Elected Leaders as Personae non Grata or Dictatorship as Democracy: US, Venezuela and Nigeria?

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President Muhammadu Buhari

Contemporary international relations is witnessing a new phenomenon in which an election does not mean an expression of popular will any longer and in which democracy is increasingly predicated on dictatorship. In other words, we should not only be talking about dictatorial democracy, but also about democracy as an objective, as a means, and as a system of government.

Democracy as a form of government is not the main concern here. It is democracy as a means to a non-democratic purpose that is the issue, simply because the general preoccupation of the international community is how to maintain global peace and security. In fact, it is for this reason that the League of Nations was first established at the end of World War I. It is also for the same reason that the United Nations was put in place at the end of World War II.

The putting in place has not stopped the emergence of new crises and conflicts. What is true is that there has not been new inter-state conflict since 1945 but intra-state conflicts, which have replaced international wars and which have not been serious enough to generate a new World War. However, these intra-state conflicts, most unfortunately, are now beginning to impact considerably on international politics in such a way that international peace and security is threatened.

In an attempt to ensure global security for all, some notable steps have been taken: the Third World scholars came up with a re-conception of security. Security is no longer defined from the perspective of military or state security only. It is now defined in terms of human security, especially security of the stomach, healthcare, education, and social facilities.
A second step is the equation of democracy and development as two sides of the same coin, that is, democracy and development cannot but go pari passu. It all began with the 3-day Franco-African Summit, held in 1990 in La Baule, France, where the grant of development aid to any developing country in Africa was first subjected to democratisation. As noted by Alan Riding in his article, entitled “France Ties the Africa Aid to Democracy,” and published in the New York Times, on June 22, 1990, François Mitterrand, then French President, made it clear that French assistance would flow ‘more enthusiastically” to countries where democracy is adopted as a system of government.

In the words of Mitterrand and in defence of Africa, ‘aid to the Third World cannot rely only on the French contribution… France alone is not in a position to stop the current decline. What is needed is a worldwide effort.’ Apart from the promise of the French president to donate, rather than give loans, to the 35 poorest countries, including 22 of them in sub-Saharan Africa and the pledge to reduce the interest paid on French loans by four African countries from 10% to 5%, Mitterrand also had it that ‘we must talk about democracy… You should not consider freedom to be hidden enemy. It will be … your best friend.’

Perhaps most importantly, he explained that France did not intend to impose any constitutional models on anyone because of differences in civilisations, habits, traditions and structures. However, he argued that his understanding of democracy could not but include free elections, multiparty systems, press freedom and an independent judiciary. This observation is quite apt here. The definitional parameters, apparently, do not include interference or intervention in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states. Democracy exists the moment there are elections that are adjudged free, when there is a free press and when there is separation of powers, particularly in terms of independence of the judiciary.

It is on this very definitional basis of democracy that our topic in this column has been much inspired. In other words, how do we understand an elected leader as a persona non grata? The moment an individual is freely elected, and the election is also adjudged as fair and credible, the individual necessarily enjoys legitimacy. The individual is believed to have popular support and therefore he or she is wanted.

When we talk about personae non grata, we are simply talking about unwanted people or ungrateful persons. Why are personae non grata voted for ab initio? Why should they be voted for only to be declared personae non grata thereafter? Who determines when an elected or desired leader should become unwanted? It is at this juncture that dictatorial democracy also becomes another issue.

Without doubt, democracy is essentially about freedom, subject to the observance of rule of law. The problem, however, is that the pursuit of democracy and freedom in international relations, and particularly in national political governance, is often done in a manu militari fashion. In Nigeria, for instance, there is no disputing the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari has been fighting corruption tooth and nail. However, there is also no disputing the fact that the tooth and nail fight has been corrupt. The objective is holy. The path to such holiness is unholy. President Buhari has only been fighting corruption with corrupt means, more forcefully than respecting the rule of law. In fact, unwanted people are now more elected in Nigeria and dictatorship is increasingly now presented as democracy. The same is true in Venezuela and the US. This is most unfortunate.

Challenges of Dictatorial Democracy
Dictatorial democracy in the Context of Venezuela, for instance, is quite interesting and clearly reflects how the Western powers preach the gospel of democracy to others while they, at the same time, act in the protection of their national interests undemocratically. Let us look at the political imbroglio in Venezuela and how democracy is undermined in the country by international politics.

