Africa’s Totalitarian Temptation: The Evolution of Autocratic Regimes

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How resilient are popular movements for democracy in the face of a global resurgence of totalitarianism? Does Ethiopia and Sudan demonstrate that whatever appeal the totalitarian model may have, both the dissidents and the masses will persist in demanding freedom? Dave Peterson explains why there might be a glimpse of hope for Africa.


Africa has seldom been associated with totalitarian systems of government. Totalitarian systems are distinguishable from other forms of autocracy by a utopian ideology, a mass movement, and monism. The result is a conflation of state, party, government, security, economy, and as much of civil society as possible. Although not exclusive to totalitarian governments, features such as the use of terror, propaganda, surveillance, genocide, and imperialism are also often associated with them.  Africa has had an abundant experience with all manner of autocracy, but has heretofore been regarded as too technologically deficient, too socially inhospitable, too politically undeveloped to allow for the adoption of totalitarian models of governance.  Yet totalitarianism has, in fact, been attempted repeatedly in Africa, and today may be identified as having successfully evolved in a handful of countries. Just as a post-modern totalitarianism is emerging in China and other parts of the world, in Africa, the new totalitarianism offers an alternative form of governance that poses a serious challenge to Africa’s struggling democracies.

Yet as much as the totalitarian prospect must be feared, Africa shows glimmers of hope. For two countries have just repudiated totalitarian systems:  the authoritarian developmental state in the case of Ethiopia, and the Islamic Civilization project of Sudan. Ethiopia had nearly consolidated a totalitarian system under Meles Zenawi. For a time it appeared to demonstrate formidable staying power under his successor, Hailemariam Deselegn. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) powerful ideology, the campaign to mobilize and monitor the population, and the crushing of political opposition, civil society, and independent media, as well as tight control over the economy, the church, and the security services, all qualified Ethiopia as being well on the way to consolidating a totalitarian system. However, the massive protests in Oromia and a ‘political coup’ within the ruling EPRDF that brought Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018 effectively ended the experiment. Abiy has ostensibly undertaken an ambitious liberal democratic reform effort that is fraught with danger. If Abiy’s reforms are successful, they will provide a template, internationally, for the transformation of post-modern totalitarian systems.

If Ethiopia provides a model for democratic reform, Sudan offers lessons for a democratic revolution.  After the 1989 coup that made Omar al-Bashir president, the Islamic Civilization project of Hassan al-Turabi, the erstwhile power behind the throne, also had totalitarian pretentions.  The ideology of political Islam that he espoused was both utopian and all encompassing.  His instrumentalization of religion and the mobilization of popular committees and mujahedeen sought to create a mass movement.  In addition, the regime’s attempts to crush political opposition, civil society, and independent media, as well as its control over the economy and its massive security bureaucracy contributed to forging a totalitarian system.  Yet, although the government of Omar al-Bashir continued to espouse his program, it ultimately forced Turabi out, and gave up on the pursuit of a totalitarian system, due, among many other factors, to Sudan’s heterogeneity and incessant conflict, as well as international pressure.  The final blow, however, was the massive popular uprising that began in December 2018 and finally brought about the collapse of the al-Bashir regime.

The Oromia protests precipitated Ethiopia’s reform, but the reform process remains a largely top-down endeavor by the ruling party, the EPRDF.  Ethnic conflict, disinformation, and a sclerotic bureaucracy are proving to be difficult legacies of the former regime that Abiy must somehow overcome. Sudan’s revolution, by contrast, has been more of a grassroots affair, including some 1,000-neighborhood resistance committees. They sustained demonstrations across the country for more than six months, and effectively ousted the National Congress Party (NCP), the former ruling party. Even though popular support for change is broad and deep, ethnic conflict, disinformation, and unenlightened bureaucrats may hinder Sudan’s evolution from autocracy.

Economic hardships and enormous debt also pose grave threats to Ethiopia and Sudan’s new governments. The two governments will require generous international assistance to relieve them of the burden and give the democrats a fighting chance.  In recent visits to both countries, however, enthusiasm for the new freedom is evident, from the sprouting of new CSO’s and media outlets in Ethiopia, to the graffiti and everyday conversations in the streets of Khartoum.  Democratic activists in both countries now hold senior positions of power, political prisoners are being released, legal reforms are well underway, and everyone seem to be breathing easier.

Africa’s totalitarian temptation is still present, nonetheless. The alarming closing of political and information space in Tanzania, and the continuing erosion of freedom in Uganda, Zambia, and Malawi show a more worrisome trend.  Likewise, Zimbabwe, which a little over a year ago appeared to be on the verge of a democratic breakthrough, has instead returned to the old pattern of economic disarray and political repression. Rwanda still stands out as a successful model of the authoritarian developmental state, with some totalitarian features.  By contrast, Eritrea may be nobody’s model, but it is unmistakably totalitarian.  Likewise, highly repressive kleptocratic regimes such as Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Chad, and Cameroon continue to enjoy impunity as their leaders loot their national treasuries.  They may not bother with ideology and mass mobilization, but they resemble the neo-totalitarians when it comes to monistic control of government, society, and information.

What Ethiopia and Sudan demonstrate is that, whatever appeal the totalitarian model may have, both the dissidents and the masses will persist in demanding freedom. It is a lesson for the entire world. It may take many years, even decades, but democracy’s resilience in the face of the global resurgence of autocracy lends reason for hope.  Freedom is better than tyranny, and the struggle will continue.

Dave Peterson is senior director of the Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy.  


2 thoughts on “Africa’s Totalitarian Temptation: The Evolution of Autocratic Regimes

  1. Mr. Peterson should be careful with his typologies. Casually mixing authoritarianism and totalitarianism is careless. Totalitarianism would demand the state has complete control of all aspects of politics, the society, economy and culture. In other words it reaches down and controls down to the individual level.
    There is furthermore critical distinctions between a “soft” and a “hard” authoritarianism.

    1. I am delighted that Paul Scott has raised this point. Indeed I go to great pains in my book to distinguish between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, which he correctly defines, although one must also add the conditions of ideology and mass movements, which are essential to totalitarianism but not authoritarianism. Where he actually may be taking issue with me is my suggestion that the authoritarian developmental state might also be totalitarian. The dictatorships of South Korea and Taiwan were authoritarian developmental states that became democratic. China under Mao was a totalitarian system that evolved into an authoritarian developmental state, but that is now being described by as some, such as Larry Diamond, as becoming a post-modern totalitarianism. Ethiopia and Rwanda have both been described as authoritarian developmental states, but the efforts to control all aspects of politics, society, economy, security, and culture have in fact reached down to the individual level, aided by the use of ideology and the mass movement. Totalitarianism also encompasses a spectrum, from the fascist and Nazi versions to communism and all its permutations from Tito and Ceaucescu to Mao and Pol Pot. I also argue that political Islam, as promoted by Hassan Turabi and al-Bashir contained all the prerequisites of totalitarianism, including a chiliastic ideology and mass movement. There is much, much more to my argument, of course, and I would encourage Paul to read my book to decide whether or not I have made a compelling case.

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