Lessons for Nigeria as strong democratic institutions rescue American democracy

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Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Joseph Robinette Biden will, on January 20, be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States in a ceremony that would signpost another milestone in American democracy. 

Even though the American democracy has existed for hundreds of years, its continued significance owes a lot to the presence of strong democratic institutions, without which it would have been as frail as other weak democracies across the world. 

Like every other member of the world community, America has had its developmental challenges, including governance issues, but its ability to skillfully resolve such challenges without the nation’s psyche suffering immense bruises or lacerations makes her a unique model. 

Specifically, the recently resolved President Donald John Trump-induced post-election imbroglio, made possible by the abiding faith in the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions, and respect for the rule of law, further enlivens the argument that only strong institutions sustain nation-building. 

In the course of her political evolution, Nigeria has encountered several difficult moments but has continued to stumble badly due largely to weak democratic institutions, and failure to check abuse of power by the so-called strong men who still dominate and control her socio-political and economic system. 

Many are quick to point at two events that ought to have positively defined Nigeria’s existence as a nation, but which were subjected to the whims and caprices of strong men that were on board, at different times. The events are the annulled June 12 presidential election, which was won by Alhaji MKO Abiola, and the questionable and contemptuous removal from office of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. 

Unlike Nigeria, which keeps on failing most democratic stress tests that she is exposed to, no matter how faint it may be, America once again proved to the world that the antics of one man, no matter how concerted cannot, and should not cause the country to flounder badly. 

WITH America being a good example of democracy and governance, a source of inspiration, as well as a shiny example, despite its inherent flaws, millions of democrats from across the world have been in pains watching how President Trump stoked one round of conflict after another all in a bid to cause pandemonium and further his agenda. The crescendo of the months-long display of madness was the mob invasion of the Capitol- the meeting place of the United States Congress and the home of the legislative branch of the American government. 

As early as November 4, 2020, a day after the general election, Trump had started putting up disruptive behaviours, making unpresidential statements, and generally denigrating the electoral process after seeing strong early signs that he would be a one-term president. 

He did not only take to his Twitter handle to attack political figures and institutions that failed to lend him a helping hand in his mission to thwart the will of American voters, he contested nearly every stage of voting, recording, certifying, as well as the formalisation of his defeat. 

On Boxing Day, Trump, again took to his Twitter handle and alleged: “The “Justice” Department and the FBI have done nothing about the 2020 Presidential Election Voter Fraud, the biggest scam in our nation’s history, despite overwhelming evidence. They should be ashamed. History will remember. Never give up. See everyone in D.C. on January 6th.” 

January 6, 2021, was the next major opportunity for Trump and his supporters to, again try to stall the inauguration of Biden as the next president. It is the day that Congress meets to count electoral college votes sent in from 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

Just the way Trump urged his supporters to convene in the nation’s capital, they did, and thereafter poured into the Capitol to harass and intimidate lawmakers, generally wreak havoc, and set up dramatic clashes both inside and outside Congress. 

That notwithstanding, after unprecedented violence forced legislators to evacuate the Capitol during the vote counting, Congress eventually voted to certify the results, which showed that President-elect Biden roundly defeated President Trump in the presidential poll. 

While a group of Republican lawmakers challenged the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, those objections did not withstand a vote in either the House of Representatives or at the Senate. 

“The votes for president of the United States are as follows: Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of the State of Delaware has received 306 votes. Donald J. Trump of the state of Florida has received 232 votes,” Vice President Mike Pence declared after the exercise was concluded. 

“The announcement of the state of the vote,” Pence said, “by the president of the Senate, shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons elected president and vice president of the United States each for the term beginning on the 20th day of January 2021.” 

Shortly after Pence declared Biden the winner of the election, Trump released a statement pledging an “orderly transition” of power. 

“Even though I disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th,” the statement made public by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, said. 

It added: “I have always said we would continue our fight to ensure that only legal votes were counted. While this represents the end of our greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!” 

Earlier, Trump while also speaking at a large rally in Washington, where he, again levelled numerous unsubstantiated allegations, including that the election was rigged against him, had surprisingly, asked his vice to block the electoral votes. 

He said: “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.” 

Ahead of the certification, Pence addressed the rioters who smashed windows and trespassed into lawmakers’ offices, the House, and the Senate chambers saying, “To those who wreaked havoc at our Capitol today, you did not win…Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.” 

WHILE on a trip to Ghana in 2009, the 44th president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama said: “No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 per cent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not a democracy; that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end. Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.” 

If there are countries that Obama’s remarks resonate with, where weak institutions are replete, or where strong men are running riot in, a good number of such countries are found on the African continent. 

