Ethiopia is caught in the eye of a storm. It is managing a number of transitions, all at the same time. And it is doing so against the ticking of a number of clocks.

Time is against a guarantee of stable and peaceful change in Ethiopia. Perhaps the loudest tick is that of the drumbeat of demographic change. The population is growing (at just below 3% a year), becoming younger (around 65% of the population is under 25) and is urbanising (at rate of about 5% per year). The demands placed on government by this pressure are immense – and would be a challenge for even the most capable and effective administration.

In the nearer term, many of the tensions and pressures which are live in Ethiopia now will be amplified unhelpfully by the forthcoming 2020 national elections. They – or more accurately the run up to them; and the subsequent reaction to whatever result is announced – are potentially both a crucible and a crunch point for competing ambitions.

Beneath these processes lie a set of cultural shifts which affect the environment in which any change takes place. Managing these multiple dimensions of change in such a way as to harness their positive potential and mitigate their negative potential will be a key concern for government, donors and people alike over the next year or so.

A key change is in political culture. For years – many, many years – government, however provided, has operated under a number of unquestioned assumptions: that it is uniquely entitled to rule; that it knows all the relevant answers to questions that count; and that it has the capability to do what needs to be done. People and governors alike have barely tested government’s right to do what it pleases – because that is what does, and how it does it. This has usually been possible from within a political framework characterised by three dimensions: a “with me or against me” culture; the rigid discipline of those who are “with” government; and the seeming irrelevance of those who are “against” it.

But now, in the teeth of demographic change which affects both the shape of the population and the division of power within the ruling party, shifting alliances which pitch doctrine against opportunism and the fast approaching elections, all three of these dimensions are flexing. The rigid discipline of the EPRDF structures is not so much breaking down as now allowing outsiders to glimpse the real internal tensions more easily. So, what had previously seemed from the outside monolithic (and therefore strong, steady and reliable) now looks more fragmented (and therefore harder to predict and partner). It is, then, less clear who is “with” government inside the ruling coalition.

At the same time, the relevance of those who are “against” government is becoming clearer. Having welcomed back to Ethiopia various elements of the opposition (on a welcome “hug your enemies closer” basis), the Prime Minister has opened a Pandora’s box of at least partly credible concerns, often disguising defiantly ethno-linguistic self-interest. And the various opposition groups are catnip to the rapidly growing younger population, offering a heady mixture of grievance and (likely unfulfilled) hope.

So if the stage is set for a fiery clash between national level political actors, what can be done to mitigate the effect of the forthcoming elections?

In truth, there is little to do about the political culture. It is too entrenched to be changed in the near term; and – as most Ethiopians seem likely to agree – politicians will do what politicians will do. The question then, is what is the election’s relevance to ordinary people; and what can be done to help them navigate the tensions and changes?

The best immunisation against the viral infection of national politics would be investing in helping ordinary people and those tasked with delivering services and accountability to them on the ground, to develop stronger, mutually reinforcing relationships which focus on identifying and solving the problems and challenges which they share. In truth, this amounts to helping ordinary life continue despite politicians; and making more resilient the ties which bind citizens to the state at a local level. In this respect, the approach would be one of going with a very Ethiopian grain: keeping your head down whilst the big beasts fight; and building and employing local level alliances for mutual benefit.

Over time, such an approach would help ordinary people to interrogate the promises that outsiders make; and to measure them against their own analysis of local need. It would also help them to recognise that they are not irrelevant; and that they wield – at least in the context of an election – the power to make or break politicians through the considered lending of their support.

Such an approach is not a solution to the proximate challenges thrown up by the 2020 elections. But it is an investment in a gradual strengthening of Ethiopian society to help it ride out tension and challenges in the long term. It is this approach that is likely to build the foundations for future sustainable partnership with Ethiopia, not short term and extractive (or transactional) engagement.