Ethiopia’s surveillance network crumbles, meaning less fear and less control

FILE PHOTO: Former volunteer government informant Rahmat Hussein, is seen at her home in the northern town of Debark, Ethiopia December 7, 2018. Picture taken December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Maggie Fick

Reuters -DEBARK, Ethiopia – Rahmat Hussein once inspired fear and respect for the watchful eye she cast over her Ethiopian neighborhood, keeping files on residents and recommending who should get a loan or be arrested.

Now she is mocked and ignored.

Her fall – from being the eyes and ears of one of Africa’s most repressive governments to a neighborhood punchline – illustrates how Ethiopia’s once ubiquitous surveillance network has crumbled.

“My work is harder now,” she said, wistfully. “People don’t listen anymore.”

Rahmat worked for a system set up by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition in the early 2000s, officially to help implement central policies across the country of 105 million people.

But the system, which detractors say was twisted into a tool to silence government critics, began to unravel with the outbreak of deadly protests in 2015 which undermined the EPRDF’s authority.

The election of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has vowed to make society more open and took office in April 2018, has accelerated its decline.

That has been welcomed by many.

“People were afraid and could not speak up,” said Agenagnew Abuhay, Rahmat’s colleague at a local women’s affairs office.

Others, like Rahmat, mourn its loss, saying the network drove advances in health, education and agriculture.

It is widely acknowledged among Ethiopians as having played a significant role in society, although many are still too nervous to speak openly about it.

Some officials and academics question whether Abiy can control a restive population, amid outbreaks of deadly ethnic violence, and deliver promised economic and political reforms without the system he has allowed to fray.

“The local administration is collapsing in some places,” said one civil servant in the capital Addis Ababa, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with journalists.

“The government doesn’t seem to have much control.”

Billene Seyoum, prime minister’s spokeswoman, said Abiy holds regular public meetings and is active on social media, and uses other government structures to engage with the public.

“The old network … was less about communicating high level policies and rather about surveillance,” she said.

The head of the civil service commission, Bezabih Gebreyes, said the system was formed for the “noble rationale” of development but acknowledged that ultimately it had been a failure.

“The structure was very active for at least five years,” he told Reuters. It failed, he said, because workers did not like taking orders from political appointees.


Stacked on top of Rahmat’s kitchen cabinet in the town of Debark, 470 km (290 miles) north of Addis Ababa, are a dozen bulging folders detailing the lives of 150 neighbors: who has money troubles, who has HIV, who is caring for an orphan and who is hosting a stranger.

The 27-year-old kept a copy of her handwritten notes and delivered duplicates to a local government office, which crunched the numbers and reported them upwards.

“It made me very happy to do this work,” she told Reuters one cold morning, as she cooked bean stew in her one-room home. “I did it to serve the people.”

Rahmat, wearing a lemon-yellow headscarf, said she helped women seeking a divorce understand their rights, arranged for a fellow single mother to get a loan to start a café and ensured families had cards for subsidized staples like oil and sugar.

If there were strangers in the neighborhood, she reported them to police.

Rahmat was more than a neighborhood fixer. She was a loyal party member, encouraging residents to join the EPRDF and promoting its policies at monthly meetings.

She was also part of a network of millions of people in cities and villages, universities and workplaces.

The system was popularly called “one-to-five”, because volunteers would typically be assigned five other people to monitor. Some, like Rahmat, supervised more.

The work was unpaid, but there were rewards. Rahmat got a government job. Others received preferential access to farming supplies or loans, she and other participants in the system say.

The government used the system to drive rapid agricultural and industrial reforms, aimed at transforming a mostly rural society dogged by famine into a middle-income country by 2025.

Volunteers taught farmers how to space their seedlings and use fertilizer, promoted safe birthing practices and kept track of rabble-rousers.

The system was also used “for surveying the population and to intimidate any kind of opposition,” Lovise Aalen, an Ethiopia expert at Norway-based research institute CMI, wrote in a 2018 paper.

Some former and current officials and aid groups credit “one-to-five” for helping Ethiopia achieve development goals.

The system helped reduce maternal mortality, said former health minister Kesete Admasu, in a report on the Gates Foundation website.

Volunteers acted as “model families”, gathering women over coffee, or at church or in mosques, to promote family planning and hygiene.

Maternal deaths fell by 11% from 1990 to 2003, the year the system was put in place. The rate plunged by more than half over the next eight years, Kesete said.

Over a third of the network’s maternal health groups, called The Women’s Development Army, have stopped functioning, said a ministry official working on women’s affairs, laying out a spreadsheet. Reuters could not independently verify the figure.

