AMERICA’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION – What Lessons for Nigeria? – By Newswire Editor, Austin Inyang
‘No man is good enough, or wise enough, to rule another man without his consent.’ – Abraham Lincoln.
Every leap year, the world’s attention is riveted to a political ritual unlike any other on the planet: the election of an American President. It is a ritual that has gone on without any significant interruption from the very inception of the American Republic, and a ritual that has evolved over two and a half centuries, into a carnival, indeed a festival, of sorts.
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The world’s fascination with America’s elections, in particular, and its political culture in general, is mostly based on a deep-rooted admiration for the country’s political culture, as exemplified by the strength of her political institutions, which in turn are built on the rule of law. Of all nations, America’s foundation was built on the principle of the sanctity of human liberty – the proposition that all humans are created FREE and EQUAL. In the words of the Declaration of Independence signed by the country’s founding fathers on July 4, 1776, all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, these being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Even though American society and the country’s institutions have, over the centuries since independence, failed to live up to the true promise of that founding document (especially when it comes to the treatment of the country’s minority groups – African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Indians) many visionary, passionate and idealistic leaders, civil rights activists, writers, clergy and ordinary people have worked tirelessly – sometimes at great cost in terms of blood and treasure – to actualize the promise of America as the ‘land of the free, and the home of the brave’ (in the closing words of its national anthem).
The high mindedness and nobility of those ideals, coupled with the laws they have helped enshrine in the American Constitution, have given American democracy a strength and resilience that has seen it weather trials and tests such as the American Civil War (1861-65) the First and Second World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and lately, the storming of the US Capitol by mobs loyal to immediate past President Donald Trump.
It is against this backdrop that last Wednesday’s swearing in of the country’s 46th President, Joe Biden, and its 49th (and first female) Vice-President, Kamala Harris, must be seen. In his first remarks as President, Biden affirmed the tenacity of his country’s institutions and laws when he said in reference to the latest assault on democracy, “Democracy did not die on our watch … Democracy is fragile, but today, democracy has prevailed.”
What lessons can Nigeria’s political class, and society in general, draw from America’s latest democratic ritual? A lot indeed. First of all, Nigerians like to say they are practicing ‘US-style democracy’, that is, the presidential system of government as practised in the US. The question, though, is: how much of the spirit of the US Constitution have the operators of our own system imbibed? If one may ask: What are the founding ideals of the Nigerian union? Are there any founding ideals AT ALL? If not, what is the Nigerian Constitution based on? Perhaps the first thing Nigerians need to do is to re-imagine the Constitution as an instrument of sociopolitical emancipation for our people, and rework it accordingly. The present Nigerian Constitution has brought, and can bring, NO progress. It is simply unworkable.
Secondly, watching the rituals of American democracy, and in particular the several attempts by incumbent President Trump to overturn the results of 2020 polls, we see the strength of the country’s institutions at both the local and national levels (the courts, most of them with Trump-appointed judges,which threw out Trump’s allegations of fraud, and the legislative houses which refused to de-certify electoral college ballots as the President had demanded) and we see the sheer strength of the system, a system based strictly on LAW, rather than on the whims of one man, or one political party, or interest group, or cabal. Some years back, former US President Obama came to Africa to make the point that Africa needed strong institutions rather than strongmen. The lesson for Nigeria is that her fledgling democracy will only grow if it is domiciled in representative institutions founded on the rule of law.
The final lesson, in my view, has to do with what is really at stake in any contest for political power – such as the one between Trump and Biden, and their respective political parties. Is it the spoils of office (the prospect of a one-way ticket to stupendous wealth for the winner and cronies and loved ones, as it is with the Nigerian political elite)? Or the prospect of positioning one’s ethnic group, religious affiliation, or family and friends for unfair advantage in the distribution of the proverbial ‘national cake’ – as it is in Nigeria? Or is it simply a contest between contrasting ideas, ideologies and visions about how society and its affairs should be handled, and the direction in which the economy should be headed? In America, campaigns have been traditionally held in a civil, even carnival, atmosphere (at least until recently when Trump decided to raise it into a version of Mortal Kombat?. Why is that? Why is American political discourse so civil, so mature? Simple: what is at stake is not personal aggrandizement, but simply the privilege of making a real difference in the affairs of one’s people, and perhaps etching one’s name in history.
In Nigeria, on the other hand, electioneering campaigns are more of physical clashes with real weapons deployed to cause bodily injury and death, and the destruction of property, or shouting matches full of threats and name-calling by opponents (or rather, enemies) engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the material goods of the commonwealth. Service to the people is simply a slogan conveniently mouthed by all and sundry – a tired cliché with no meaning whatsoever. This is the reason Nigerian politics has over time become no more than a criminal enterprise, with political parties becoming more like mafias ruled by stupendously rich capos (also known as party chieftains). This is why we have so many political godfathers whose aim is to grab as much of state resources as they can, by installing candidates who are no better than Yahoo-boys in both character and learning.
It need not be so. If we truly desire to achieve the kind of political, economic and social progress we currently associate with the USA and other Western nations, we must not only make political office less financially attractive to its occupants, so as to enable high minded and capable individuals to occupy the commanding heights of state power.
The lessons of America’s recent electoral saga – as well as the country’s long evolution over two centuries – are clear for all right thinking and objective Nigerians to see. Democracy is an arduous business. But it can survive – and thrive – when it is built on strong, impersonal and impartial institutions built on the rule of law, and when political office holders and aspirants are motivated solely by service to others, rather than self.
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