It is sad, if not tragic, both for President Barack Obama and the United States, that what ordinarily should be the most enduring legacy of the last eight years—that of inclusiveness—has been blighted by the election of a successor who represents the exact antithesis. The choice of Mr. Donald Trump as the next president of the United States is a repudiation of the primacy of ideas in the contestation for power in perhaps the most advanced democracy in the world. It is also a rejection of the notion that personal character matters for those who seek the oval office.
Two contrasting jokes I received from Nigeria yesterday capture the essence of Tuesday’s election in the United States. One says, “America’s worst nightmare used to be 9/11, now it is 11/9” while the other says, “Jevovah El-Trump, the God who uses a man with no knowledge or experience to rule over all the experts of the world.” Taken together, those two jokes tell a compelling story not only about the America of today but also about the state of global politics.
For sure, there are uncertain days ahead, especially when Trump, according to David Remnick, the editor of ‘The New Yorker’, was not elected “on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law”. He was elected, “in the main, on a platform of resentment. Fascism is not our future—it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin,” Remnick wrote in his piece yesterday titled “An American Tragedy”. But the most important question now is: Why did all those issues that would ordinarily bury the career of any politician not matter to the vast majority of American voters?
That is the question to interrogate in Nigeria. And if we must learn any useful lesson, we have to look beyond the issue of racial distemper that dogged the campaigns to the challenge of economic disempowerment by those Americans who believe the system has left them behind. By raging against the political establishment (for being corrupt and insensitive) and immigrants (for taking the jobs that should go to the ordinary citizens) Trump became the champion of the white working-class voters to whom he promised the mythical Eldorado.
I am sure many books will be written about what just happened and several theories will be propounded, including about the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But at this moment, they should be of less concern to us in Nigeria. What is important is to see what lessons we can draw from how a very divisive figure without any political structure, and with publicly known character flaws, was able to mobilize (and manipulate) street anger to wangle his way to the biggest political office in the world.
Indeed, while race played a key role in the election, it would be unfair to dub all the people who voted for Trump as racists. There were also many who simply voted against a system that had for long been skewed against them; people who believed they had nothing to lose by gambling their votes on a man considered most unworthy for the office. In fact, many of them were carried away by his grandiose but vague promises that offered little substance. The lesson here is that when you leave crucial decisions to the mob, especially on matters concerning their welfare, reason is usually the first casualty.
Therefore, that the American followers of Trump were able to use a constitutional order to effect a change that may not necessarily be in their long-term interest, or for that matter that of their country, should worry the authorities in Nigeria, given the rising tide of a population that can no longer meet basic needs of existence. In our present circumstance, if the push comes to shove, a revolt of such nature against the political establishment might not necessarily come from the ballot box and that is where the danger lies.
A report by Bloomberg on Tuesday put the latest estimate of our country’s population at 182 million with more than half of that figure under 30 years of age. Mr Ghaji Bello, director general of the National Population Commission, said Nigeria is witnessing a growing youth bulge, with those under 14 years accounting for more than 40 percent of the population. “The implication is that they’re assets but they are also liabilities,” Bello said before he added: “We need to know how to plan for their transition from youths to the next category. It has implications for education, health and security, particularly in our environment where you have a lot of unemployment.”
That is as much a strong message as the one from the American presidential election which in itself conforms to what is now a global trend. As I stated in my column of last week, “Politics in the age of Trump”, what we are witnessing is the rise of populist movements led by people who simply prey on the weaknesses of the establishment while exploiting the gullibility of vulnerable voters to rise to power on the back of lies, bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance.
In this new age, the enduring lesson is for us in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, to begin to address the issues that compel many of our young people to embark on desperate (and dangerous) journeys to Europe and America where they are now no longer assured of any future nor are even welcome. Indeed, anybody who is still not wise to the fact that the world has changed is under a great illusion and I have a personal story to prove that.
My current trip to the United States was to have been through Canada where I planned to spend a few days with my friend, Pius Adesanmi. But despite that my passport contains visas to so many countries, including a two-year Canadian visa that expired only a few months ago, I was deemed to be running away from the economic misery in Nigeria. It was the first time in my life that I was denied a visa to any country, essentially because I refused to succumb to the “conventional wisdom” of padding my meager bank balance with any borrowed money to convey the impression that I had enough money not to run away.
While I chose not to make any point of the visa denial, afterall, it is their country; in sharing my experience with Pius, a Professor and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa – the only Institute of African Studies in any Canadian University – I learnt more about what others have been going through. It turns out that Pius himself has been at the receiving end of Canada’s horrendous visa practices across Africa in general and Nigeria in particular because the Institute he heads requires that he extends constant invitations to eminent African scholars and thinkers.
