When I heard that the Labour Party is pledging to renationalise the railways in the UK because they are “expensive and inefficient”, I had to supress an urge to invite Mr Corbyn to pop down here to Addis for a week and find out what living under nationalised industries is like.
It would be disingenuous of me to attribute the regular power cuts, loss of mains water, poor Internet, and a spectacularly mediocre airline to the fact that the providing companies are all state monopolies, but I have my suspicions. My recent interactions with Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications network monopoly, did nothing to dispel this belief. It all started when on the same day Chris lost her mobile phone, and Haile dropped his down the toilet.
One morning as we were driving to work Haile told me he had dropped his trusty Samsung phone down the toilet. “You may be able to dry it out” I reassured him, confidently. “No,” he lamented, “it’s gone. The toilet is very deep.” Oh. A long-drop. I’d forgotten Haile and his family share a single long-drop toilet with the rest of his community. No plumbing. No flushing. Just a 5-metre-deep hole in the ground. As practical and adaptable as Haile is, he definitely wasn’t going to try and fish it out of there. Yup, it’s definitely gone. I had a spare phone, which was a bit more up to date than the one now dissolving down the long-drop. However arriving home that afternoon Chris announces somewhat disconsolately that she’s lost her mobile. Now both Haile and Chris need a replacement phone and SIM card. I have the genius idea that while we are visiting Ethio Telecom offices to achieve this I can get mine upgraded to the new Addis-only 4G network. Maybe it will be fast enough to stream Formula 1 Grands Prix? You never know.
Haile tried to replace his SIM card and keep the same phone number. He almost failed. Ethio Telecom told him his name wasn’t on the paperwork for that phone number, someone else’s was. He had bumped into this problem before, and was assured it had been corrected. But now he was talking to a different person. After numerous visits to an office some distance out of town and many attempts to obtain the signatures of people higher up the Ethio Telecom management feeding chain, he eventually managed to squeeze a replacement out of them a couple of weeks later. I gave him a spare phone from the clinic, so Haile’s sorted. Now it’s Chris’s turn.
One day after work we head to the Ethio Telecom office, a short walk up the road from Bingham. We take Haile – it’s always wise to be accompanied by a competent Amharic speaker when going to government offices. After a perfunctory frisking at the gate by a guard so ancient he looked like he should have died some time ago, we head up the stairs. No signs, no information, just a room full of young women at desks and a random collection of glum-looking people waiting for who knows what. Haile butts in on a conversation, and one of the young women attends to us. It all seemed to go so well. A new SIM card for Chris (15 Birr please), and a simple computer edit to change my current SIM card to be compatible with 4G (30 Birr please). Job done.
Later that evening and after much SIM-cutting with my trusty SIM cutter (they provide full size SIMs; Chris needs micro and I need nano) Chris is back in business with my previous phone. My phone stubbornly refuses to connect to 4G. Encouraged by a friend whose new SIM card had taken 6 weeks to register on 4G, I decide to be patient. That is until the SIM card, whilst still doing 3G internet, starts refusing to do phone calls or texts at all. So the next week back Haile and I go to the Ethio Telecom office. Once frisked, we go upstairs and find the same young woman. She points us to young woman #2. After fiddling with my phone unsuccessfully, she asks me to take the SIM card out. A paperclip appears. Once out, she tells me my SIM card is too old for 4G – I need a new one (15 Birr please). We pay. We leave. More SIM cutting. No 4G. I wait another week.
The next week I collar a friend who has 4G working and we swap SIM cards. We prove 2 things – my phone will connect to the 4G network, but my SIM card won’t. back Haile and I go to the Ethio Telecom office. Anticipating the frisking I walk into the compound arms aloft. Ancient Guard and I exchange greetings like old friends. (If I have to do this many more times he’ll probably invite me round for dinner.) Up the stairs, to young woman #2. She tells us to talk to young woman #3. She tells me I have a 3G SIM card, and I need a 4G SIM card (15 Birr please). Haile remonstrates with young woman #2 who last week charged me 15 Birr for the wrong card, but she denies everything. I begin to argue with young woman #3 that charging me again when the mistake was theirs is unreasonable. She says it wasn’t her. 15 Birr please. Without exactly clamping his hand over my mouth to shut me up, Haile pays the 15 Birr and drags me out. If there was a complaints department I’d call them. There isn’t.[i]
More SIM cutting, and wonder of all wonders I have 4G. And yes I can stream TV programmes, but it’s expensive. So, Mr Corbyn, you want to nationalise an industry because it’s inefficient and expensive?
A state-owned and controlled telecommunication network monopoly gives the authorities the opportunity to send texts to us whenever they want, about anything they want. I block them once they arrive – I now have 62 blocked numbers. This week Dr Workineh from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised us all, in 3 languages (so 3 texts): “Time given by Saudi Gov’t to foreign nationals without permit to leave country left only 44 days please push our citizens return without suffering”.