Attempting to draw comparisons between American and Nigerian democracy is usually unfruitful, and justifiably so. For starters, it would present an imbalance akin to expecting a toddler to run at the speed of a 15-year-old. Democracy is about two hundred and a half years old in the United States while Nigeria is just practising democracy for a straight two decades for the first time in its 60-year history.
More than at any other time, this comparison would even be more ill-advised at this time. This is given the spectacle that the November 3, 2020 elections have become. Since about November 4 or so, politics in America has shown all the traits that were hitherto the exclusive preserves of power-hungry, half-hearted democrats that govern developing democracies.
But that was until a stranger who has been at the helms of affairs in the US for four years had the scary challenge of facing an election that would ultimately serve as a referendum on his repeated attempts to abuse institutions, overthrow established traditions and throw random and incessant tantrums. The turbulence and uncertainties of the past four years in the democratic history of the US, are to my mind, a copious testimony to what bestowing the gift of a nation’s presidency to someone without a significant record of prior public service and the sacrificial responsibility that attends it could be.
I hold the opinion that President Donald Trump’s reaction to last week’s election is also a corollary to the above. Unlike people who have served in public office, respect the people’s will, the sanctity of national institutions and the dignity of the country, all this man sees is himself and his narcissistic desire to remain in office. He very well did lay a foundation that a transition would be tedious if he lost even before the elections and that indeed conveyed the message that Trump is only interested in himself and nothing else.
All of these shenanigans, including the prospects of the manipulation of votes, are however themselves a lesson to developing democracies that this system of government is a continuous work in progress. It is an indication of the need for the continued vigilance and interest of the people in those who govern them, the way they govern and the instruments with which they govern. Trump’s refusal to concede his loss one week after and the effect on that polity shows that there can be no guarantees for the growth and survival of democracy without the people relentlessly working at it. The American elections show that where human beings are involved self-interest will be a factor to contend with; that money plays a huge role in the entrenchment of democracy and that the man with the most money is able to buy the minds of the voter even when ethics may forbid him from buying their votes. The last American elections validate the position that politicians are the same anywhere across the world yet, underscore the importance of patriotism and fidelity to the nation by political actors.
In Nigeria, most politicians are more committed to party, ethnic, religious and other such interests far more than the things that bind Nigerians together. And even when national issues are under focus, their judgments are usually based, more, on the advantages accruable to their sectional constituencies with scant regard to what happens to other parts of the country. That is why a section of the state governors would, in the middle of the recent #EndSARS protests, detach their part of the country from the agitations, even though hundreds of their citizens were on the streets.
With the American elections, however, you have seen people who belong to the same Republican Party as Donald Trump congratulate President-elect, Joe Biden. They also speak about how critical it is for the country to “come together for the sake of our families and neighbours, and for our nation and its future,” according to former President George Bush.
The US presidential election was also mostly about issues than anything else. Issues that defined the choice of the electorate included: coronavirus, racial justice, the economy, healthcare, abortion and even candidates’ disposition to the rights of Americans to their preferred sexual orientations. So, contrary to general expectations and the prediction of bookmakers, Trump garnered as much votes in this election as to be the second-highest ever seen in the history of the US.
That goes to tell that the electorate were guided by their disposition to the issues that concern them most. While someone may not like one candidate’s dismissive attitude to the havoc of the coronavirus pandemic or his unbridled hatred for Muslims and immigrants from some countries, this voter may be one of those conservatives opposed to abortion. That pro-life disposition is enough to make him forget all his hatred for Trump and vote for him! For instance, I read about an Instagram post by an anti-abortion group with the name, Students for Life, which read:”Hate Trump? We hate abortion more.” Trump is said to be the first sitting president to have attended an anti-abortion march for life. The point here is that the electorate in this election allowed issues for which they have passion guide their decisions despite all other ills they might see.
The most important takeaway from the election, in my opinion, is the importance of building strong institutions. While former President Bush judged that the presidential election was fundamentally fair, he conceded that Trump has the right to approach the courts. Regardless of the ideological leanings of judges, Americans trust their courts to do justice, which is why very few people in the country are bothered by the defiance of the incumbent. In the course of the Trump presidency, America has shown the formidability and durability of her institutions. From the Armed Forces, to the Foreign Service, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and even personal staffers like Chiefs of Staff and other people who had the benefit of that office have occasionally refused to work with the president to abuse the office, opting to leave the office instead.
If an election in Nigeria had the contestations currently going on in America, tempers would be at an all-time high. Ethnic nationalities would be threatening fire and thunder, religions would be throwing stones at one other and the lines of reason and issues that eat at our lives would be completely blurred. Government would have sent the police out to arrest members of the opposition (who are claiming to have won the election) and the head of the electoral body alongside his family members would be unsafe.
That America is not at the edgy post is an indication that the system is still working. And that is what Nigeria, which is currently too hot and shaky for her people, should aspire for. What national institution has its loyalty properly fixed in Nigeria, how many of them even understand the essence of national service? It is sad that some hoodlums visited their anger on policemen in the recent incident in Nigeria, but is that enough reason for a police force to abandon its duties and leave the citizens at the mercy of criminals? That is a sign of a weak institution just as the Central Bank of Nigeria is suggesting that young people who peacefully asked for a new country are suspected terrorists even when this hasn’t been investigated.
One great lesson that one hopes Nigeria would learn from the US elections, therefore, is the need to build strong institutions and properly orientate functionaries of these institutions that they were set up to protect the ordinary citizen from all forms of harassment including from the state rather than turn themselves into instruments of oppression of those they were called to serve