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.