FENDIKA, Ethiopia — When he is away from his fields, Takele Alene, a farmer in northern Ethiopia, spends a lot of his time prying into the personal and political affairs of his neighbors.
He knows who pays taxes on time, who has debts and who is embroiled in a land dispute. He also keeps a sharp lookout for thieves, delinquents and indolent workers.
But he isn’t the village busybody, snooping of his own accord. Mr. Alene is a government official, whose job includes elements of both informant and enforcer. He is responsible for keeping the authorities briefed on potential rabble-rousers and cracking down on rule breakers.
Even in a far-flung hamlet like Fendika, few of whose 400 or so residents venture to the nearest city, let alone ever travel hundreds of miles away to the capital, Addis Ababa, the government is omnipresent.
In this case, its presence is felt in the form of Mr. Alene, a short, wiry man wearing a turquoise turban and plastic sandals. As a village leader, he said, his duties include serving as judge, tax collector, legal scribe for the illiterate and general keeper of the peace.
But one of his most important roles is to watch who among the villagers opposes the government and its policies, including a top-priority program encouraging farmers to use fertilizer. When a neighbor refused to buy some, Mr. Alene pointed a gun at him until he gave in. He has had others jailed for a similar offense.
In a country whose rugged landscape is larger in area than France and Germany combined, Ethiopia’s ruling party — which, with its allies, controls every seat in Parliament — relies on a vast network of millions of party members like Mr. Alene as useful agents and sources of information, according to current and former government officials and academics who study the country.
This army of on-the-ground operatives, who push the government’s policies, help purvey its propaganda and act as lookouts, is especially valuable at a time when the country is being rocked by protests over access to jobs and land, and a failure to advance democracy.
Security forces in Ethiopia cracked down on protesters last year, some of whom had attacked domestic and foreign businesses, which had resulted in hundreds of deaths. The authorities recently lifted a state of emergency after almost a year, but tensions continue to simmer, particularly in Oromia, a region traditionally neglected by the central government.
Mr. Alene’s loyalty to the governing party has earned him handsome rewards. He was given the title of “model farmer” and has been granted plots of land and other benefits like farm animals, a cellphone, the gun he turned on his neighbor and a radio, which he keeps under lock and key.
“I am No. 1,” he exclaimed recently in the village pub, sitting against a wall stacked with sacks of fertilizer and drinking home-brewed beer poured into what used to be a can of chickpeas. “I feel great happiness,” he added.
Ethiopia is unlike many countries in Africa, where the power of the state often reaches beyond the capital in name only. More organized, more ambitious and more centrally controlled than a lot of governments on the continent, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (a coalition of four regional parties), which controls this mountainous, semiarid but spectacularly beautiful land of just over 100 million people, intends to transform it into a middle-income country by 2025.
Achieving that goal, in a country that 30 years ago was a byword for famine, means realizing a plan of rapid industrial and agricultural growth modeled on the success stories of Asia. Ethiopia is relying on state-driven development rather than the Western-style liberalization that in the 1980s and 1990s hurt many economies across Africa, like Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
It also means, in the government’s view, exercising control down to the level of neighborhoods in cities and villages in the countryside.
Many Western donors have praised Ethiopia for its advances in health, education and development, all made in a single generation. The government recently opened Africa’s largest industrial park, with plans for more, and is building what is expected to be the continent’s biggest hydroelectric dam.
But the government’s economic agenda often goes hand in hand with control over people through party membership and surveillance, a strategy modeled on China, somewhere officials have gone regularly for how-to training, according to former government members.
“Everyone is suspicious of each other,” said Ermias Legesse, an ex-government minister who left the country in 2011. He spent three weeks in the Chinese countryside in 2009, he said, learning about party indoctrination.
“You can’t trust your mother, brother, sister,” he said about his homeland. “You can imagine what kind of social fabric is formed out of such a system.”
Party members across the country are assigned five people to monitor, whether in households, schools, universities, businesses or prisons. Called “one-to-five,” it is a system so pervasive, Mr. Legesse said, that it even existed in the Ministry of Communications, which he headed.
“The one-to-five’s major objective is to spy on people,” Mr. Legesse said.
Being a party member and a participant in those networks gives you jobs, promotions and even access to microfinance, some of which is funded by international institutions, Mr. Legesse said. “But if you’re against the system, you’ll likely be miserable.”
