Systems Analysis for Diagnosing Ethiopia's Political Malaise

Aug 8 , 2020
By Desta Mebratu (Prof.)

Ethiopia's political malaise could be treated if political leaders are prepared to critically revisit their mental models through principles of systems thinking. Young political leaders particularly have the unique opportunity and responsibility of becoming transformational leaders, writes Desta Mebratu (, extraordinary professor at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.

The unprecedented progress made in the 20th century in the fields of science, technology and industry has lifted billions of people out of poverty.

At the same time, however, globalisation that resulted from this unprecedented progress has created a confluence of economic, social, environmental and political challenges of increasing complexities. These include huge disparities between and within countries that left billions of people in absolute poverty and numerous environmental challenges of global proportion such as climate change.

Efforts that have been made by disciplinary sciences to understand and resolve these complex problems further complicated the challenges rather than addressing them. Systems thinking is a transdisciplinary science that emerged in the 1960s in response to the increasing number of complex global challenges. The key principles of systems thinking could assist in diagnosing the malaise of Ethiopia’s politics through systems analysis.

The primary principle of systems thinking focuses on the interdependence between the whole and the part. According to systems thinking, every system is a whole on its own and at the same time part of another higher system. While recognising the parts as the basis for the whole, it stresses that the whole is more than the mechanical summation of the parts. It also stresses that the interactions at the interface between the parts are major sources of change in any system.

Thus, understanding the dynamic interactions between the parts is critical in managing a system. To illustrate this with an example, each individual member of a given family is a whole system on its own while at the same time is part of a higher-level system called a family. However, a family is the result of the dynamic interaction and relationship between its members rather than being the mechanical summation of each member.

Stable and functional family results from effective management of the dynamic relationship between all members of the family based on full recognition and understanding of each member of the family as a whole on its own. Similarly, as we move through the systemic hierarchy of families, communities, nationalities and a nation, we have a progressively higher form of wholeness and systemic integrity.

Effective administration of a country like Ethiopia, which has more than 80 nationalities, according to this principle would require creating an inclusive and effective nation-state system that harmonises the wholeness of each nationality with the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.

Another principle within systems thinking states that all truth about a given system is relative since every system is in a dynamic and continuous state of change. Large parts of the real world exist in the grey zone, and the black or white reality only exists as a transient state. The principle also states that reality, in its complexity, can only be fully described through multivalent truth. Even in the world of science, most of the scientific truths declared thus far are relative truth, and absolute truth of science only exists in mathematical models.

Most political discourses in Ethiopia collide with the core tenet of this principle. Beside the abject lack of will to listen to the "truth" from other parties, politics of the last five decades in Ethiopia has been mainly characterised by the coercive imposition of one’s own version of the truth on others. To come out of this political quagmire, our politicians need to liberate themselves from the misguided notion of my-truth-is-the-only-truth and be prepared to listen and consider those who differ from them. Such a change of mindset creates conditions for more rational discourse and develops a more complete and shared understanding of our political reality.

Yet another principle within this thinking relates to the dynamic relationship between diversity and systemic stability. Diversity in a system is a potential source of higher stability and adaptability as it provides the basis for self-regulation and adaptation. It also provides the seedbed for cross-fertilisation and innovation, which is necessary for the evolution of any system.

On the contrary, Monocultural systems lack stability and have a higher exposure to potential crash and even extinction. In this context, the ecological, linguistic, cultural and religious diversity of Ethiopia is a blessing that could make huge contributions to its sustainable development. However, this potential could only be realised if we create a constitutional system that recognises their value and reinforces their complementarity and interdependency.

The politics of a unitary state or a monocultural ethnic politics, as has been promoted by proponents of national and ethnic-based politics, respectively, goes against this core principle. Such misguided political dispensation could lead to the ultimate disintegration of the country as we know it today beside being detrimental to the specific social groups all politicians claim to stand for.

Another important principle within systems thinking that compliments this notion of diversity is the principle of competition and collaboration. The functional efficiency and stability of a given system, according to this principle, is determined by the optimal management of the collaboration and competition between the parts.

The collaborative interactions define the foundation for the system’s existence and function while the competition between the parts provides the basis for creativity and innovation, which are necessary for progression. The health and stability of a country’s political system, in the view of this principle, is determined by the strength of the collaboration framework and the inclusiveness of the political space for competition.

The constitution of a country provides the foundation for the collaboration and competition of political parties. A constitution is a living document, according to the first principle, that needs to be adapted with the changing dynamics through an inclusive consultative process. One of the political problems in Ethiopia is the deliberate confusion and mix-up created between the Constitution and party policy and programmes. It is important to recognise that a constitution is a platform for collaboration, while party programmes and policies are the platforms for competition.

The  principle that serves as a basis for systems analysis is understanding the relationship and distinction between detailed and dynamic complexity. A holistic understanding of the dynamic complexity of a system is at the core of effectively managing complexities, according to this principle.

Development of  a transformational solution requires going beyond isolated events and patterns and critically looking at the structural sources and mental models. This enables identification of the dynamic knots that have high unlocking potential rather than focusing on isolated events and patterns that may result in detailed complexities. This principle also emphasises that there could be multiple paths for solving a given complex situation with different levels of desirable outcomes. This forms the foundation for multiparty politics.

When we look at solutions that have been prescribed for Ethiopia’s politics thus far from this perspective, they are either too partisan with partial consideration of the core issues or they are an endless wish-list of actions that create more confusion. This is because of the limited effort made to understand the dynamic complexity. As a result, it creates further political misunderstanding and confusion in the political and public domain.

The last, but not least, pertinent principle is about the critical role of adaptive learning for the sustainability of a system. Systems that have effective adaptive learning mechanisms evolve more efficiently through the accumulation of useful information in their DNA. This forms the basis for an evolutionary succession of all systems, and any system that is not open for change is doomed to fail.

Indigenous knowledge systems are important repositories of useful generational information at the societal level. Unfortunately, modern politics in Ethiopia is mainly characterised by the destruction and replacement of what is in place and starting afresh all the time. We have not been able to build upon generational democratic practices embedded in many of our long-standing traditional governance systems as a consequence.

To overcome this limitation, our senior political leaders need to focus on passing over the key positive and negative lessons we should take from our past history, while our young political leaders focus on building upon the positive and avoiding a repeat of past mistakes.

Most of the fundamental political malaise of the country could be treated through an integrated application of the above systemic principles. This would only require our political leaders to critically revisit their mental models with principles of systems thinking. Our young political leaders particularly have a unique opportunity and responsibility of becoming transformational leaders equipped with the knowledge of the 21st century.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 08,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1058]

professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.

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