The imbroglio is simply the conflict between perceptions of election rigging and bad governance, on the one hand, and political dictatorship and election boycott, on the other. The perception of election rigging dates back to April 2013 when the incumbent president, Nicolás Maduro was elected for six years with only 1.6% points majority. He succeeded Hugo Chávez, his mentor, on the basis of 51% to 49%. In the eyes of the opposition, this margin was not good enough. Had his mentor rigged the election in his favour?

A second problematic perception is the belief that the re-election of Nicolás Maduro in May 2018 was again illegitimate. Many opposition parties could not participate in the elections for various reasons. Some were barred. Some fled because of Maduro’s draconian rule and fear of incarceration. At the end of it, most opposition parties boycotted the elections and the National Assembly refused to recognise the election.
Another problem is the tenure of election of Nicolás Maduro. His governance was largely characterised by power outages, poor medical care, hyperinflation, poverty of ideas and economic poverty. Consequently, when Maduro was re-elected, he made it clear that he would first complete his first tenure, ending on January 10, 2019 after which the swearing in ceremony for the new six-year term would take place.

And true, on January 10, 2019 he was duly sworn in but the 35-year old opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, protested against it on January 23, 2019 by declaring himself the Acting President of Venezuela on the basis of Sections 233 and 333 of the country’s Constitution. In the eyes of Guaidó, Maduro is a ‘usurper’, and therefore, the seat of the President is vacant. According to the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Article 233 stipulates that ‘when the president-elect is absolutely absent before taking office, a new election shall take place… And while the president is elected and takes office, the interim president shall be the President of the National Assembly’ Article 333 says that the Constitution shall not lose validity if it ceases to be observed by an act of force or its repeal.’ But what do we make of these constitutional provisions? Answers to these questions bring us to the analysis of other issues involved.

The first is Guaidó’s self-declaration as acting President of Venezuela. What is responsible for the declaration? Is the declaration legally tenable? What does the Constitution mean by absolute absence before taking office? In which way can it be argued that the incumbent president is absolutely absent before taking office, in such a way as to have justified Guaidó’s self-declaration as acting President? True, Guaidó is not only the head of the opposition parties, he is also the President of the National Assembly by default.

One Venezuelan constitutional lawyer and vice president of the Accion Democratica (Democratic Action), an opposition party, Mr. Antonio Ecarri, has observed that there is absence because ‘the absence is due to the usurpation of the presidential office, which has left the position empty.’ Additionally, it is argued that ‘the previous Assembly (Chavista), violated the entire legal process for the appointment of Supreme Court justices. The majority of these magistrates were arbitrarily elected, do not meet the requirements and were appointed outside the period established by law.’

In fact, there is also the issue of establishment of a constituent assembly put in place by Maduro in 2015, considered as illegitimate, which in 2018 called for elections by ‘advancing the date and vetoing all opposition leaders and parties.’ Maduro’s own swearing-in is said to have taken place ‘in the main offices of the Supreme Court of Justice even though the constitution dictates that it must take place in National Assembly.’
In the face of the unconstitutional swearing-in, Antonio Ecarri submitted further that Juan Guaidó ‘did not proclaim himself interim President of Venezuela, he was proclaimed president of the Assembly, and it’s because of this that he assumes the role of President of the Republic until elections are called, as stated in the 1999 Constitution.’

The most critical issue is the political lull now created for the international community to contend with. Maduro has considered Guaidó’s self-appointed President of Venezuela a coup against the State, the consequences of which may not be funny. Besides, Maduro is currently enjoying the support of the judiciary, the military, the electoral commission, as well as the support of some big powers like Russia and China. On the other side, Guaidó is backed by the United States, France, United Kingdom, and Israel. Within Venezuela, Maduro has supporters and opponents. The issue now is that Venezuela is telling the whole world that the United States is preparing for another Vietnam, meaning that the world may be heading towards the first interstate war, and possibly towards an intercontinental war. With the current developments, a new Cold War is in the making and Venezuela is most likely to be the first theatre of application if it begins with a hot or shooting war.

International Politics Dimensions
The international politicisation of the Venezuelan crisis raises not only the conflict between being elected as a desired candidate and also being declared unwanted during the tenure. Related to this is the question of acceptable performance of the elected leader. Perhaps most critical is the issue of the mania of election, which is alleged rigging. Many world leaders are elected, thanks to rigging in all its ramifications.

In the specific case of Nicolás Maduro, was he not elected? If he was, why should he be removed before the end of his tenure? Bad governance can be valid a reason but why not sanction him during the polls? If Maduro made life difficult for the opposition elements, what did the international community do by then? If Maduro rigged elections, what is the position of international law and the United Nations on the matter? Why is the international community leaving the responsibility to few willing states to intervene? Venezuela is now a subject of international politics, the future of which no one can, with certainty, predict and the new alliances of which may not follow the old pattern.

