Last two weeks, we discussed democracy in the United States and Nigeria on a comparative basis. We then periscoped how America’s strong institutions defeated strongman, former President Trump. We dilate more on this today.
The concept of strongmen
The “strongmen” concept is anchored on the approximation of a particular institution to the name of a person in authority. It emphasizes more the person in authority rather than the institution itself, a trend that is prevalent in Africa. A clear example of this can be seen in the former Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu. He became an epitome and alter ego of the institution, EFCC. At a time, Magu had so much epitomized the EFCC that his name and image became synonymous with the entire EFCC institution. Further examples of “strongmen” who gave way to strong institutions include Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; Adolf Hitler (Germany); Joseph Stalin (Russia); Mao Zedong (China); Benito Mussolini (Italy); Pol Pot (Cambodia); Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Fidel Castro (Cuba).
The strong institutions of America versus Donald Trump, the strongman
American democracy has existed since July 4, 1776, and its continued and unadulterated significance is indebted to the presence of democracy-inclined “strong institutions”. In the absence of these strong institutions, America’s democracy would have been as frail and fragile as other weak democracies across the world.
President Barack Obama of the United States, in his speech when addressing the Ghanaian Parliament, emphasized the importance of a strong institution over a strongman thus:
“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 democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end. Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.”
America is a nation that prioritizes its strong institutions over strongmen. However, never did Americans foresee or comprehend that their strong institutions would be put to the exerting test that Trump’s tenure threw up.
Like other countries of the world, America has had its developmental challenges, including governance issues. However, its ability to skillfully navigate through such daunting challenges, using strong institutions, rule of law and the practice of true democracy, makes it a unique model worth analyzing.
Specifically, the recently resolved post-election issue involving Trump was made possible by the abiding faith in the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. This further enlivens the argument that only strong institutions, not strongmen, sustain nation-building.
In the course of her political evolution, Nigeria has encountered several difficult moments but has continued to stumble and wobble very badly, largely due to weak democratic institutions, and failure to check abuse of power by the so-called strongmen who continue to dominate and control its socio-political and economic space.
Many are quick to refer to two events that ought to have positively defined Nigeria’s future as a nation, but which were frittered away through the whims and caprices of strongmen at separate times. The first relates to the unconstitutional retention of EFCC’s Acting Chairman, Magu, even after he was twice roundly rejected by the Senate. The second event concerns the questionable and contemptuous removal from office of Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen. These two major events happened with utter disregard for due process, rule of law and all known democratic precepts.
However, unlike Nigeria, which fails several democratic stress tests, America continues to prove resilient against allowing strongmen, no matter how powerful, to negatively affect the country and undermine its democracy. America, though a good example of democracy, good governance and a source of inspiration, had its democracy seriously threatened by Trump, who stoked one round of conflict after another all in a bid to reclaim a lost election. The crescendo of the month-long display of madness was the mob invasion of the Capitol Hill, the meeting place of the United States Congress (Senate and House of Representatives), and the home of the legislative branch of government.
Unlike Nigeria, America proved to the world that the antics of one man, no matter how orchestrated, cannot and should never make the country flounder. With America being a perfect example of democracy and good governance and a source of inspiration, despite its flaws, millions of democrats across the world were in pains watching Trump attempt to thwart democratic tenets.
Were it not for strong institutions, America, which had become the butt of political jokes, would probably have lost its place as one of the world’s finest democracies due to the shenanigans of a man. According to an international ‘political 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.”
President Trump was always quick to take to his Twitter handle (since suspended) to attack political figures and institutions that failed to lend him a helping hand in his mission to mess up the political process and thwart the will of American voters. He contested nearly every stage of voting, recording, certification, as well as the formalization of his round defeat.
On January 6, 2021, the American Congress met to count the Electoral College votes of its citizens sent in from 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). Trump attempted a coup d’état by encouraging his supporters to descend on Washington DC and storm the Capitol building. This was to harass and intimidate lawmakers, wreak havoc, and set up dramatic clashes both inside and outside the Capitol. Notwithstanding that the unprecedented violence forced legislators to hurriedly scamper out of the Capitol building during the vote count, the U.S. Congress eventually voted to certify the results, which pronounced that President-elect, Joe Biden, did indeed defeat Trump in the presidential poll.
Upon this certification, both Vice-President Mike Pence and Trump submitted to the power of the strong institutions of Congress. Pence first released a statement, saying, “The announcement of the state of the vote 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.”
No such alleged facts existed. It was a figment of his imagination. Aside from the strong institution of Congress, the police also proved a strong institution all through Trump’s mad-ridden rampage. The police did not act as Trump’s weapon neither was there deployment of brute force by the police. There was also no arrest of opposition figures, nor were there trumped-up charges.
Even the VP showed immense respect for the rule of law and the doctrine of democracy, as against pliantly following his boss. He did not act as a puppet Trump, even though the election constituted 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. He announced his own defeat.
The judiciary also played its role as a strong institution. It did not adhere to the pressure of Trump, even though Trump filed several actions before Republican judges, some of whom he swore into power. Similarly, the media (as an institution), were not swayed by immense pressure from Trump. 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 U.S. government generally respected journalists’ right to cover the riots objectively. At no time did the U.S. disrupt the Internet. Rather, citizens’ access to social media was preserved as some legislators even leveraged platforms to confirm their safety. This is in contrast to what obtains in African nations, including Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where at various times the governments brazenly shut down or restricted Internet access to further their selfish political aims. They did not pass laws to limit the freedom of speech and information.
When Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, 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 supremacists and extremist groups had put human rights, public safety and the rule of law in the U.S. at grave risk. Similarly, Human Rights Watch demanded that Trump and his mob immediately ceased their attacks on democratic institutions and processes. These and other organisations have also called on the incoming Attorney-General to quickly investigate Trump’s vain efforts to overturn transparent 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 U.S. laws, it is doubtful what further meaningful action the international community, including global human rights groups, can take at this point. In what analysts call the most dangerous frontal assault on US democracy since the civil war era, the states upon which Trump’s plot most hinged, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, certified their results in Joe Biden’s favour and not his. But while the election exposed key areas where American democracy is failing, it also highlighted structural features that make national elections in the U.S. hard to steal, no matter how determined the would-be despot is, or how complicit his party colleagues are. Although there is no such thing as a perfect democratic government, one may be tempted to ask if Nigeria as a country should not borrow a leaf from the operation of American democracy. Nigeria should emulate the last U.S. presidential election as a thermometer to measure its aftermath and how the ruckus generated thereby was carefully handled.
(To be continued)