Ethiopia is changing. Not always in the right direction; and not always smoothly. But it is changing. The population is growing; getting younger; is increasingly urbanised; but is stubbornly unequal in the distribution of wealth and access to services. And internal political tensions and politics pose an increasing threat to a government more used to exercising unquestioning control.

Whether because it is right or because it realises that it has no choice, the new government (well, the same government but with new faces and attitudes following what amounts to a form of peaceful coup within the ruling party in 2018) has set about unpicking its iron grip. Tight controls on civil society, the media and security are being relaxed; and people are experimenting with what these new-but-old freedoms can do for them, their communities and their country.

And there is a lot to unlearn. Although the law governing civil society has been comprehensively liberalised – almost at the stroke of a pen – the entrenched attitudes of the people in the system which applies it will take longer to change. The kind of cultural change necessary is near generational in nature. Yet proximate pressures and threats mount, driving the need for speed ahead of the likely comfort levels of many Ethiopians.

After years of being lauded for its pro-poor (if not always democratic) intentions, the post-Mengistu government found itself facing what amounted to an existential threat at the 2005 elections. Having, in the run up to those elections, experimented with liberalisation of a sort, it found that it had performed electorally less well than it had hoped. The liberalisation designed to cement its rule and credibility turned on a government not used to sharing control, debating policy and being accountable for both its successes and failures. Civil society had used its growing freedom to express the frustrations of ordinary people through the ballot box, resulting in the worst performance by the governing party since it had taken power in 1991.

Shocked by events, government reverted to type; and sought to reimpose control. It blamed – probably partly rightly – civil society and the media for the situation and set about limiting the new found freedoms. In the case of civil society, it did this by hijacking a piece of legislation originally designed to formalise the rights, entitlements and responsibilities of civil society in an enabling manner; turning it into a straitjacket which would constrain civil society organisations most severely.

The result was inevitable. Civil society struggled to have its voice heard; and government – which, it turns out, had actually relied on civil society organisations to reach the poorest in society – proved unable to tackle the many and diverse service delivery challenges before it.

Over time, civil society organisations found ways to cope, sometimes with carefully coordinated and delivered external support; sometimes by turning to the communities from which it had grown, shedding the time wasters and supporting those which added real value. And sometimes, carefully and with great skill, both. This meant that when the ruling party prepared to shift direction in 2018, there were people and organisations able to respond to government’s call for a new partnership and a new beginning.

But there is a storm cloud on the horizon. Elections in Ethiopia are scheduled for 2020. The conditions which prevailed in the run-up to the 2005 elections echo the conditions now, in 2019. And there is little time available for government (or perhaps, the faction of the ruling party now leading the government) to prove to its supporters and constituents that this new approach can both deliver services on a grand scale and secure electoral success. The new civil society legislation permits advocacy by and on behalf of ordinary people. It is a short step to the (generally welcome) emergence of a more politically savvy and active cadre of civil society organisations. This is certain to affect the electoral landscape in 2020; and the big question, therefore, is not can the government deliver enough before the elections; but how will it behave when it is punished again at the ballot box for failing to do so?