DEBARK, Ethiopia - Rahmat Hussein once inspired fear and respect for the watchful eye she cast over her Ethiopian neighbourhood, 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 neighbourhood 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 authorised 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 neighbours: 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 neighbourhood, she reported them to police.
Rahmat was more than a neighbourhood 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 fertiliser, 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 behaviour 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 criticised 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