Before that, however, allow me to comment on whom I think should get the credit for averting the disasters - at least for the short time. In short, I could not think of any better groups of men and women than the International aid organizations and their employees who perennially kept on nudging their own political leaders and bureaucrats and fought with our own system of slowness and despair to get the food grains coming and distributed. Ato Simon Mechale and his organization (DPPC) who endure the shame of presenting our begging to the rest of the world almost every year; but mange to distribute food to almost 14 million Ethiopians and save lives are - in my humble opinion - the rightful group to take credit. As of Prime Minister Meles and EPRDF, I make no attempt to hide my views that the disaster was averted in spite of them and their lack of understanding of what Ethiopia's problems are all about and also their misplaced priorities which does not include the food thing apart from lip service. Certainly, if our yardstick is the performance of Colonel Mengistu in the 1984 famine - as I said in one of my letters - then the Prime Minister may be put in some positive light; but not by me; Addis Zemen and Walta Information have paid journalist who do that every day.

Well, now that we have the famine issue out of the way, let me come back to what I wanted to talk about this time. My letter, this time, is about cell phones in Addis Ababa and the elites that own them. A few weeks ago, I had met few friends of mine for a Sunday morning breakfast at a popular café on Bole Road. The meeting itself owned its very own existence largely thanks to the mobile phone that all of us seemed to carry. How else would you then explain that a friend had to pick a family member from Lideta, drop her husband at his office on Churchil Road (work on Sunday - yes, you may have to do that these days) and then meet up with us 30 minutes late while another one had to see-off a relative flying to north but could be there for breakfast only if we change the time an hour earlier. A breakfast that almost got cancelled had its timing and place re-worked largely thanks to the cellular phones that we kept on working the whole morning as schedules got shifted. The days of "W/o Aster betewat indewetu new. ketero alebign bilew neber. wede mata new yemimelesut. Iskeza me-likt liqebel?" seem to be over.

For those who watched with interest, the importance that mobile phones have assumed in our Addis Ababan lives may be better described when one notices how powerful government officials become stripped of power and instantly become ordinary 'have-been" citizens. Think of General Tsadkan Woldetensae - the once powerful EPRDF military man - and how Mr. Meles got him demoted and removed from power about two and half years ago. The first thing that the TPLF soldiers and security people took away from him was his government-supplied mobile phone! Taking the government cars and the houses - the old symbols of power - came later. For the soldiers on order from Meles himself, perhaps, the mobile phone was a direct access to power, prestige, and loyalty that the General had to surrender. The poor man had to be separated from his mobile phone first. Only then, the soldiers felt, the man was felt to realize that he was cut-off and unplugged from power and out of favor. A punishment, many people thought, for the General's dislike of Meles' unquestionable allegiance to the Shabia cause. That scene reminded me the scene of September 12, 1974….how the emperor was deposed that day early in the morning and driven away in an unassuming Volkswagen. Perhaps, if the mobile phone technology was available then, the then Lieutenant Debela Dinsa would have asked the Emperor to surrender his personal royal mobile phone before sending him off to his prison years and eventual death. They may then have gone through his records and accused him of calling the CIA and the Mossad to deliver him from the revolution and protect the allegedly stolen money. It was, perhaps, good the technology was not available then.

Just a few weeks ago, the curiosity on whether some political systems can withstand progress in technology had taken a better of me and I asked my husband something like, 'Do you think there are mobile phones in North Korea?" The answer may be yes, but one can't help but wonder how the Mengistu years would have looked if we had mobile phones. Imagine you were in the middle of a weekly "kebele niqat" session on a Saturday evening and a mobile phone rings. You may think that the cadres with government issued mobile phones will try to reassure each other "ye-ne new guadoch - ke Guad Likemenberu mehon alebet". But, no, this time the ring actually comes from the audience….from one among ourselves in the Keftegna 3 hall. "Comrades! Please call the Revolution Keepers - Abyot Tibeqa. We have a situation here. The anti-revolutionary units have penetrated a kebele meeting. They even have mobile phones. How did they get one, by the way?". Before you know it, a major search will be undergoing to trace the illegal mobile phone an average youth in Addis Ababa brought to a kebele meeting.

But then, fast forwarding 20 years or so, one notices that the TPLF - with as much vigor and hidden love for communism - has given in to technology. Many people say that the TPLF is a smarter communist body than WPE. Some say that they have no choice but to adopt to the times. Perhaps true; but the real test of their tolerance to technology that empower average people is if they can handle a mobile phone that can enable us take-over Asseb and get access to the sea; however that is done and however improbable it seems. As we have seen in the past few years, the Prime Minister has been observed to be tolerant of open accusations even in newspapers. The problem comes only and only when one mentions the words "Asseb", "access to the sea ....ye-bahr ber" and "Ethiopia's security"; words that test Meles' patience. As long as technology keeps us away from those taboo subjects of Meles and can not be used to challenge the "bahr ber guday or ye-Eritrea guday", then mobile phones are tolerated, it seems even by the "terarawoch yanketekete tiwld".

Many years ago, Ato Abdulmegid Husein used to be the minister in-charge of telecommunications. I remember some of the memorable speeches he made where he claimed that every household in Addis Ababa will have mobile phones. Many thought he was unnecessarily promising something he could not deliver. Some of us even laughed and thought the man was a good entertainer. But look around the few improvements in telecommunications in Ethiopia and you will see his roles in all of them. After he left, all sorts of telecommunications in this country have suffered with service improvements in wireless taking as many as 5 years before bids are posted and a winner announced. I even go further to suggest that among the extremely few notable people Meles had courted since 1991, Ato Abdulmejid may be by far the only useful one. He got us mobile phones, at least.

But now, even if only a reported 20,000 or so people own mobile phones in Addis Ababa, it is very much evident that it has changed many things in this city. For us ordinary Addis Ababans now, the '9' area code (area code for mobile phones) is, of course, a symbol of prestige. It means we can afford the payment, we are connected, we are ambitious, and - most importantly - that we can change from second gear to third gear in our cars with the right hand while holding our mobile phone with the left hand and not killing anyone during the process. I think it can also be argued we are no more "ordinary citizens"; there are only 20,000 or so of us in a country of 65 million people. How can we be then 'ordinary citizens'? However, in social occasions like weddings and leqso, we - the mobile elite - still haven't learnt to turn our mobile phones off out of respect. So, events get rudely interrupted on a daily basis. As one would expect, the largest concentration of mobile phones seem to be in the Bole Area and Merkato - strongholds of the mobile elite. The most sought after numbers in town also seem to be the mobile numbers of government officials. About 3 months ago, I could not believe a secretary of a bureaucrat at the Municipality actually gave me his mobile number after I failed locating him for 2 days in a row. As soon as I dialed his number and he picked the phone, his words were "Indet agegnut yihen kutr?" I am afraid the secretary may have been fired over the incident.  For me, however, it was a chance to get my permits just a few days after talking to him. Sometimes, I wish we had Meles' mobile number. Just for the fun of it, I imagine calling him up and saying, "Indemn aderu, kibur Teklay Minister? Ye bahr berun guday min aderesut?" I can hear the phone dying. The 'bahir ber guday' even when uttered on a mobile phone is still a taboo topic here; something technology could not win.

be-selam qoyu

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)

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