Mobilizing from above: Government use of ICTs for state and nation building in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Woredanet and Schoolnet represent a concrete example of how ICT can be captured by governments seeking to increase control and legitimacy in processes of state and nation building. Woredanet (Fig. 1), which stands for “network of district (woreda) administrations” employs the same protocol that the Internet is based upon; but rather than allowing individuals to independently seek information and express their opinion, it enables ministers and cadres in Addis Ababa to videoconference with the regional and woreda offices and instruct them on what they should be doing and how.
Fig. 1 The Woredanet equipment, composed of, from top to bottom, a video-camera, a plasma TV screen, a decoder, an amplifier/equalizer (© Author)
Schoolnet (Fig. 2) uses a similar architecture to broadcast pre-recorded classes in a variety of subjects, from mathematics to civics, to all secondary schools in the country, while also offering political education to school teachers and other government officials.1
Fig 2 The Schoolnet equipment, the decoder in this case is in a separate room and can work only to receive and not to send signals (© Author)
The design of both systems has been profoundly influenced by the idea of using ICT for mass mobilization. However, rather than referring to individuals self-organizing to speak up to power and advance a specific agenda, the idea of mass mobilization that has inspired those who envisioned Woredanet and Schoolnet dates back to the time in which the precursor of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the guerrilla movement known as Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was fighting the USSR-backed dictatorship of the Derg, and is firmly rooted in Marxist-Leninist thinking. As a former guerrilla fighter explained, mass mobilization implied a centralized connection between a vanguard and the masses:
We always said that whatever policy we decide to develop, it will always be the farmers and the peasants to implement it. So the decisions may be taken at the centre but the targets for these decisions are the farmers. So even now through technology the final targets are the farmers. It is the concept of mass mobilization. The whole idea of revolutionary democracy is to have the hegemony of ideas and views, to be the only one occupying the political space. But this has to be implemented on the ground. So technology is used to disseminate ideas but also to achieve results, otherwise people will know that what you say is just words.2
Mass mobilization has been at the core of numerous revolutions throughout history. It refers to the need to activate large numbers to guarantee the success of a specific political project, and its nature varies according to the relationship between the mobilizing and the mobilized.3 Since the beginning of the guerrilla struggle against the Derg regime, the commitment to the peasantry played a central role in legitimizing the TPLF political project, but also served as a populist means to affirm its control over Ethiopian citizens. Woredanet and Schoolnet represent a modern and technologically enhanced emanation of this longstanding strategy. The two systems on the one hand improve service delivery and the quality of life in rural communities, but on the other they also increase the presence of the state on the ground, opening new communication channels directly with the grassroots. The strategy has both practical and symbolic components. As a former guerrilla fighter and later government minister explained:
Woredanet is for different purposes. It is to strengthen the capacity of the public administration, but it is also to reach rural Ethiopia, to make sure that the farmers get the right information. Woredanet is part of the wider communication strategy we have developed. Instead of communicating with everybody, we prefer to communicate with the most advanced part of the society and let it be our messenger. 4
When Woredanet and Schoolnet were first envisioned, they were meant to build the capacity of the peripheral nodes of the state by training and instructing individuals, some of whom had little formal education, and enable them to provide better services. This had to benefit the whole community, but at the same time it also had to symbolize the commitment of the government to the rural population. The “most advanced part of the society” was required to demonstrate the principles inspiring the Ethiopian state through their actions and become the leaders and disseminators of a wider strategy.
As a complement to Woredanet, Schoolnet was designed to reach targets in the peripheries in a more direct way. The main objective of Schoolnet was to enable students living in the countryside to have access to education of the same quality as those in the major towns and cities. Since the system became functional, students in remote areas no longer had to rely on poorly trained teachers for their education, as was often the case. This became a powerful symbol of the EPRDF’s commitment to guarantee every citizen equal opportunities.
Although both Woredanet and Schoolnet are based on the Internet Protocol and intended to deliver a variety of services, the very limited access provided for data from outside Ethiopia has transformed the systems into a “state Intranet.” In the case of Woredanet, for a long time videoconferencing was the only system to be employed. Similarly, although some Schoolnet sites were supposed to receive an Internet connection, most of them did not, or did so only for a short period of time. This means that most, if not all, information being received through the systems comes exclusively from the centre of the state.
Woredanet and Schoolnet function as communication channels that are partially invisible to a large component of the Ethiopian society. Woredanet allows exclusive and routine communication between nodes of the state. Schoolnet ensures that the new generation is exposed to messages decided at the centre, without the mediation of possibly critical teachers, and it also allows the government to reach wider constituencies discretely. Woredanet and Schoolnet assist the government in expanding its sphere of influence through the use of technology.
Gagliardone, Iginio "'A Country in Order': Technopolitics, Nation Building, and the Development of ICT in Ethiopia." Information Technologies & International Development, 10, 1 (2014): 3-19.
Goldstone, Jack "Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory," Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 139-87.