“It is very difficult to maintain such structures in a democratic system,” said Elshaday Kifle, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University who is studying the impact of such networks on women. “That’s a challenge for Abiy’s government.”


The system permeated Ethiopians’ lives, dictating behavior in homes, offices, clinics and schools, Aalen said.

Volunteers tested people’s loyalty at meetings, reporting those with anti-government views. Consequences could be serious.

In 2014, Gizachew Mitiku Belete, then a 29-year-old judge in the northern city of Gonder, attended a course in the central city of Adama.

He sat in a hotel conference room as several dozen judges took turns to praise the constitution or government policies, in what he described as a test of loyalty under the “one-to-five” structure.

Gizachew went rogue, suggesting judges could disagree with parts of the constitution. The group leader shouted at him.

For the next year, he publicly criticized the government for suppressing free expression, but he was fired in 2015 and sought asylum in the United States. He eventually found work as a security guard in Seattle, where he still lives.

Judges, journalists, even farmers could be detained if they crossed the system.

Former policeman Fenta Marelgn said he was ordered to arrest farmers who did not attend a meeting on planting seeds in 2015 because they were busy harvesting crops.

Fenta, now 31, said he was docked a month’s pay for refusing the order. He quit shortly afterwards.

“You start to hate what you do,” he said, crushing a metal bottle top between his hands.

For years, government officials had trumpeted relentless progress. Barley and wheat production always beat forecasts. Vaccination campaigns reached every village.

“We lied left and right,” former information minister Getachew Reda told Reuters. “That’s why people got angry.”

The system began to disintegrate in the tumultuous years of protests that propelled Abiy to power in April 2018.

Since that time, Rahmat’s dossiers have been gathering dust.

Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White


  1. True, there were a lot of human rights abuses and injustices but we must
    acknowledge some facts however inconvenience bitight seem. We must begrudginglyy give the credit where it’s’s due. I’m the referring to the current disorderly, lawlessnesss,. mayhem situation. Too bad to mentions it , but the first order of any sel- respecting regime is to keep law and order including protection of citizens’ lives and their properties.

  2. True, there were a lot of human rights abuses and injustices back then but we must acknowledge some facts however inconvenience might seem. We must begrudginglyy give the credit where it’s’s due. I’m the referring to the current disorderly, lawlessnesss,. mayhem situation. Too bad to mention it , but the first order of any sel- respecting regime is to keep law and order including protection of citizens’ lives and their properties.

  3. We cant Deny what we see with our naked eyes the amazing job woyane did for this beautiful country Ethiopia; Woyane lifted Ethiopia out of dusts and ashes like never before in all round; economically , socially , politically and diplomatically plus military dominance in the region.
    Woyane transformed the old and poor nation in to modern and vibrant nation culpable of launching rocket to the space and funding for space exploration and innovation. The nation that for long time was known as exemplary of poor and destitute was now became the economic hub of the entire region.
    Woyane built universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, rail roads, flight terminals, industrial parks, dams, agricultural farms……etc………. name it……. like never before in the history of this planet as far as human being can remember in such short time and scarce recourses.
    The only mistake woyane did was they didn’t look back and help (the Tigray people) the very people who paid the ultimate price for every success in Ethiopia.
    The Tigray people paid the ultimate price for every success story of modern Ethiopia; including establishing, organizing, funding and paying sacrifices thousands and thousands of highly intellectual youths who could most influential people in modern world. However, the Tigray people were rather disadvantaged by the very party they thought could be instrumental in their struggle for resolution of their problems.
    During the former Ethiopian leaders, Tigray land was far larger than almost twice or three times the size of the current chopped thinly piece of dry land. The territory of Tigray in the southern and eastern boundaries were far beyond Alweha River and Dalul depression. Almost the entire Afar region was part of Tigray region this is just short memory during Menge regime. In the West South of Tigray, Semen mountains including RasDashen were under Tigray region.
    Woyane awarded all those Tigray lands to the Amhara region and Afar region in order to gain more power and sustain their reign among the unwelcoming and hostile people. This risky move has ultimately coasted prices at the expense of the people who have no idea what was happening by the party swollen by their trust.
    The Tigray people had enough lesson and naturally they are bestowed with wisdom , knowledge, patience, love and respect to human being from all walks of life and background. I am confident that they know what they will do to Woyane if Woyane isn’t culpable of getting back the Tigray lands awarded to other regions plus creating economic and job opportunities for all the people who gave their votes to them.

