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America’s democracy: Lessons for us

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US President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration speech on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. – Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)


Mr. Donald Trump, America’s 45th President did everything he could to design America’s democracy in his own image, but failed. Why? Because America’s democratic institutions are strong, independent and patriotic. That is why America’s democracy survived the relentless onslaught from Trump. The voters, election officials, governors, mayors, courts, Congress and the press all rose like one, obeying the call of duty and the duty of obeying the tenets of democracy. Before June 6, Trump had made a marathon phone call to a Georgian election official urging, begging, commanding him to “find the votes” that can make him win an election he had lost. The official refused to find the votes because there were no votes lying around to be found. His next action was to tell his fanatical supporters “we will not take it anymore.” That was a war cry to which his gang of hooligans responded, besieged Capitol and violently interrupted the Congressional certification of the electoral votes. But their madness did not last for long. Once they were routed by security forces, the legislators went back to work, stayed till the small hours of the morning and America’s job was done. Trump lost the support of the business community, technologists who blocked his rants and his Republican partymen who distanced themselves from the insurrection. His approval rating nosedived to 29%. The House of Representatives impeached him for the second time and soon the Senate will try him for the second time. If convicted he can be barred from holding any public office again.

Those rascals who took violence to the Capitol are being rounded up and tried. In Nigeria, during the 8th Senate some hired hoodlums pushed their way into our Senate while it was in session and took the mace away in broad daylight. Have they been arrested? No. Have they been tried? No. Also, some hooded security men identified later as men from the Department of State Service (DSS) invaded our National Assembly in broad daylight during the 8th Assembly and prevented the legislators from accessing their hallowed chambers in a flagrant violation of legislative immunity. Have they been arrested? No. Have they been tried? No. Such insurrection by State actors and politically exposed persons of partisan leaning prove to be the Achilles heel of our fragile democracy.

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On Wednesday January 20, Trump, a pompous, arrogant megalomaniac who was, throughout those four years of his avant garde presidency, in opposition to established global institutions such as World Health Organisation (WHO), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and European Union (EU) left Washington in Air Force One a disgruntled man. For those four years Trump installed himself in opposition against facts, against reason, against verified wisdom but placed himself in the charmed circle of sentimentalism, populism, demagoguery and his own idea of America’s exceptionalism. Now he wants to form his own party to be called Patriot Party. That may be what he meant when he said as he departed “we will be back in some form.” Just before noon on January 20, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President respectively while the world watched a deeply divided America as the new President begins the healing process. The beauty of America’s democracy lies in the strength of its institutions. Politics is a partisan occupation but America always does its best to keep partisanship at arms length when the need arises.

The inauguration ceremony was managed by two Senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, making it a bipartisan affair. Everyone at the ceremony wore their face masks, no exception. Very important personalities including the three former Presidents that attended namely Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and their wives were not accompanied by their orderlies and bodyguards into the inauguration grounds. They were only guided by the inauguration officials. In Nigeria, the ceremony would have been taken over by the army of escorts, bodyguards, area boys, Personal Assistants and Special Assistants who would be carrying their bosses’ symbols of bigmanism: handbags, walking sticks, multiple phones, water bottles, packets of handkerchiefs, bundles of mint-fresh currency notes, extra shoes or slippers, you name it.

The ceremony would go on interminably for hours as the loquacious Nigerian master of ceremony would proudly recite the titles, offices and family history of the principal attendees at the function, making what ought to be a brief and solemn ceremony a long and boring engagement. And did you notice that no policeman stood behind Biden as he delivered his address? Where we got that culture of servility from I don’t know because even Britain that ran Nigeria for many years does not do it. Neither do other civilised countries that I know of. Biden has lived a life of dedicated service to America: 36 years as a Senator and eight years as a Vice President to President Barack Obama. The picture of him on January 20, 2017 when the Trump administration was sworn in as the Obama administration came to an end sticks in my memory till this day. I saw a man who was America’s Vice President a few hours earlier board a train after the handing over ceremony for his home in Delaware.

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Would that happen in Nigeria? Humility left Nigeria a long time ago. When one of his children had serious health challenges he wanted to sell his house to pay for his son’s medical bill. Obama said he would pay for it from his own personal resources. Which Nigerian or African politician would serve his country in such high positions for forty something years and would be in the kind of financial difficulty that Biden was? It is obvious that Biden hadn’t stolen money from America to make himself super rich. For him service is it. Heartwarming.

In his inauguration speech President Biden said, “I will be President for all Americans, all Americans.” For me that was the most important statement that he made on that day. It was a commitment to unification of a divided country as well as an admirable governance philosophy. In the aftermath of the election that Trump lost he had pumped the adrenalin of his partisan supporters with his unsubstantiated allegation of election rigging and vote theft. These vituperations and unpatriotic effusions paved the way for the invasion of the Legislature. So there has been a bitter-war between Trump’s supporters and the rest of America which calls for healing. Biden did not say he would only favour those states that voted for him, no, he will be a President for all Americans, his supporters and opponents, he said. That is presidential; that is a realisation that when elections are over, partisanship is over and governance is in. in Nigeria, partisan politicians will tell the President not to site projects in States that did not vote massively for him. They forget that even in those states there were people who voted for him. They forget that there is no state in which 100% of the votes will go to only one candidate.

They forget that when the President punishes states that did not vote massively for him he is also punishing people in those states who voted for him even if they are in the minority. They forget that it is actually by displaying large-heartedness that the President can win over those who did not vote for him and sustain the loyalty of those who voted for him. Voting power versus resource or amenity allocation constitutes a sticky point in the existential politics of Nigeria. Those who oppose the allocation of the presidential slot of APC to the South East point to the fact that APC only has Imo State as an APC stronghold. All the other four states belong to the PDP except Anambra which remains an APGA fortress. So this will be an issue in the envisaged power shift to the South in 2023. That too will also determine how the PDP and any emerging third force will do its electoral mathematics.

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As we can see Biden has hit the ground running from Day One. He has issued 15 executive orders which include rejoining the WHO and Paris Climate Pact, removing muslim travel ban, stopping the border wall construction, advancing racial equity in the federal government, strengthening workplace discrimination protection etc. That is the real meaning of hitting the ground and running. As his ministerial nominees (America calls them Secretaries) have already been named their confirmation hearings are already on the way. This frenetic pace leaves no lull in governance and gives the people the confidence that there is no gap, no holding period, in the administration of their country. In Nigeria, we can narrow the gap between when the President is sworn in and when we can begin to feel the impact of a new administration, by doing three things (a) reducing the level of uncertainty as to who is President by ending court battles early, (b) by the elected President making his ministerial appointments as soon as he is declared winner of the election so that the Senate can start confirmation hearings as soon as it is inaugurated (c) by the President issuing some executive orders that can set the tone for his government provided those orders are purely administrative.

America has shown us that democracy can survive once democratic institutions such as parliament, judiciary, security service, media are strong and independent and not dependent on the Strong Man. Nigeria’s democracy is weakened by the fact that it depends for its survival on the Strong Man, not on strong institutions. In our system it is the word of the Strong Man that is the last word, the word that counts. The institutions are mere pawns on the Strong Man’s whimsical chessboard. If this is not reversed our democracy cannot grow; it will stay stunted and starved of fertiliser.

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