Internet users in Ethiopia said government appeared to have ended a three-month online blackout raising hopes of a relaxation of restrictions after the arrival of a new prime minister who promised reforms.
Mobile and broadband internet services shut down in December in many regions outside the capital hit by unrest that threatened the ruling coalition’s tight hold on country.
Rights groups accused government of trying to stop them spreading news online and organising rallies calling for land rights and other freedoms – charges government denied.
Internet users said they noticed services returning following the April 2 inauguration of Abiy Ahmed.
The communications minister and the state-run telecoms monopoly did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
“We are happy it is back to normal,” said Hassan Bulcha, who runs an internet cafe in Shashemene in Oromiya which has seen some of the worst violence since protests erupted in 2015.
Groups monitoring internet usage in Ethiopia – one of the last countries on the continent with a state telecoms monopoly – gave the news a guarded welcome.
“Restoration of Ethiopia’s internet is a short-term win in a long-term struggle,” said Peter Micek of Access Now, a group that recorded two large scale internet shutdowns in Ethiopia in 2017 and three in 2016.
The move was a step forward, but worries remained about government’s wider commitment to freedoms, said CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa), a Uganda-based body listing Britain among its funders.
“It would be too optimistic to expect the new prime minister’s government will dismantle all layers of authoritarian control that for decades been at the centre of state power in Ethiopia overnight,” said Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA.
Government denies accusations it abuses protesters’ rights and said it acts to keep order.
The new prime minister, a 42-year-old former army officer from Oromiya, travelled to several parts of the country, promising to address grievances and strengthen political and civil rights.
The country remains under a state of emergency imposed a day after Abiy Ahmed’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February.
Since 2015, hundreds have died in violence triggered by demonstrations over land rights in the Oromiya region. The protests broadened into rallies over freedoms and spread to other regions.
Unlike in other African countries where the majority of internet users access the web through mobile phones, internet cafes are still widely used in Ethiopia because smartphones remain expensive and mobile data costs are high.
Africa’s second-most populous nation clocked the region’s fastest economic growth rates over the past decade but has among the region’s lowest internet penetration rates.
People in Oromiya, around Addis Ababa, in the Amhara region and in Harar and nearby Dire Dawa, told Reuters internet access and mobile 3G services resumed about a week ago.