  4. ምን ጊዜም አዲሱ ሥርዓት የአሮጌውን ቆሻሻ ዕድፍ አፅድቶ የማነፃፀር ግብሩን ያሳያል- ያስተጋባል። ሆኖም ግን ያልተስተዋሉ ጠንቀኛ ችግሮች ይከሰታሉ። ለምሣሌ፣
    1. ደርግ በመሬት ከበርቴው ሥርዓት የነበረውን የመደብ ጭቆና ሲያጠፋ፣በምትኩ አስቸጋሪ የሆነ ኢሠፓ ፈጠረ
    2 . ወያኔ ኢሠፓን አጥፍታ፣ የጎሣ ጭቆና በአገሪቱ ፈጠረች – አስፋፋች
    3 . የኦዴፓ፣ የፓለቲካ እስረኛች ፈታ፣ የወደፊት ራዕዩ እና ግብሩ የሚታይ ይሆናል። ገና መቀሌ የተቀመጠ ወንጀለኛ አለ ያልተነካ
    I think the solution to the problems created over the last 27 years is a marathon run until we cut the ribbon we should stay strong and determined. As to me the most important and yet uphill task is demolishing the ethnic federal system and banning the ethnic constitution when this happens that will be the time to celebrate. We are learning that the new administrative border commission is entrusted to undo the theft the TPLF regime has done.
    የተቋቋመው የማንነት እና የወሰን ኮሚሽን ከጥገና ለውጥ አልፎ የሚሰራውን ወጤትማዬት አመላካች ሊሆን ይችላል። አንዴ ሚታውቀው ወያኔ የአማራን ገበሬዎች እና እርስታቸውን በጉልበት ወደ ተምኔታዊ ክልሎ በመውሰዶ ይኸው 30 ዓመታት ሙሉ በጭንቀት እና በጦርነት ትሰቃያለች። ሌባው የሰረቀውን መልሶ ማረፊያ ቤት አስካልገባ ብዙ ችግር አለ። በተመሳሳይ በሁሉም የአገሪቱ አቅጣጫ የጎሣ ክልል የመቆራቆሻ ቦታ ፈጥሯል። ይኸን ችግር ለመፍታት የሚያስችል በቂ ዐቅም እና ፍላጎት ከአዲሱ አመራር ይጠበቃል።

  5. TBF
    I sound powerless and grown up old geezer who complains and brags about how he had oversized phallus and how he used to screw little chicks but no one could remember anything about him . Lol! BTW, I don’t know much about the history or current situation of Tigrai but I heard the reverse is true.:that Woyane incorporated large chunk from territory of Afar land and from Amhara areas.

    • come on Ali.
      Ask the great Shewarega, he can confirm you what was stolen from the Tigray land and awarded to other regions. Perhaps he could have the old Ethiopian maps(Karta)

  6. The magnificent Tigray People crushed the largest Ethiopia Army in Africa , crushed dozens of Different powerful Liberation fronts and crushed the largest Eritreans Army in Africa who were all these enemies of Tigray People were supported by Western countries, Arab Emirates etc etc etc for only the selfless Tigray People to crush them on the unforgiving battlefield and liberated the entire Ethiopia, Developed the Ethiopia that had zero economy and made Ethiopia to be the most safe and stabled country in the world and fastest growing economy in Africa.

    The selfless Tigray People built the Ethiopia army from the scratch with thier own weapons they captured on the long 17 years Liberation Wars that costed the Godly Tigray People life and socio economy by financing these numerous Mega wars by feeding and clothing the hundred thousands TPLF Fighters, TPLF Militia, TPLF security Appratus where the magnificent Tigray People emerged Out victorious.

    The selfless Tigray People and the Tigray People Liberation Front can crush the entire criminals hiding in p.p party and the Ethiopia army in few hours or days even for bonus crush the left over eritrea Army at the same time once the much needed the long awaited War starts.

    Ethiopia People have seeing the capabilities of the selfless Tigray People on the unforgiving battlefield and developing Ethiopia in less than two decades that the Western countries could not even do after spending thrillon dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.But The magnificent Tigray People did it in Ethiopia.

    Now we are gearing up to develop the Long suffered Tigray People Republic because TPLF was too busy developing Ethiopia and keeping Ethiopia safe for nothing.Which we believe it was a waste of precious 27 years but better late then never.

    The Tigray People Republic!!!