However, little did Obama know that he would join others to condemn the actions of a strong man and his supporters in his backyard barely four years after he had the pleasure of handing over the reins to him. 

“History will rightly remember today’s violence at the Capitol, incited by a sitting president who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation,” Obama said in a statement he released a few hours after the show of shame at the Capitol. 

The former president, while urging Republicans to take a stand against Trump’s attacks on democracy, stressed that “we’d be kidding ourselves if we treated it as a total surprise.” 

He said the Republicans and its “accompanying media ecosystem has too often been unwilling to tell their followers the truth – that this was not a particularly close election and that President-Elect Biden will be inaugurated on January 20,” adding that the Republicans have also been pushing a “fantasy narrative” that is too far from reality. 

Condemning in strong terms, the desecration of the chambers of democracy, Obama said Trump and his supporters “can continue down this road and keep stoking the raging fires. Or they can choose reality and take the first steps toward extinguishing the flames. They can choose America.” 

Another former U.S. president, George W. Bush, who spoke of watching “scenes of mayhem” in disbelief and dismay, described the Capitol attack as “a sickening and heartbreaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic. 

“I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election, and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement,” he said in a statement tweeted by The Bush Center. 

His predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was equally peeved, said that the violence “was fueled by more than four years of poison politics spreading deliberate misinformation, sowing distrust in our system, and pitting Americans against one another. 

“The match was lit by Donald Trump and his most ardent enablers, including many in Congress, to overturn the results of an election he lost.” 

WERE it not for strong institutions, America, which has become the butt of political jokes across the world, would have probably lost its place as one of the world’s finest democracies, all as a result of the shenanigans displayed by the outgoing president. 

The concept of strong institutions being more beneficial to the national interest than strong men has been discussed over time by scholars, development experts, and sundry stakeholders. 

More often than not, they are always of the view that America has remained the bastion of democracy in the world, despite the flaws being on parade now. 

According to an international politics analyst, Dr. Rosemary Oyinlola Popoola, all that has happened, and may still happen in the United States “remind us of human frailties and the fragility of any human institution. Regardless of all the unsavory things that this election has revealed about America, I think the United States still gives us an example of what strong institutions, a sound constitution, and conscious citizenry can do. These three major things are not rooted in our governance architecture yet, but I think we can build it.” 

For a professor of history and development studies at the University of Ibadan, Prof Tayo Adesina, the tension generated by the election is a lesson to both emerging and old democracies that democracy itself is not foolproof. 

He insisted that Trump “really devalued American values and ideals that we used to teach to our American history students,” adding that “he has also left a sour taste in our mouths, as the most racist American president in living history. God just saved America from a civilisational collapse. They got to the edge of the precipice,” Adesina added. 

While deploring the mayhem brought upon the United States by Trump and his supporters in their bid to foist an unwanted administration on Americans, the Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) West Africa, Idayat Hassan, says Trump’s lack of success in the endeavor, “speaks volumes about the substance of United States democratic institutions. And this is what we Nigerians, and Africans should draw inspiration from. There are just so many lessons to learn. 

“Apart from the issue of having in place strong democratic institutions, we can all see that the police are not a weapon by 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. 

“We have also seen that the vice president is not a yes-man even over what constitutes a major loss for him. He presided over a 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,” Hassan said. 

She continued: “Most legislators accepted the result of Electoral College vote, and most Republican members of Congress also admitted that Americans made their decision, and accepted it. Importantly also, two GOP Congressmen who encouraged the insurrection are already facing a severe backlash. 

“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. 

“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. As they are constitutionally authorised to retain Supreme Court positions for life, they leveraged their independence to uphold democratic ideals. Additionally, other judges have struck down more than 60 spurious court cases brought forward by the president’s legal team. Many of these cases were dismissed outright for lack of evidence to support such claims, and propounding evidence of a free and fair election. The judges stood their grounds and dismissed the spurious cases accordingly despite several being Republican Trump appointees,” the CDD West Africa boss said. 

Commenting on the leaked one-hour recording of Trump’s phone conversation with the Georgia secretary of state, she said the recording revealed that Trump directly asked the official to inflate his votes to fraudulently secure electoral victory. 

This singular gesture, she said, “apart from showing that civil servants should serve the country and not the president, further revealed the extent Trump went to undercut the electoral process, and simultaneously, highlighted the power of public servants’ commitment to truth-telling. 

“On the other hand, the media was allowed to do its job. Unlike in Nigeria, where the Federal Government imposes fines on media houses for reporting the state’s violent crackdown on #EndSARS protesters in October 2020, the US government generally respected journalists’ right to cover the riots objectively. At no time did the U.S. disrupt the Internet. Instead, citizens’ access to social media was preserved as some legislators even leveraged platforms to confirm their safety. This is in contrast with what obtains in African nations including Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where at various times, the governments brazenly shut down or restrict Internet access to further their political aims. 

