We Are Everywhere’: How Ethiopia Became a Land of Prying Eyes
By KIMIKO de FREYTAS-TAMURANOV. 5, 2017
Takele Alene in his home in Fendika, Ethiopia. Besides being a farmer, Mr. Alene is a senior village official, serving as both an informant and an enforcer for the country’s governing party. Credit Tiksa Negeri for The New York Times
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.
“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.”