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‘We Are Everywhere’: How Ethiopia Became a Land of Prying Eyes



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.”


Number of Ethiopians entering Kenya hits 8,500, more expected – Red Cross



REUTERS — The number of Ethiopians who have crossed into Kenya for refuge since March 10 has risen to at least 8,500, Red Cross has reported.
This is an increment of 6,500 from figures reported on Tuesday, as Ethiopia deals with the killing of several civilians in what the military said was a botched security operation targeting militants.

In a statement on Thursday, Red Cross Secretary General Abbas Gullet said the number may keep increasing.

“Reports indicate that more families are on the way to Moyale,” he said, adding displaced persons are currently concentrated in Sessi (3,080 people).

Others are in Sololo (2,300), Somare (1,830), Cifa/Butiye (890), Maeyi (300), Kukub (91), Gatta Korma (51) and Dambala Fachana (50).
Some have integrated with host communities.

The aid organisation said it will distributing food and non-food items and provide integrated medical outreaches, health education and other support.

These interventions target families that have already settled in Moyale and Sololo areas, as well as the newcomers.

On Tuesday, the society said most of those crossing into Kenya are women and children, including “pregnant and lactating mothers, chronically ill persons, those abled differently and the elderly”.

Some of those fleeing had moved with their livestock, compounding pressure on struggling relief agencies, the Red Cross said.

A state official in the Oromiya region told Reuters on condition of anonymity that tens of thousands of people have also been internally displaced.


Ethiopian state media reported on Sunday that soldiers had been deployed to an area near the town of Moyale in Oromiya, a region that borders Kenya, in pursuit of Oromo Liberation Front fighters who had crossed into the country from Kenya.

The Front is a secessionist group which the Ethiopian government describes as terrorist.

But faulty intelligence led soldiers to launch an attack that killed nine civilians and injured 12 others, the Ethiopian News Agency said.

Ethiopia has said that five soldiers who took part in the attack near Moyale have been “disarmed” and are under investigation, while a high-level military delegation has been dispatched to the area to inquire further into the incident.

Outbreaks of violence have continued in Oromiya province even after Ethiopia declared a six-month, nationwide state of emergency last month following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Desalegn said his unprecedented February 15 resignation was intended to smooth the way for reforms, following years of violent unrest that threatened the ruling EPRDF coalition’s hold on Africa’s second most populous nation.

His successor as premier and EPRDF chairperson is expected to be named before the end of this month.

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Ethiopian soldiers kill nine civilians mistaken for militants



ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian soldiers killed nine civilians and injured 12 after mistaking them for rebels near a town along the country’s border with Kenya, state media said on Sunday.

The soldiers were deployed to the Moyale area of the country’s Oromiya region in pursuit of Oromo Liberation Front fighters who had crossed into Ethiopia from three locations, the Ethiopian News Agency said.

“Nine civilians were killed and 12 others were injured during an operation that was launched with faulty intelligence,” members of the armed forces told the agency.

Several soldiers have been suspended and are under investigation, it said, adding that a high-level military delegation had been dispatched to the area to launch an inquiry.

The Oromo Liberation Front is a secessionist group which the government has branded as terrorist.

The incident took place at a time when outbreaks of violence have continued to plague the country, mostly in Oromiya.

Last month, Addis Ababa imposed a six-month, nationwide state of emergency to tamp down unrest in Africa’s second most populous nation.

The move was made a day after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation in what he said was a bid to smooth the way for reforms.

His replacement is expected to be named this month.

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Civil strife in Ethiopia has the potential to destabilise the whole region



Ethiopia is experiencing ethnic and political tensions that could have far-reaching implications for its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and beyond.

Abukar Arman is a writer, a former diplomat and an activist whose work on foreign policy, geopolitics and faith is widely published.

The Horn of Africa is among the most congested, eventful, and most volatile geopolitical intersections on earth. It is where the West meets the East in a highly competitive game of strategic positioning for economic or hegemonic advantage.

China and Turkey who, more or less, employ similar soft-power strategies have tangible investments in various countries in the region, including Ethiopia. However, the widespread discontent with Ethiopia’s repressive impulses and its ethnic favoritism that led to a particular ethnic minority (Tigray) to exclusively operate the state apparatus has inspired Arab Spring-like mass protests. These protests have caused serious rancor within the ruling party. It is only a matter of time before this haemorrhaging government might collapse.

So, who is likely to gain or lose from this imminent shockwave in the region’s balance of power?

The Nile Tsunami

Ethiopia — a country previously considered as a stable regional hegemon, a robust emerging market, and a reliable counter-terrorism partner — is on the verge of meltdown, if not long-term civil strife.

Today, the Ethiopian government is caught between two serious challenges of domestic and foreign nature: the Oromo/Amhara mass protests tacitly supported by the West, and the water rights conflict with Egypt, Sudan and Somalia.