The government network is so entrenched that many in the country, which suffered years of repression under the previous, Marxist government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, which fell in 1991, are deeply suspicious of talking to strangers and avoid discussing politics for fear of who might be listening.
“They are the person you least expect,” a shopkeeper in Addis Ababa said in a low voice, his eyes darting around the store. Like many Ethiopians, he asked not to be identified because he was afraid of the consequences of talking openly to a foreign journalist. “It could be the shoeshine boy or the waiter serving you coffee.”
Because most Ethiopians are struggling financially, they are easily brought into the network, said Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian journalist currently living in Germany, adding that teachers who joined got salary raises, businesspeople got easier access to loans and high-school students got pocket money. “Ethiopians think this is shameful,” Ms. Lemma said, even though they found it difficult to resist. “It’s a moral rock bottom.”
Habtamu Ayalew Teshome, a prominent opposition leader who was tortured for months and jailed for two years, discovered that even in prison, he was assigned to a group with a leader who watched his activities.
Twice a day, this monitor would organize meetings, and Mr. Teshome said that when he refused to participate, he was denied communication with his lawyers and family. He was repeatedly beaten, mentally tortured and taken to solitary confinement for months, he said. “We are the police, we are the prosecutor, we are the judge,” a prison commander told him. “We are everywhere.”
Spying is not the only purpose of the one-to-five system. It is also a way to recruit new members and push policy objectives.
The ruling party has “a great will and vision to transform the country and realizes that it needs to mobilize the grass roots in order to succeed,” said Lovise Aalen, a political scientist and longtime observer of Ethiopia at Chr. Michelsen Institute, an independent research organization in Norway. “It’s impressive, but it also exhibits a very authoritarian state present on the ground to an extent unseen in Ethiopian history.”
In rural areas, “one-to-fives” allow a designated model farmer, like Mr. Alene, to teach best practices, including the merits of using fertilizer, and be rewarded when output increases.
Village women also organize themselves into groups to prevent other women from falling into prostitution or to teach each other about health issues.
Some of this has yielded positive results, government officials say. Ethiopia’s economy has been growing at 10 percent for more than a decade, according to official figures. Agricultural output has risen dramatically, they say, although critics say that has not been enough to offset the food aid that Ethiopia continues to receive.
Khalid Bomba, a former investment banker who leads the government’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, said “one-to-fives” were all about empowerment. “It’s participatory deep democracy,” he said.
The networks have played a significant role in expanding membership to about seven million, mostly in the countryside, in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the ruling party that critics say is controlled by Tigrayans, an ethnic group that makes up just 6 percent of the population.
Fendika, where Mr. Alene keeps watch, was largely insulated from riots last year, partly thanks to his diligent work of converting half the village, made up of ethnic Amharas, to the ruling party.
“Even in these violent times, this kebele has been peaceful,” Mr. Alene said recently, referring to his village. When a person makes trouble, “we know who he is,” he added. “We send the elders, the priest, to try to sort it out with him or the group and persuade them not to do anymore wrongdoing. If that doesn’t work out, we report to the police.”
Mr. Alene, who has been a member of the ruling party since it swept to power in 1991, recruits villagers to join. He even recruited the local priest, who in turn, has preached to his congregation about the party’s virtues.
“When I’m recruiting, I tell them, ‘If you’re a member, you can have different rights,’” Mr. Alene said. “The right to ask questions, the right to have whatever they want.”
For his efforts, he owns three hectares of land (most farmers have less than one) and livestock.
He has enough savings, unlike many other farmers, to send all nine of his children to university. Being a party member is “very good,” he said, though he added with candor: “You have to stand with the government. There’s no choice.”
Mr. Alene had made amends with the neighbor he forced to buy fertilizer at gunpoint, and the two men recently sat next to each other at the village pub. The neighbor, who is missing a leg, clucked disapprovingly as Mr. Alene talked about serving the community.
“The kebele is not good! It doesn’t support the poor people. He’s lying!” the neighbor finally shouted, hobbling furiously out the door.
Also in the pub was the village priest, Adugna Asema, draped in a traditional white cloak and wearing a white turban, who said he encouraged congregants to join the party.
“I preach peace,” he said, as he periodically stood up to bless villagers wandering into the pub with a large wooden cross.
“You’ll benefit in heaven and on earth,” he tells them, “if you join the party.”