Federalism is the answer, after all – Part 12
Events unfolding in the twilight of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, especially the triumph of strong institutions against the Capitol Hill insurrection, have again reinforced our position on true federalism. Whereas politics and shenanigans are global, in federalism abounds the steering wheel-power for democrats to explore institutions to whip an intransigent personality into general-will and create a system that works for all. Clearly, the American democratic bragging right has been demystified, but their faith and commitment to organic federating units, attendant independent judiciary, credible legislature and press freedom have not been misplaced for Nigeria to learn from.
Nigeria borrowed quite a lot from the U.S. when it switched from the parliamentary to presidential system of government. At becoming a Republic in 1963, Nigeria technically switched from unitary to federalism. But it was a symbolic federalism that was not meant to be in substance. Nigeria has indeed practised quasi-federalism, which has concentrated all the powers at the centre and bred strong personalities over governing institutions. So, when the U.S. Congress erupted in Trump-instigated violence the other day, Nigerians back home could readily relate with the event that was all-too-familiar with the Nigerian political experience. What Nigerians hardly see in their own clime was how the American institutions rose to the occasion to salvage their democracy.
Indeed, Trump is not any different from average Nigerian politicians that would arm-twist the entire system for personal gains. Since the November presidential election ended, Trump has been sulking over unsubstantiated stolen elections to mask his defeat at the polls. He had made frantic efforts to cancel the result like few power brokers did with the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election that Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola won in Nigeria. Trump has been up to all sorts of peccadilloes that are not presidential and un-American at the same time. Having failed in court, he incited American mob to stampede the Capitol – the meeting place of the United States Congress and the home of the legislative branch of the American government – to forcefully ditch the confirmation of Joe Biden as the 46th American president ahead of the January 20 inauguration. The TV footage showing a Trump supporter lounging in the Speaker’s chair at the Capitol made American democracy a laughing stock of the world.
But the stronger institution, however imperfect, rallied back remarkably to save American blushes and her place as the bastion of democracy in the world. Despite Trump’s ugly legacies, unquestionable is the importance of strong democratic institutions, federal constitution and conscious citizenry – and Nigeria should learn critical lessons here. Within hours of the Capitol Hill invasion, the police were deployed to restore order in line with the constitution. Unlike the scenes in this clime, police are not a weapon and law unto themselves. We did not see the deployment of maximum force by the police, nor did we see opposition figures being arrested over trumped-up charges. The security agencies have clear roles in the constitution and within their jurisdictions. They are also defenders of democratic rights but do not have to rely on Washington D.C, irrespective of who the occupant is, to take orders like Nigerian Police depends on Aso Villa and ultimately the sitting president. The Nigerian system has consistently made mockery of federalism without regional and state police. Meanwhile, it is the same system that would order with impunity maximum force against unarmed #EndSARS protesters. It is one of such abuses that have described Nigeria as having one of the most powerful presidents in the world – in a democracy where power should reside with the people, not strong men and opportunists in democratic garb.
In the American experience, we also saw that the vice president is not a yes-man even over what constitutes a major personal loss. Trump had surprisingly urged the Vice President, Mike Pence, to block electoral votes. “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our constitution, and the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now.” Pence still presided over the ceremony in which his electoral loss was certified, according to normal constitutional guidelines. He did so despite immense pressure from the president, misinformed citizens, and conspiracy theorists to deny the truth. Such are the gains of a true federalism that clearly states the functions of officeholders and not leave them at the whims of the Commander-in-Chief.
Similarly, the legislative arm of government, where lawmakers are not rubber stamps, has again shown that it can and should save the day from tyranny and clueless leadership running the country to the brink. In this case of reference, the legislators, independent judiciary and media stood up to be counted. Most U.S. legislators accepted the result of the Electoral College vote, and most Republican members of Congress also admitted that Americans made their decision, and accepted it. All through this phase, the courts remained independent. Leading up to the election, the state of Texas and the Trump legal team had attempted to invalidate the votes of tens of millions of Americans in four states where Trump lost – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Wisconsin – by suing the states at the Supreme Court, but the court struck the case down citing a lack of legal standing for Texas to sue other states over their local election laws. Indeed, the judgment reiterated the importance of American federalism, and the independence of states. This is remarkable, especially given that three of the nine judges on the nation’s highest court were appointed by Trump. Unlike in our case where the presidency had in 2019 curiously removed Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, then Chief Justice of Nigeria from office through an Administrative Tribunal headed by a non-judicial officer, the U.S. system constitutionally authorised justices to retain Supreme Court positions for life, to deepen their independence and uphold democratic ideals. That was federalism and constitutionalism in action.
What is more remarkable, the media in the U.S. system is constitutionally allowed to do its job as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Unlike in Nigeria, where the Federal Government could impose fines on media houses for reporting the state’s violent crackdown on #EndSARS protesters in October 2020, the U.S. government generally respected journalists’ right to cover the riots objectively. More so, at no time did the U.S. disrupt the Internet connectivity. Instead, citizens’ access to social media was preserved as some legislators even leveraged platforms to confirm their safety on that dark Wednesday at the Capitol Hill.
In contrast to the norm around here, social media high-tech companies have been exercising their duty to the state by blocking their sitting president from further inciting followers via caustic messages. That is what makes democracy the best system of government despite its flaws. It is also what makes true federalism and constitutionalism the best bet in a diverse democracy aiming at truth, justice, fairness, peace and progress. Nigeria cannot afford to be an exception.
Lest we forget, what would have happened to the Georgia electoral votes if the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who the president had reportedly called “to find 11,000 votes” at all cost, was answerable to even an appointee of the President of the United States? There was no connection between the Secretary of State and the U.S. Election Commission, a central body. The power of the Georgia’s Secretary of State over even a presidential election outcome is as given only by the constitution of the state as a federating unit. And the powerful president of the United States cannot arbitrarily do anything to alter the sanctity of that provision – to remain in office. In Nigeria, even a Federal High Court in any jurisdiction in the country could have given a ruling to annul a free and fair election – to favour a high-profile office holder. This is part of the travesty and travail of federalism in Africa’s most populous nation.
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