“Even though what has happened in the United States in the last two months remains a sad spectacle, as a country and people, we must look beyond the headlines, and focus our minds to the democratic resilience embodied in the U.S. democracy. We have to build strong democratic institutions. It would be willful blindness if African leaders only see authoritarianism today, and not the full display of the resilience and dedication to democracy on display.” 

Commenting on the role that democratic institutions have played in salvaging American democracy since Trump controverted the November 3, 2020, general election, the Senior Adviser (Nigeria), International Crisis Group, Nnamdi Obasi, said the independence and vitality of several key institutions have been absolutely crucial in salvaging America’s democracy from Trump’s subversive schemes. First, the media has played a great role, steadily puncturing the outgoing president’s conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. 

“Second, the electoral system, though far from perfect, firmly repudiated Trump’s claims of widespread fraud, with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency pointedly stating that the 2020 election was the most secure in America’s history. 

“Third, a strong and independent judiciary stood its grounds, throwing out Trump’s 60-plus cases that sought to overturn the elections without proving one single instance of serious electoral fraud. Without the independence and strength of these institutions, America’s democracy would have been in worse shape than it is today.” 

For Obasi, a former Senior Research Fellow and later Head of Department of Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Affairs, Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, National Defence College, Abuja, “the travails of America’s democracy over the past few months offers several lessons for younger democracies like Nigeria, but three major lessons stand out. 

“The first lesson is that democracies thrive on participation. The Trump nightmare happened because lots of American voters sat out in 2016, believing that their votes wouldn’t make a difference to how the country was being governed. Now, the Trump nightmare is ending because millions of people realised that their votes could end it. In other words, votes do matter and voters can make a difference. 

The second lesson, according to Obasi, “is that democracy thrives with the presence of strong institutions. Without a free press, an independent electoral system, and a strong judiciary, Trump and his supporters would have succeeded in manipulating the system to their advantage, overturned the outcome of the elections, and subverted the popular will. 

The third lesson, he said, “is that no democracy is perfect and that there is nothing in any country’s constitution or culture that ensures immunity from democratic reversals, or even breakdown. Democracy requires vigilance; it demands that citizens must be firmly committed to ensuring respect for agreed rules, constantly alert against violations, and strongly resolved to prevent autocratic rulers and their parties from subverting the system.” 

One thing that many still find commendable is Pence’s decision not to block the confirmation of Biden’s election victory. He not only did that, but he also sided with the constitution and told Trump that he did not believe that a vice president has the unilateral power to reject electoral college votes, a decision many say the average Nigerian vice president would not likely take. 

Asked to hazard a guess regarding how far away Nigerian politicians are from loyalty to the constitution, Obasi said: “I would not pre-judge what any Nigerian vice president would do, or not do, as much would depend on the differences in contexts, as well as personalities. What we can say is that, generally, politicians always have to choose between loyalty to the constitution and its underlying ideals on the one hand and loyalty to party leaders and incumbents with whom they rode to power on the other. In other words, they often have to choose between principle and political expediency. In Nigeria, as indeed in many other young democracies, many politicians often seem unduly loyal to party leaders, so-called godfathers, and incumbents, with little regard for the constitution, which they swore to uphold. Shifting loyalties from incumbents to the democratic ideals embodied in national constitutions is crucial to deepening the democratic system and practice in Nigeria, and other democracies around the world.” 

On the growing calls for international rights bodies including, Amnesty International among others to take meaningful actions against Trump in the light of actions and inaction so as not to confirm the fears that they were set up to continue to oppress Africa, Obasi said Trump’s attempt to subvert America’s democracy is a heinous act that deserves to be condemned unequivocally, worldwide. Our organisation, the International Crisis Group, which, ahead of November 3 elections had warned that Trump’s actions were raising the risk of electoral violence in the U.S., had already issued a strong condemnatory statement, and many other organisations, including global rights groups, have done so as well. 

“For instance, after Trump’s supporters stormed the US Congress on January 6, Amnesty International called the outgoing president an instigator of violence, warning that his refusal to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, along with his embrace of white supremacist and extremist groups, had put human rights, public safety and the rule of law in the US at grave risk. Similarly, Human Rights Watch demanded that Trump and his mob immediately cease their attacks on US democratic institutions and processes. These and other organisations have also called on the incoming attorney general to quickly investigate Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results, vigorously prosecute all those for whom there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, and apply punitive sanctions against anyone found guilty. Beyond these strong condemnations and demands for justice and sanctions under the provisions of US law, it’s doubtful what further meaningful action the international community, including global human rights groups, can demand at this point. 

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