From Vice Chancellors to renowned professors and other players in the administration of Nigerian Universities, the Canadian embassy in Nigeria has been denying visas to many of our citizens, ostensibly on grounds that such people may not want to come back home. Pius contends that the expectation had been that with a new liberal government in Ottawa, Canada’s engagement of Africa was going to improve but Global Affairs Canada (that country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry) seems determined to turn their embassies across the continent into outposts for the most vicious and condescending visa practice that is rooted in a racist viewpoint that every African, no matter his/her station in life, is a potential burden on Canada.
With the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election, I will not be surprised if American visa policies also change across the continent; in continuation of the hurricane that is also spreading through Europe where multiculturalism is under serious threat. As things stand, people with the colour of my skin, especially those coming from Africa, may now be seen as potential immigrants and refugees.
Welcome to the age of Trump!
Olanihun Ajayi (1925 to 2016)
When I learnt last Friday that Sir Olaniwun Ajayi was no more, I felt both a deep sense of loss and personal guilt. The loss, as a result of the fact that I had known and admired the old man for more than two decades; the guilt because he gave me an “assignment” I never got round to completing in his lifetime. I will get to that shortly.
The late Ajayi was part of the Afenifere triad who, at some point in our history, were dubbed “Ijebu Mafia”; with the only surviving member now being Chief Ayo Adebanjo, with the death in 2008 of Senator Abraham Adesanya.
My relationship with the trio dates back to the nineties when, following the arrest of my guardian, Chief Cornelius Adebayo by the late General Sani Abacha regime, I was always with them at the residence of Chief Alfred Rewane, now also of blessed memory; for what was a daily evening political rendezvous, over cups of tea as they discussed Nigeria and what might have been.
As disciples of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the old men shared many things in common and I learnt a lot from their interactions aside the fact that Rewane was a very generous man who almost always had something for his “Pikin” as he addressed me and many others. I can also remember very vividly that one issue that dominated their discussions was “restructuring of Nigeria”.
Even though I was a young reporter at the period, I still have vague recollections that their concerns about our country were driven not only by the reality at the time but also by their own experiences which were largely different from mine and that of members of my generation. Notwithstanding, I took mental notes of most of their arguments, despite the fact that I do not share in their prejudices which, as I stated earlier, arose out of their personal experiences at a time I was not even born.
While I have sustained my relationship with Adebanjo for more than two decades, helped more by the fact that his son, Segun, and I were undergraduates at Ife at the same period, it was not until two years ago that I started getting close to the late Ajayi, after the publication of my column titled, “Another Organised Waste of Time”. It was a riposte to the conception of a national conference by President Goodluck Jonathan who had earlier dismissed the idea.
That day, I got a call from the late Ajayi and we spoke for a long time. Well, perhaps I should put that more correctly: I was lectured for a long time on what he argued as the imperative of the then proposed conference for the future of Nigeria. We ended the conversation with him pleading with me not to dismiss the idea which, as I would later find out, actually emanated from them and some other Yoruba leaders as a precondition for supporting Jonathan’s aspiration for a second term.
In the course of the conference, I visited Adebanjo and the late Ajayi and we had interactions that were not different from the ones we had in the past. While I could not fault their logic, my point of departure was, and remains, that Nigeria is not working for any particular ethnic group today while the notion that some politicians or leaders from a section of the country should be blamed for the collective failure to maximize our potentials cannot be supported by any empirical evidence. Nor do I believe “going our separate ways” as some people advocate, whatever that may mean under our current circumstance, holds any solution to the challenge of good governance in Nigeria.
However, while we may have disagreed on certain principles, it is difficult to dispute that the Afenifere leaders were always driven by a sense of what is right for our country. That perhaps explains why they remain fixated on returning to the system inherited at independence which allowed the regions as federating units to conduct their affairs according to their own dictates, including in revenue collections and expenditure, while engaging in healthy competition with one another. That a disproportionate amount of revenue is collected by the federal government under an arrangement that encourages corruption and laziness, in the wisdom of the Afenifere leaders, makes the current system unsustainable.
Early this year, the late Ajayi sent me the book, “Nigeria: Political Power Imbalance”, which he authored. A few weeks later, he called to ask whether I had read it so I could give him my views. I apologized that I had not read the book but nonetheless promised him that I would. After our conversation, I searched for the copy but could not immediately find it and I forgot about the book until I learnt about his death last week. Reading the book must therefore be my first assignment when I return to Nigeria.
What I have always found very fascinating about the Yoruba old men is their passion and commitment towards a Nigeria that would work for the greater majority of our people as it was in the past before the military foisted on us a federalism that now breeds not only needless tension but has also stifled the march towards development. Even when one did not agree with them, and I have serious issues with their positions, you cannot but respect their tenacity of purpose and genuine aspiration for the enthronement of an egalitarian Nigerian society.
I know there will be opportunities in future to engage the issue of restructuring within the context of the late Ajayi’s enduring thesis but in him we have lost a committed patriot, a true statesman and one of the leading lights of Yoruba nation whose species is gradually going into extinction.
May God grant egbon Koyinsola, SAN, and the entire members of his family the fortitude to bear the great loss.