Ethiopia is claiming the lion’s share on the Nile that runs through it and other rivers that flow from its highlands for the Grand Renaissance Dam – thus presenting existential threats to the connected nations.

For the third time in three years, the Shabelle River has dried up, putting millions of Somalis at risk of starvation.

But the current government is not ready for a substantive change of guard. The longer the mass protests continue and the minority-led government continues to offer artificial or symbolic gestures of prisoner releases — while declaring a second ‘state of emergency’ in two years— the faster Ethiopia will become destabilised and the faster foreign investments will fizzle away.

Worse — though seemingly unthinkable — the ‘favorite nation’ status granted to Ethiopia after becoming the US’ main partner in the global ‘War on Terroris’ is slowly corroding.

Despite this week’s visit from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the US State Department is gradually turning its back on Ethiopia for a number of reasons; chief among them, is its double-dealings on the South Sudan issue.

Despite the facade of US/China collaboration to end the South Sudan civil war, the geopolitical rivalry between these two giants has been pressuring Ethiopia to pledge exclusive allegiance to one over the other.

With China’s huge investments on Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan’s oil fields – making a choice won’t be too difficult.

The Kenya Factor

Several years ago I wrote an article arguing that the two most stable nations in the Horn (Kenya and Ethiopia) will become more unstable as Somalia becomes more stable.

Today, the Ethiopian government is facing the most serious threat since it took power by the barrel of the gun, and Kenya has a highly polarised population and two presidents ‘elected’ along clan lines.

Kenya — the nerve center of the international humanitarian industry — could just be one major incident away from inter-clan combustion.

The Somalia Factor

The Ethiopian government has launched a clandestine campaign of strategic disinformation intended to fracture or breakup opposition coalitions and recruit or lure potential comrades.

Ethiopian intelligence officers and members of the diplomatic corps together with some ethnic-Somali Ethiopians have been recruiting naive Somali government officials, intellectuals and activists with a Machiavellian disinformation campaign.

Meanwhile, IGAD — Ethiopia’s regional camouflage — calls for an open-borders agreement between member states. Despite broad-based public perception that for a fragile state like Somalia, such an agreement would be tantamount to annexation, some Somali politicians are eagerly carrying its banner.

These kinds of desperate campaigns and the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn only underscore the fact that the government’s days are numbered.

The Sudan Factor

Sudan is caught in a loyalty triangle (Ethiopia, Egypt and Turkey) with competing powers. Sudan needs Egypt to address threats faced by the two nations regarding the diminishing access to the Nile by reasserting rights granted through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

It needs Ethiopia to protect China’s economic partnership and to shield President Omar al Bashir from Western harassment through IGAD.

It also needs Turkey for development and for a long-term strategic partnership. Sudan has become the second country in Africa to grant Turkey a military base, with Somalia being the first.

The Eritrea Factor

When neocons dominated US foreign policy and the global ‘War on Terror’ was the order of all orders, Eritrea was slapped with sanctions. It was accused of being the primary funder and weapons supplier to al Shabab.

Today, though neither the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia or Eritrea nor any expert free from Ethiopian influence holds such a view, yet the sanctions have not been lifted.

The Ethiopian lobby and certain influential elements within US foreign policy-making circles continue to label Eritrea as a Marxist rogue state that undermines regional institutions such as IGAD and international ones like the UN Security Council; a closed society that espouses a deep rooted hatred towards the West.

Against that backdrop, the UAE has been investing heavily in Eritrea since 2015 or the beginning of the Yemen war that has created one of the the worst humanitarian disasters. The Emirati military (and its Academi/Blackwater shadow) now operates from a military base in Assab. Whether that’s a Trojan Horse or not, is a different discussion altogether.

Ins And Outs

The current wave of discontent against the Ethiopian government is likely to continue. But, considering how the Tigray has a total control on all levers of power, a transition of power will not be an easy process.

Ethiopia is also rumoured to have created an ethnically Somali counterinsurgency force in the Liyu Police. This ruthless force has already been used against the Oromos as they were used against Somalis of various regions that share a border with Ethiopia.

The extrajudicial killings and human rights violations are well documented. Despite all this, the Oromo and Amhara are set to reach their objectives albeit with bruised and bloody faces.

Will their coalition remain or, due to their historical distrust, will each eventually invoke its constitutional right to secede?

Whatever the outcome, any scenario of civil war or chaos in Ethiopia could put the entire Horn in danger and create a potential humanitarian catastrophe, especially in Somalia.

Meanwhile South Sudan is a lightyear away from sustainable political reconciliation especially since the foreign elements fueling the fire are not likely to stop any time soon. Djibouti remains the host of the most intriguing geopolitical circus. So, that leaves Eritrea as an island of stability in the region.

In the foreseeable future, Turkey could divest her investment out of Ethiopia into Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. China will diversify her portfolio to include Eritrea. And the US — with no new policy — will continue droning her way through geopolitical schizophrenia.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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