Bloggers are Africa's new rebels

By Paul Salopek, Chicago Tribune / Jan 14, 2008
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The man was nervous. He was afraid, he said, of the secret police. So he advised me to hire a random taxi. I was to park at a certain church. And there, I was to wait. A few minutes later he called again, this time on a different cell phone. He gave me directions to a nondescript house with an iron gate.

“Sorry about these procedures,” he apologized, tapping away at a laptop in a shuttered room. “But I could spend years in prison for what I do.”

Such spy-movie shenanigans in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, weren’t required to meet a gangster or terrorist. Instead, Dagem, as he chose to be called, was a new type of African revolutionary: a blogger.

His nation’s increasingly authoritarian regime was accused of blocking critical Web sites last year during a controversial court hearing against jailed opposition leaders. Yet Dagem and a hidden army of computer-literate Ethiopians quietly ensured that news of the crackdown still got out —at the risk of sedition charges.

Going into 2008, Africa offers its usual dizzying mix of success stories and wrenching tragedy.

But perhaps the most remarkable —and least appreciated—novelty in Africa’s turbulent political scene is the blossoming of information technology.

The world’s poorest continent is, not surprisingly, also its least wired: Only 5 percent of Africans have access to the Internet, compared with the global population’s average of 22 percent. But Web use in Africa has exploded almost ninefold since 2000, experts say. And by prying open the stranglehold that repressive regimes once held on the news, it has become, in the hands of ingenious Africans, a powerful tool for democratization and even disaster relief.

Ethiopia is a lively example. Because of its large and well-educated diaspora, probably no other African country has a rowdier blogosphere. Web sites critical of the regime in Addis Ababa have a tendency to mysteriously disappear. A problem of Internet capacity, the government insists. But the OpenNet Initiative, an international organization that monitors Web censorship, says Ethiopia carries out “substantial filtering” of the Internet.

Ethiopians circumvent this clumsy restriction by using foreign-based servers. Opposition supporters have even used simple phone text messaging to conjure instant rallies —until the government banned that service.

The repressive Sudanese government blocks politically disagreeable Web sites too. But Internet commentary by Sudanese living abroad and at home still offers an unprecedented window into a war-bruised and often opaque nation.

Even anarchic Somalia is in on the act, albeit with mixed results. Though wireless technology such as text messaging is used by most armed parties in Mogadishu to issue anonymous death threats (dreaded “Private Number” calls), Somali media Web sites have filled an information vacuum created by the absence of Western reporters in Africa’s most dangerous capital.

The U.S. should take note. As it prepares to engage with Africa more intensely than at any time since the Cold War, in part by the Pentagon’s establishment of a new Africa Command headquarters to coordinate military and security interests, the U.S. will be competing on an increasingly flat information playing field.

Gone are the days when Washington could control its messages in client states. The scruffy cyber cafes of Chad and the man in Congo who rents his cell phone by the minute—sometimes climbing atop a tree to improve reception—ensure that Washington’s voice will have to vie with those of the resource-hungry Chinese, or with the designs of Al Qaeda recruiters.

As for Dagem, he continues his rounds in Addis Ababa’s hundreds of public Internet shops, writing his blog in a different one every day. He carefully clears the computer’s memory cache when he is finished, and he always chooses a screen that faces a wall.
The writer can be reached at