In This Review

Africa’s Totalitarian Temptation: The Evolution of Autocratic Regimes
Africa’s Totalitarian Temptation: The Evolution of Autocratic Regimes
By Dave Peterson
279 pp, Lynne Rienner, 2019

In a lively and wide-ranging study of authoritarianism in Africa, Peterson defines as “totalitarian” any regime that creates political institutions to dominate society, espouses an all-encompassing utopian ideology, and attempts to mobilize its citizens on a mass scale. He identifies three contemporary African countries as totalitarian (Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda) and another three as having strong totalitarian tendencies (Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe). The latter set of regimes are not viewed as totalitarian because they often have strong civil societies and, especially in the case of Zimbabwe, political oppositions. Informative chapters examine the evolution of each of these six states. Are these enough states to add up to a continental trend toward totalitarianism? Since the return of multiparty electoral politics in the early 1990s, the most typical kind of regime in Africa seems to be an electoral autocracy, a system that combines many authoritarian practices with regular elections. Peterson recognizes that this kind of system cannot be defined as totalitarian but argues that totalitarian tendencies continue to appeal to autocrats in the region. He worries that the developmental success of Ethiopia and Rwanda will make a harder-edged authoritarianism attractive to both international donors in search of economic efficiency and budding autocrats who wish to entrench their power.