Date: Monday, 24 October 2022
by Sheba Tekeste and Jeff Pearce
As reported in August, Tigray has had limited telecom and Internet access for some people in the region at least as far back as early May. Many sources have since confirmed they’ve received regular emails, Whatsapp and Twitter messages from contacts in Tigray for a period of at least the past 10 months.
Now comes evidence from the UN itself that it has been working on providing telecom access for the region for more than a year. And it’s deliberately hiding its efforts.
In a Fact Sheet labeled “Tigray Region of Ethiopia — Conflict,” the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, under the umbrella of the UN World Food Programme, confirms that it was “activated” more than a year ago to “coordinate and provide critical IT and telecommunications services” ostensibly to “support the humanitarian response to the crisis.”
The Fact Sheet can be traced to the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster’s website, etcluster.org, but it’s hidden from general viewers — and you will search in vain for any visible Fact Sheets on Tigray in its “Operational Updates,” despite a plethora of available Infographics and Situation Reports on Nigeria, Syria, Libya, and other locales.
But according to its own document, the ETC claims it went operational on May 28, 2021, though sources show the region had limited Internet access weeks before this. And of key concern is the fact that the ETC says it has operational and “Security Operation Centres” in Mekelle and Shire, with planned ETC services for Axum, Adigrat, Aby Adi and May Chew. A Security Operation Centre means various scenarios for mobile phone networks, including satellite phone and VHF/UHF networks.
This, despite relentless and false statements from the Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom and his TPLF allies in international media and within the international system, including the EU’s Joseph Borrell and analysts like Crisis Group’s Will Davison, that Tigray remains “under siege.”
The cluster also has planned ETC services for Dansha, which is not even in Tigray but in Welkait, a region which belonged to Amhara but was forcibly annexed by the TPLF in 1991 and is now under federal protection. The map provided in its document therefore accepts the TPLF’s “Western Tigray narrative” and implies that it would support and work with the insurgency on undermining the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state.
Given that the Fact Sheet was produced and distributed in June of 2021 and no updates are easily available, it’s difficult to tell how far along the ETC has progressed in providing these services. But critics — and the Ethiopian government — would be within their rights to ask hard questions, especially in light of the pressure the government has come under to repair the very telecom and power infrastructure the TPLF has continuously taken down! For instance:
Why has the U.S., EU and UN itself repeatedly condemned Ethiopia in public for denial of telecom services when a UN cluster has access to the region and is clearly at work on restoring those services?
Why is it hiding the progress of ETC operations from the general public on its website?
How far has the ETC progressed in restoring telecoms? Given that it began its work in May of last year, it is impossible to believe that the ETC would be so incompetent that it hasn’t already restored a substantial portion of services. If so, why is the UN — and Tedros Adhanom in particular — still lying about this?
Given that the WFP has failed to publicly follow up on the TPLF’s blatant theft of more than 570,000 liters of fuel and 12 tanker trucks and the UN refuses to follow up publicly on the assaults and kidnapping of its own staff, as revealed in its own documents, to what extent does the TPLF have access to telecoms intended for “supporting humanitarian efforts?”
Hard questions should be asked as well about how the ETC got into Tigray in the first place. According to its own unfortunately named “UN-Spider” website, the ETC can be activated not only when the “coordination efforts of the international community are strained” but when efforts of the national authority to the crisis do not meet humanitarian standards.”
The implication here seems to be that the UN can decide for itself if a sovereign state is up to the challenge and can move to insert itself. In the case of Ethiopia, this was impossible as the UN needed the authorities’ cooperation to a large extent to gain access, but the wording is disturbing.
Even more cause for potential concern is that “within 48 hours of a disaster, the ETC provides vital security communications services and voice and Internet connectivity to assist the response community in their life-saving operations. These services include: Telephony, Local Broadcaster Support, Establishment of effective two-way Common Feedback Mechanisms, Internet Connectivity, Customer Support, Security Communication Systems, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Coordination.”
If we take the ETC at its word that it was “activated” May 28, 2021 but that it can provide such services within 48 hours of activation, that means that the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) lied to the world in its Flash Update dated July 1 of last year when it claimed, “Throughout Tigray, electricity and mobile networks are cut, and few communications are only possible via satellite phones and VSAT connections in a few agencies’ compounds in Mekelle, Shire and May Tsebri.”
At a minimum, the OCHA is guilty of a lie of omission by not disclosing that ETC was working to restore and provide services. And everyone remembers when a photo circulated online on July 2, 2021 of WFP’s emergency coordinator Tommy Thompson casually standing next to Getachew Reda as he talked on a satellite phone. Thompson quietly disappeared, and weeks later WFP confirmed that he had “moved to another country.”
And given that UN and U.S. authorities have not bothered at all to mention the cluster’s ongoing work to restore and provide “telephony, Internet connectivity,” etc., we ask again: what is the extent of the services restored and provided as of today? How many thousands have such services restored? Or is it merely the TPLF elite, who somehow manage to get their tweets out and communicate to their supporters in the West despite a “siege?”
Proudly listed among the ETC partners as of July 2021 is the U.S. Department of State. In light of Samantha Power’s crusade to “weaponize” American aid initiatives as a foreign policy club for the Biden administration, people should wonder: How much do American interests direct the activation of ETC operations?