“Pray for America! We need it over here!!”
I woke up this morning to read this cryptic text from William Thomas III, my American friend and a financial expert based in Washington DC.
William, like most well educated Americans, are still dumbfounded by the events unfolding in America following President Donald Trump’s continued refusal to concede an election concluded several weeks ago, even after losing dozens of legal challenges to its validity. Mr. Trump has resorted to extrajudicial means to undermine the election with a view to remaining in office. The latest assault on the American constitutional order was to incite and encourage a mob of ill-informed supporters to invade the Capitol, America’s seat of legislative authority, on January 6. While Vice-President Mike Pence and the joint session of the United States Parliament gathered to perform a largely ceremonial exercise of affirming the electoral returns from the states and confirm the outcome of an election already litigated to the United States Supreme Court and affirmed, Trump’s thugs invaded the Capitol and for several hours held the Vice-President and the entire parliamentarians in the building hostage until they were rescued and evacuated. Some had to hide behind the door and under the table. The office of the speaker was breached and a protester even posed for a photograph sitting in the speaker’s seat.
These horrific images were beamed live to a stunned global audience who prior to this show believed that America’s democracy was airtight and a coup could not be possible in America. The truth is that democracy is fragile and can be subverted anywhere, if the people are not vigilant. This development is very important for us in Nigeria and other countries struggling to nurture a democratic culture and build institutions that can withstand, like America, the dictatorial tendencies of politicians who would find their way from time to time to the seat of power. There is no doubt that, if someone like Trump had been elected in a place like Nigeria, there is no way he would have left office until death parts him from the seat. Imagine for one second that President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, had refused to concede the election, citing election fraud and massive rigging, and these were credible and widespread, where would Nigeria be today? Probably in the sixth year of a gruelling civil war. So, it matters what manner of men and women are allowed access to power because the consequence of their actions or inactions can be profound and devastating. In the end, America will return to normalcy and course correct. Lessons will be learnt, new legislations proposed to plug loopholes and strengthen their union. However, I believe that these events in America provide a mirror for us in Nigeria, and indeed Africa, to look once more at our efforts at democracy and nation building. John Campbell, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, in his new book “Nigeria and the Nation State – Rethinking Diplomacy with the Post-colonial World” described Nigeria as “a prebendal archipelago, but with an ever-weaker central government, ever-stronger subnational institutions (states) and exacerbated by poor political leadership,” P214.
He goes further to predict our future. “It is unlikely that Nigeria can continue to function much as it has in the recent past, and at present the outlook is dark.” This perception of Nigeria can easily be dismissed as the usual view expressed by Washington’s diplomats over the years and, given the events in America today, may lead to the temptation of equating our experience with the recent events in America. That would be a mistake, a false equivalence. America survived the Trump assault on its democracy because of its strong institutions and value-orientated leadership. Nigeria survived the 2015 transition due to the humility and patriotism of one man: Goodluck Jonathan.
Nevertheless, there are takeaways from the recent events in America and I categorize them as follows:
1. We should step up our investment in democracy and its institutions. Democracy is still the only option for good government and it will always be work in progress. It never grows to maturity. So, civic vigilance and awareness is critical to its sustenance. In our case, we will do well to focus our efforts at changing the system through civic actions aimed at incremental changes. In this regard, the strengthening of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the judiciary should be a priority. The total liberation of INEC and the judicial system from the control and manipulation of the executive arm will be the only path to genuine democracy in Nigeria. When votes begin to count and the credibility of our electoral process is respected, true democracy that will usher in a government that is in fact and indeed accountable to the people will emerge.
2. The legislature is critical to good governance. The current incestuous relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government is at the root of all institutional corruption in Nigeria. There is nothing unusual for the same party to control the executive and legislative arms of government in a democracy. However, when the idea of this control is for the legislature to surrender itself to the executive as its operational arm, as we have seen in Nigeria since 1999, a culture of personal loyalty to the President emerges and the result is the sabotage of the very essence of the separation of powers, a key component of democracy. The entire resources expended on the legislative arm becomes a waste, since the President might as well govern without them. Consultants can be hired to draft laws, which will be less expensive to the country than the maintenance of a largely ceremonial assembly. It is the legislature that saved American democracy by standing up to an erratic and unhinged President. The Nigerian legislature cannot stand by the people in times of crisis and lacks the institutional freedom to function as a separate arm of government envisioned by our Constitution. Therefore, party affiliations and monetary considerations must be put in their place before our legislature can become truly independent.
3. An independent judiciary is non-negotiable for the sustenance of democracy. The beauty of the American system was on full display during this political crisis. Most of the baseless suits brought by Trump and his campaign to overturn the outcome of the election were before federal judges appointed by Trump. These judges stood by the sacred oaths of office they took and did the right thing, up to the Supreme Court dominated hugely by Republicans. They did not ask Trump for his opinion or consult with “stakeholders” for direction before doing their jobs. A country where judges of the apex court of the land deliver judgments based on directives from the executive arm or financial and political rewards is doomed to remain a failed state. No wonder John Campbell rightly describes Nigeria as “a prebendal archipelago,” stopping short of calling us a failed state. However, the events in America are also a reminder that we are not finished yet. We can still reverse our course and begin the arduous task of building a nation state, which was the vision of our founding fathers. If America, with nearly 250 years of democracy under its belt, can experience these undemocratic tremors, we can still deal with our “earthquakes” and rebuild a country our children and grandchildren will inherit and be proud of.
•Odom, a lawyer and former FCT Minister of State, writes from Abuja