Inside Stuff With MARTINS OLOJA
It is logical to suspend the discussions on ‘#EndSARS and the power of truth’ as promised last week because there is a weightier matter of lessons from the power of strong institutions over strong men in a democracy – in the United States of America. There have been unexpected developments in ‘America, their America’ as the iconic J.P Clark once described the country.
I have been following and studying the current elections in America not as an event in November but as a process that we can learn from instead of lamenting about how the curious attitude of a strong man, Donald Trump has changed even the political map of a fiercely divided country. The lessons are not about the old man, Joe Biden and his precious medal. Just as Ferdinand Oyono’s character, in his satire, ‘The old man and the medal’, the old man from a small Mid-Atlantic state, Delaware has been standing in a blazing sun, for hours and days – just to receive his prize. It has been worth the while in the United States.
At press time, the old man of Delaware was declared the 46th president of the United States after defeating Trump in the keenly contested Pennsylvania. The deciding factor seems to be centred on a handful of battleground states where Donald Trump had an initial advantage. The chips had been tilting more towards Joe Biden. The issue for us is no longer about who won but what messages have the 2020 US elections given to the world and indeed the most populous black nation on earth?
Despite the curiosities that have marked the election so far, we should still be impressed by the successful electoral process that has allowed an unprecedented turnout of voters to make their voices known through the ballot. It is more impressive considering that this has happened in the middle of a raging Covid-19 pandemic that has taken over 240,000 lives in the US. The process has revealed that the election is more crucial for the American people on both sides of the fence than ever before.
Apart from the inspiring dedication of the men and women painstakingly tabulating each ballot making sure it had been cast correctly, for the world watching, this most contentious election in US history has exposed some unsavoury truths about America. The biggest shock for the world is the immense support for President Trump, who has gone out of his way to promote divisiveness, racial tension, white supremacy, discrimination, violence, denigration of the media, women and minorities, and denial of climate change, which is now being followed by an attempt to cast aspersions on the integrity of the electoral process wherever it went against his interests. The fact that around 69 million people have voted for him shows that a huge number of Americans either endorse or overlook the abhorrent sentiments that President Trump has been fomenting.
The outcome has shown that most Americans have found it acceptable that 240,000 of their fellow citizens have died under his watch because of his failure to listen to the scientists, doctors and even his own coronavirus taskforce regarding health guidelines that if implemented, could have saved thousands of lives.
The 2020 US elections have highlighted how divided American society is, how fragile it is against leadership that is based on creating chaos rather than harmony, increasing inequality and using misinformation and propaganda to control people. But even before the elections, the world had been awakened to the reality of racial inequality as well as its challenges to the basic democratic values that the US has always projected to the rest of the world. It has also shown how it is possible to challenge scientific evidence and delegitimise it through strange propaganda that even Joseph Goebbels, the World War German propaganda expert, would be wondering about. It has shown that even something as straightforward as following basic health guidelines like wearing a mask can be made political, after all.
The most frightening revelation of the US election and the months preceding it is how easy it is to dismantle all the progress a nation has made over decades. The President-elect, Joe Biden, will have the Herculean task of uniting a bitterly divided country while combatting an ongoing pandemic and dealing with the devastating economic fallout.
What is more, governments around the world have been closely monitoring the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the real question at the moment relates to the U.S. presidential elections and the curiosities. Specifically, America’s future global role is important for all parties. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who won the presidential race has a significant impact on the answer to that question – on future global role. Is there a sense in which it can be said that a Biden victory is likely to repair Washington’s strained relationship with the trans-Atlantic alliance and international organisations? After all, the Trump effect, which was a direct response to former President Barack Obama’s legacy, has already transformed U.S. foreign policy.
Moreover, great power competition is already underway in the geopolitical vacuum left behind by the United States. Now, Biden must face that reality – which goes beyond the specific policy decisions of the out-going administration.
Geo-political assessments aside, that the Democrats shaped their 2020 presidential campaign around the claim that American democracy had been at risk is quite informative. The lack of “quality” in the presidential debate was more than just a source of embarrassment. I believe that the extreme polarisation over the Trump presidency reflects a deeper crisis of American democracy, which can be healed by the old man with his medal.
It is quite ironic that U.S. state officials, who used to tell Turkey that the ballot box was not enough and lectured the Turkish people about the virtues of “consolidated democracy,” now have to watch their president allege election fraud and large-scale irregularities. The American people are thinking long and hard to find a way to ensure that election results are recognised and respected by everyone – the precondition of democracy. That the vote count will be settled at the apex court dominated by conservative judges is the overwhelming expectation but most observers believe that American interest would prevail, after all.
There is even some talk about the U.S. military possibly removing Trump from the White House if he does not believe in a peaceful transfer of power. America’s top military officials have stressed that the court system, along with Congress, should assume responsibility in that case. This is certainly a shocking new experience for the U.S., which prides itself on being the leader of the “free world.”
Everything that has been debated in recent months, from fraudulent absentee ballots to potential Russian interference, demonstrates how fragile American democracy really is. The world needs to learn a valuable lesson from the U.S. – it ended up where it is without facing a serious national security threat, but merely due to the surge of white nationalism, racism, economic hardship, China’s challenge and the fatigue of military interventions around the world. It must be acknowledged that powerful nations and weaker states too, suffer from similar crises.
Some Americans are so unsettled by this “fight between two old men” that they may have given up on their country and apparently decided to relocate to Canada, New Zealand and even Argentina. Still, let’s not blow their state of mind out of proportion. Indeed, there were reports of some American citizens who said they’d leave the U.S. if Trump were to win the 2016 election. Needless to say, they ate their words and stayed where they were. Shortly after that election, they launched an effort to tell the American people how terrible Trump really was. Nowadays, most of those pessimists are expected to become a party to the epic court battle.
All told, despite all the imperfections and absurdities, there are several great lessons of urgent national importance the elections in America can teach us in Nigeria, our Nigeria. The elections should be still be seen as a process we can learn a lot from. It is still not a time to recall the legendary Fela’s ‘Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense’. We need to be sober to learn from the little things that matter in a democracy. We should not throw away the baby with the bathwater because Donald Trump is involved in fetching the water. As I was saying, there are indeed great lessons for us in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. We need to learn how to use one election to achieve so many democratic goals including recruitment of leaders at all levels, referendum on issues, referendum on characters of leaders, etc in one day without declaring a public holiday.
In the main, we can all see how federalism works even in elections coverage and processes. There is no unitary system of governance that can protect one powerful man and leader who can halt a national process called election – at a time like this. There is no system in America that can give power to a chief executive of a federation who can remove a chief justice of that federation through an administrative tribunal two weeks to national elections. This was what happened in 1993, a group of powerful men conspired against the state they were running. They used institutions of governance, the office of the president and the judiciary to truncate outcome of the best elections ever that threatened to unify a broken country.
In the United States at the moment, the secretaries of state of the fifty states, the attorneys-general and the governors are in charge, not the Chairman of the U.S Election Commission whose name has never been prominent, in this regard. Let’s not get this twisted, the Buhari administration should swallow all pride and vanity: there should be attention to serious calls for a proper federation. Unitary system of government is evil. We can’t continue to run Nigeria from Abuja where they call all the tunes because they pay all the 36 and 774 pipers.
Let’s leave lamentation over Trumpism and study the democratic system of a proper federation that has produced strong institutions of governance that can always protect the system against strong and perverted men in power. Let’s develop a federation where the law is above all including the chief executive of that federation. I doff my hat for America, their America where the institutions are stronger than the men and women in power!