What is certain is that current relationship between Venezuela and the United States has not always been good politically, even though Venezuela established diplomatic ties with the United States as far back as 1835. In fact, Vennezuela is currently the fifth largest oil supplier to the US. But this does not prevent or stop the irritants in the relationship.

For instance, in 2002, Venezuela accused President George W. Bush of the United States of having aided and abetted the failed coup against the socialist President, Hugo Chavez. Again in September 2008, Venezuela expelled US ambassador in solidarity with Bolivia, following the allegation of engagement with anti-government groups levied against the US ambassador. In February 2014, the Caracas authorities declared three American diplomats persons non grata allegedly for promoting violence in the country.

This development may be explained and understood against the background of the April 2013 election in which Maduro won with 262,000 votes out of 15 million votes cast. When the opposition parties complained about irregularities of the election, US President, by then, Barak Obama, requested for the recount of the votes but nothing was done. Maduro then described Obama as ‘the grand chief of all devils’ for refusing to recognise his election victory.

Another factor is that Venezuela nourishes close rapports with the arch enemies of the United States: Cuba and Iran, considered as state sponsors of terrorism. According to Michael Hernandez of the Truman National Security Project, the Trumancenter.org, ‘Maduro thrives on having an “imperial” enemy like the United States. He isn’t interested in fostering a good relationship with the US because he is ideologically opposed to what it stands for: democratic governance, free market economies, and personal liberties. Maduro, like Chávez and Castro, needs and wants the US as an adversary.’
Put differently, it is being suggested that the United States needs to strengthen ties with Latin America but Venezuela remains a stumbling block, especially that most Latin American countries benefit from Venezuelan largesse and economic cooperation with them. It is therefore difficult to mobilise other Latin American countries against Venezuela. The situation is not helped by Maduro’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with the United States on January 23, 2019. He recalled the 75 Venezuelan diplomats in the US, but backtracked three days after. The backtracking appeared to have been as a result of force majeure: the US government refused to withdraw its diplomats because of the non-recognition of Maduro as incumbent leader of Venezuela. Besides, Guaidó has told the US embassy to stay put.

As at today, both countries are preparing for the worst scenarios. The United States has made it clear that Maduro must be removed and that Guaidó is the only recognised leader of Venezuela which Maduro and his supporters have also vehemently opposed. France’s Emmanuel Macron welcomed ‘the courage of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who march for their freedom.’ Russia and China as great powers, and Cuba, Mexico and Bolivia as regional neighbours, are supporting Maduro.
The European Union asked Maduro to ensure the protection of Guaidó’s ‘civil rights, freedom and safety, ‘and to note that ‘the people of Venezuela have called for democracy and the possibility to freely determine their own destiny. These voices cannot be ignored.’ In which way is the current development in Venezuela an issue for Nigeria?

In both cases of Venezuela and the United States, it is clear that there is use of force to ensure democracy. Without iota of gainsaying, elected leaders often use force to stay in power which is not democratic. When the people who voted them in do not want them again, they too also disregard the rule of law in changing the power equations. Guaidó’s purported presidency is manu militari. Even in the context of democracy as a system of government, it is still characterised by dictatorship. Spain has never been favourably disposed to the independence of the Catalans. The Dakarois authorities never allowed the Casamance Province to secede in Senegal. The Cameroonian government is permanently engaged in a dog-fight battle with Anglophone Cameroon which wants autonomy. Thus, democracy is always a battle, be it as an objective or instrument. The interesting point to note is that whichever one is at stake, necessarily serves as a basis of foreign intervention and this is where Nigeria must learn how to thread softly in the context of the 2019 elections.

Without doubt, Nigeria under President Buhari has been witnessing the militarisation of democracy, and especially firstly subjecting the rule of law to protection of national security interest. The most important dynamic of political governance is rule of law but it is made secondary under President Buhari.

And perhaps most disturbingly, every political step taken by President Buhari necessarily generates electoral controversy always. The general impression people have about the 2019 elections is that they will never be fair credible. Consequently, people are already preparing for the worst scenarios. The international community has already been advising against violence, which appears inevitable in light of the ruling party’s order and the opposition parties’ counter order, the outcome of which cannot but be disorder.
Consequently, the major challenge for the international community is how to remove the irritant in the relationship between an elected leader and his constituency, on the one hand, and how not to manipulate constitutional provisions for sit-tight politics. It is by so doing that non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states can be controlled meaningfully.