cellphone service is like issuing license to print money": Zenawi
Tessema| April 5, 2007
cell phone service is equal to issuing license to print money.” - Meles Zenawi on Addis Zemen (fEBRUARY 7, 2007)
In this age of technological revolution and rapidly evolving
world, to hear from a leader of 77 million people such a comment is not just surprising, it rather is sickening. What is more
surprising, or bluntly spoken very sickening, is the fact entrepreneurs or the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce didn’t
react so far to this comment made boldly and shamelessly. Most importantly, it's not clear to me that the telecom belongs
to the government. The government should regulate it rather than owning it. Perhaps it is possible to monopolize everything,
including the coffee shops and the night clubs; but the long term expense is much, much higher than the immediate gain. We
have seen this during the Derg regime.
Telecom simply is infrastructure just like road. It plays
a key and decisive role to the other economic sectors. Telecom should not at all be regarded as a source of revenue. The government
can obtain more revenue by privatizing it. The Ethiopian Telecom Corporation’s annual profit after tax on the average
is 450-500 Million Ethiopian Birr. The government can easily obtain three or four times higher than this amount from license
fee, profit tax and other charges if telecom is privatized.
The absurd MELES ZENAWI’S regime, so called EPRDF,
that I imagine here is only slightly more absurd than the Derg regime, which had exercised even greater control over the telecom.
The Derg regime came up with a quasi socialistic and quasi “religious” justification for its absurd policy on
telecom i.e. “economic humanitarianism”. The MELES ZENAWI’S regime is demonstrating greater absurdity when
its leader openly and shamelessly said, “privatizing the cell phone service is as good as licensing private investors
to print money”.
I understand many find themselves in a difficult position
to decide on what they can attribute this to. The only reason unwary person may speculate could be typical feudalistic covetousness.
But the reason goes far beyond that. The MELES ZENAWI’S regime considers privatizing the telecom as an act tantamount
to abdicating from political power. I am sure many still remember that MELES ZENAWI’S banned SMS /text message/ service
during the 2005 post election political crisis. The MELES ZENAWI’S regime could do this for it had absolute control
on the telecom service.
If there were second and third mobile service providers,
I don’t think it would be that easy to block such services the private company provides on the basis of a binding and
lawfully made contractual arrangement. If this example sounds too weird for words, think of it this way as well: The MELES
ZENAWI’S regime has infested the ETC technical personnel with spies assigned to tap telephones and record conversations,
including tête-à-tête /petty chit-chat/, of individuals who are under hot pursuit by the MELES ZENAWI’S regime.
The MELES ZENAWI’S regime cannot enjoy such free access
if the cell phone is privatized. The MELES ZENAWI’S regime, therefore, is more to perpetuating its oppressive parochial
regime than bringing in economic development. Spurred by changes in technology, the abysmal performance of the incumbent telecom
service provider /ETC/, and prodding by The World Bank and other international organizations, the MELES ZENAWI’S regime
was forced to set up the now sham regulatory institution /ETA/ in the mid 1990s. As demonstrated everywhere competition appreciably
decreases the price of a local call. Privatization combined with the existence of a separate regulator is associated with
increases in connection capacity and labor efficiency, and substantially mitigates the negative correlation with mainlines.
These are broadly consistent with conventional wisdom: competition
is the most effective agent of change, privatization without regulation may not improve service, and regulation is especially
important when privatizing a monopoly incumbent. Here the question is why did the MELES ZENAWI’S regime established
a separate regulatory body if it has no intention of privatizing the telecom and adamantly believes telecommunications are
a natural monopoly? The answer is very simple. It was just to please the World Bank and other financial agencies that are
still pumping money into the pockets of MELES ZENAWI’S leaders. PERIOD. The other question is why the MELES ZENAWI’S
regime is hanging on to its archaic policy on telecommunications since the monopoly telecommunications firm could not effectively
provide telecom services? Why the MELES ZENAWI’S regime still insists on the state telecommunications monopoly since
ETC fell short of meeting needs, as evidenced by persistent large unmet demand for telephone connections, call traffic congestion,
poor service quality and reliability, limited territorial coverage, and above all demonstrated willingness of business men
to pay far higher prices to obtain service? Why MELES ZENAWI’S still insists on telecommunications monopoly despite
the users pressures to bypass the system by building their own facilities. I hope many Ethiopians know very well about what
happened three years ago. Some three years ago, about a dozen or so business men joined hands with MELES ZENAWI’S cadres
and built their own facilities using VSAT /Very Small Apperture Terminal/.
These business men and the MELES ZENAWI’S cadres contacted
telecom companies abroad and let their facility be used as a call termination point for incoming international calls. MELES
ZENAWI claimed to have tracked them down. The then CEO of ETC unfairly dismissed and criminal charges were pressed. It was
lately discovered the architects of this plan were hard core MELES ZENAWI’S cadres and the BETTER HALF of Meles Zenawi.
The whole case died there and then. The then CEO of ETC fled the country and he is now in the USA
. Such illegal activities actually had to be controlled by the regulatory body. How was ETA established?
Until the mid-1990s, the sole government owned telecom service
provider /ETC/ had simply to obey the so called "fairness doctrine" in its relation with its customers for it was both regulator
and service provider. After the establishment of the regulatory body, better known as ETA, many expected a real change and
progress. Unfortunately, ETC, the sole government owned service provider, became the de facto regulatory body by default even
after the establishment of ETA. Aside from bottling up debate on its incompetence in discharging its regulatory function,
what the sham regulatory body /ETA/ really excelled at was blocking the expansion of new technologies. It stalled the emergence
of such feasible technologies like paging, tele medicine, tele conference, GPRS, what not. Ethiopian Telecom Agency/ETA/ could
play such destructive and anti technology and development role because of basically two reasons: 1. ETA is being headed by
a political cadre, not a professional. 2. Lack of competence, professionalism and integrity among the policy makers i.e. Ministry
of Transport and Communication and its staff members, in particular those who assume key positions. It is now universally
accepted truth that technology alone can't bring a reliable telecom service to entrepreneurs and consumers. More competition--not
less--charts the path to abundance and better service.
Ewnetu Tessema, our distinguished expert on the country's communications
technology, can be reached for comments at email@example.com