  7. There is a huge difference between the good people of Tigrae Ethiopians and the courier TPLF mafia criminals!!
    Every Ethiopian citizen knows that TPLF mafia that robbed Ethiopia blind, that left the country landlocked, that tortured and massacred lawabiding Ethiopians throughout Ethiopia have absolutely nothing to contribute to Ethiopia/ns and have nothing to brag about!! It is simply laughable that the overbearing delusional TPLF mafia brag about nothing while standing on the shoulders of Ethiopian citizens. It is the undeniable truths that everything TPLF mafia have right now are all stolen from Ethiopia/ns, throughout Ethiopia!! They don’t know it, but all that stolen money won’t last forever — living in that dry land, without Ethiopia/ns TPLF mafia run the risk of starving to deaths the good citizens of Tigrae Ethiopians, again!!
    Wake up Tigreans!! Stand up with your Ethiopian brothers and sisters and get rid off the Separtist bloodyhand TPLF mafia criminals that are dragging your good names in the bloody mud!

  8. The Tigray People Republic is coming with vengeance and the Gallant Selfless Tigray People will do better by themselves without the rest of lazy Amhara.

    The Godly Tigray People wasted 27 years developing Ethiopia,protecting Ethiopia while selflessly neglecting thier own long suffered Tigray People Republic.We believe the God will reward the selfless Tigray People for thier Godly deeds for Ethiopia.

    The magnificent Tigray People were able to develop Ethiopia that had minus negative-100 economy,the most anti development society,the most lazy society,the most budda society and yet they managed to develop 100 millions people of Ethiopia.

    The Tigray People Liberation Front and the selfless Tigray People can easily develop the entire Tigray People in in less than 10 years given the hard worker Tigray People,the industrious Tigray People culture,and the Godly Tigray People civilized culture will make the Tigray People Republic the strongest country in Africa and in the long term in the world.

    The selfless Tigray People and the Tigray People Liberation Front are the only war fighters in the world that was never never supported by foreign Powers .

    The Tigray People Liberation Front and Tigray People Army was 100% supported by Tigray People that is why they were successful crushing dozens of Different powerful armies and liberation fronts.

    Eritreans Shabia EPLF was supported by Western countries,All Arab countries.

    OLF was supported by Egypt and Western Union.

    Ogaden Liberation Front was supported by all Arab Emirates and some Western Union.

    All the separatist’s Liberation Fronts in Ethiopia today and in the past are supported by Western countries and Arab countries.

    The entire Ethiopia opposition party are also supported by Egypt and most Western countries.

    The traitors p.p party and the qoshasha baria Abiye Ahmed and most federal government workers in Ethiopia are working with Egypt,Arab countries and Western countries.This was known long time ago by TPLF but so far the Tigray People Liberation Front is using the due process of the Law instead of smashing them to pieces .

    The moral of the story is we the Tigray People believe in self reliance when crushing armies and solving our own internal affairs of Tigray People Republic.

    Foreign Powers only makes your country problems worst and will not truly help you to develop nor to become self reliance country.

    Unfortunately most Amhara most oromos and all Gurages believe in worshipping white people/Western countries to help them win wars , meddle in thier country internal affairs.

    The magnificent Tigray People will be strong,prosper and will have the best Army in the world.

    We say this because the Godly Tigray People are the World number one war fighters .

    The Tigray People Republic!!

  9. .

    We know such act of prying. We have lived it. This discourse is for rural areas.

    What about the cities?
    We all remember how many activists were called to the police station and was presented with their recorded transcript of their mobile phone conversation.

    By law, court warrants were required for surveillance or searches but in practice none were issued. Intercepted communications were common tools used to crack down on political dissenters and other critics of the ruling party. Opposition party members, journalists, the young, the educated and all were among the key targets.

    To our surprise , this infrastructure for surveillance was not created by TPLF alone, but with the support of investors, current officials and scholars in the Internet and telecom sector, including Chinese and European companies. These foreign companies have provided the products, services, and expertise to modernize the sector.

    Now, what we have to note is that the system that is placed during TPLF era is still intact and what we have to ensure is that an appropriate legal framework should be in place to protect and respect privacy rights entrenched in international law, and also in that so called constitution . Companies that provide surveillance technology, software, or services should adopt policies to ensure these products are being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes and not to repress opposition parties, journalists, bloggers, and others.

    • Leech infested MAMO-
      The despicable human like SETAN to ever walk the face of the earth, the gematam old fart playing holy with his wicked heart. Who do you think is gonna believe your womb jumbo here? Yes you have two wicked individuals that support your backward stinky idea here HOPE and Abebaw.
      You have no understanding of the issue Ethiopians are facing today rather you are another equally TPLF criminal that ran away 40 years ago after killing so many Ethiopians, you left over of mengistu and Haileselassie I know you already.
      Go dance in hell with your evil shadow

      • Gashe Mamo,
        Burn these two-faced racist bigots to ashes!! Being hated by despicable bloodthirsty racists inhumane creatures is a badge of honor! Keep up the good work!!

