How do civil society organisations (CSOs) and the state interact in non-democratic settings? Non-democratic regimes often meet civil society activism with repression, however, on an every-day basis contestation and control take more diverse forms. To capture how CSOs bargain with and contest state power, as well as how states police CSOs, this article draws on the case of Ethiopia (1991–2018). It analyses different types of interactions between service providing CSOs and state actors and studies when and how CSOs have been able to place their demands on state actors and when and to what extend their demands have been adhered to. Looking beyond the absence of public protests against the ruling government by CSOs, the article argues that CSOs, including those formally aligned to or co-opted by the regime, have been resourceful in devising strategies that promote the interests of their members and beneficiaries. Defying co-optation, they have constantly negotiated space through a combination of cooperation, coexistence and contestation.