      • Aba geday,

        Your temper tantrum and emotional outburst through the roof. Gashemamo talked about the fact. How is that affecting you. You are always a screaming kid in this forum.

  10. The last 3 years have showy the True enemies of Tigray People and have given our people a good perspective.

    The collapse of Ethiopia is inevitable .The sad part is it will be innocent citizens will suffer from it while the criminals who were protesting and massacre innocent defenseless citizens as well as the coward traitors in p.p party who were encouraging the youth to massacre innocent defenseless Ethiopians will flee the country when the Tigray People Army will hunt them down like animals when the long awaited war starts and they will not escape.

    The talk and anger in Tigray is they can not wait for the war to start and sacrifice themselves fighting the enemies on the unforgiving battlefield just like the hundred thousands of Tigray People Liberation Front fighters who gave thier precious life for the Godly Tigray People.

    The criminals in p.p party and in Parliament are fooling Ethiopia People on daiy basis.They have you believing that they are innocent but they were the one massacring innocent defenseless Tigray for the past 5 years and before that too.But we know you don’t care as long as the TPLF are not your leaders.

    When the entire Haile sellasie government was deposed one day before the king Parliament was busy discussing Issues about wild Life in Ethiopia that little did they know the entire Haile sellasie government and officials were deposed , arrested and killed.

    The qoshasha baria Abiye Ahmed or the fake p.p party and Parliament is full of cowards and self serving traitors unlike the emperor Haile sellasie government which was full of Patriots and civilized people could not save them from the inevitable that deposed the emperor regime.

    We know the entire Eprdf and the traitors who formed the fake party that they are the most coward selfish traitors that will surrender thier hands soon is they hear one bullet sound.

    When the Tigray People and the Tigray People Liberation Front Army decide it’s time to crush the enemies the entire p.p party ans Parliament and all those traitors in the Ethiopia government will surrender thier hands and begg the Godly Tigray People for Mercy like they did some 30 years ago.

    We warned you few years back to not cheer for the criminals protestors who were the tools of foreign Powers but you called us “Tigre ”

    The Tigray People Republic!!

    • Wait wait Tigray doesn’t need war with the rest of Ethiopia if they do then Ethiopians need to just close the border and The leech infested antbeta lekame will disappear from the face of the earth like those we are the world flies. Bingo no war baby!
      You scam of the earth bragging from your graveyard… I just can’t wait to see your a$s wiped by stone.

      What els can you tell us? Can you lecture me about OLF? Come on now

  11. The Story of this countrywoman after the new political environment made her irrelevant shows how the glorious people of the old country are so dignified and magnanimous when we are left alone by bigots!!! It shows we are forgiving to those who done us wrong in the past when they admit defeat and contrite. I say that because this person did not decide to go to Mekele to exchange kisses with the deacons of Marx, Lenin and Mao who are no blowing their stinking dragon breath on the proud people of that region.

  12. .

    @Aba Geda !
    Especially from your last comment, I can sense you have developed a grudge on me. Otherwise, your provoking doesn’t make any sense.
    You shouldn’t take any grudges on me! …. What I have written in the past was a simple truth about you. There was no insult in my part, it was an absolute truth, the whole truth but nothing but the truth –about you.
    Isn’t violence your liking?
    For beasts like you, being garbage, rubbish, and dirtiness is their nature. There is no possibility of wisdom at your level of beastsness. That is why I spoke and write the truth about you. You shouldn’t get offended when a god-hood person tells you the truth! You should only say….. “thank you master!”
    And another thing, … I wish you would be more creative in your writing. Dont repeat the same thing again and agin; above all don’t start to write while sitting in front of a mirror. “Leech infested, leech infested…. ” that is you in the mirror. Do us a favor..go and wash it off! If you can’t afford water– open a go fund me account. We will be the first to contribute.


    • Sorry buddy! I ain’t contributing a penny for this barbaric bloodthirsty looser!! What he needs is do is to go to a Debtra to cast out the demons out of him with Holy water!!

        • @Hope
          I always wanted to say these ….
          you rock! “Hope”,- hopelessly killing the morale and agenda of Tplfites, Jawarians, and brainwashed nitwits. I love it! I really do! keep it up! the best medicine for all those who are on the task of creating enmity and polarization.

          • Gashe Mamo,
            Thanks brother! The feeling is mutual! I’m blessed to have intelectual, well balanced fairminded, eloquent Ethiopians by my side! It is obvious only badly BRAINWASHED heartless racist separatists bigots disagree with you!
            Happy yeferenge Christmas!!

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