By Olusegun Adeniyi
Succession does not come easy for despots. Which is why elections under their watch are most often conducted as a mere formality to validate assured ‘victory’ – regardless of how the people exercise their franchise. The President of the United States, Mr Donald Trump, was not supposed to be a despot. But by proceeding from electoral defeat to the incitement of mobs, he behaved like one. In the process, Trump has inflicted damage on the image of his country that will take years to repair.
Given what transpired yesterday in Congress, Trump will also go down in history as the only twice-impeached president. This appears a strategic move by Democrats and a number of Republicans to ensure he is ineligible to contest again in 2024 as his rhetoric suggests he might. His removal from office will of course depend on his conviction by the Senate. That trial is now expected to happen after he will have left office since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday that he will not reconvene the chamber for an emergency session on impeachment proceedings. But it is nonetheless humiliating for the embattled president that ranking Republican House members, including Liz Cheney, yesterday aligned with Democratic members to endorse his impeachment. “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack”, said Cheney, Chair of the House Republican Conference and eldest daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “Everything that followed was his doing.”
The ugly drama started last week Wednesday, when thousands of Trump supporters, some of them heavily armed, invaded the Capitol building in Washington DC in a futile bid to halt legislative proceedings meant to officially ratify former Vice President Joe Biden as president-elect. No fewer than five deaths—including that of a policeman trying to restore order—were recorded. Scores of others were wounded in what has been described as a premeditated “assault on the sacred heart of US democracy.” For his refusal to join the delusional campaign that Trump won the election, there were also shouts of “hang him from a tree” from the mob in reference to Vice President Mike Pence and a noose was found hanging outside the Capitol building.
Before the 3rd November 2020 presidential election, Trump had made it very clear that losing was not an option for him. His actions and utterances since his defeat are a fitting climax to this ‘end justifies the means’ approach to politics. In words and deeds, Trump has jeopardized not only trust in democracy and the rule of law but also the moral authority that has for decades factored ‘Washington’ into the calculation of principal actors at every election cycle in numerous countries, most especially in Africa.
The invasion of Congress by those seeking to overturn the choice of the American electorate has validated fears around the world that four more years of Trump in the White House would imperil global stability. A prolongation of his tenure into a second term would also endanger American domestic peace. Already, the ease with which the rioters breached security at the Capitol building and vandalised congressional offices, including that of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has raised allegations of double standards within the security apparatus. “If it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting” according to Biden, “they would have been treated very, very differently than a mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”
As president, Trump has stoked hate and division in his country and nobody is too high or low for his name calling: ‘Crooked Hillary’ (Clinton), ‘Sleepy Creepy Joe’ (Biden), ‘Phony Kamala’ (Harris), ‘Nasty Nancy’ (Pelosi), ‘Lying Ted’ (Cruz), ‘Sneaky (Dianne) Feinstein’, ‘Wacky and Deranged Omarosa’ (Newman), ‘Fat Jerry’ (Nadler), ‘Foul Mouthed (Ilhan) Omar’, ‘Crazy Arnold’ (Schwarzenegger), ‘Fake Jake’ (Tapper) etc. are some of his characterizations of those with whom he disagrees politically.
Although it is convenient to mock the US for the misfortune of having such a man lacking in basic decency as president (as many are currently doing), it is also important for us to take appropriate lessons from the events of recent weeks. Last Thursday, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted: “Yesterday’s events showed that the US has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.” That is becoming the dominant view across the continent, especially by dictators who want to hide under what happened at the Capitol to justify the manner they trample on the rights of their citizens. We should not allow them. Despite Trump’s desperation and machinations, the enduring lesson remains that the president of the United States can still be held accountable through institutional checks and balances.
In all the gloating statements from the continent, I find that of Floribert Anzuluni, the co-ordinator of DR Congo opposition movement FILIMBI, instructive. “What happened reminds us that human nature, regardless of colour or origin, needs safeguards, education, strong institutions, responsible leadership, to restrain its basic instincts,” he said. This provides a more productive reading of the situation. That American institutions stood firm as a bulwark against the excesses of Trump should not be lost in this conversation. Were he to be the leader of some other countries, Trump would be preparing for his second term inauguration by now—regardless of how the vote count went.
I was in the United States during the election. On the night of 3rd November 2020, Ms Jackie Farris (Director General of the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation) and I were at the residence of Mr Bayo Oyewole, Chief Executive Officer, BayZx Global Strategic Solutions and a retired senior official at the World Bank, just outside Washington DC, to monitor results. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant night for the two Democratic supporters. Leading in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three Democratic states he had flipped in 2016, Trump declared himself the winner despite the fact that most of the mail-in ballots and that of early voting were yet to be counted. He even tweeted ‘Stop the Count!’ until he was reminded of the implication and changed it to ‘Stop the steal’. Still, nobody paid attention to him in any of the states.
Now, let us imagine the president of an African country making such a declaration in the middle of an election. The police and other security agencies would have moved in immediately to abruptly end the process. Even in Asia or Latin America, there are few countries where such a desperate presidential call would not have been enforced. So, while Trump played Trump, the American system stood up to him. When that gambit failed and it became clear he had lost the election, Trump initiated a deluge of law suits. And this was, literally and figuratively, to be the ultimate Trump card! He often boasted about the courts. And he had reason to: Very few American presidents in history have nominated more appointees to the bench than Trump.
To date, his judicial appointments include three Justices of the US Supreme Court, 54 judges for the US Courts of Appeal, 174 US District Court judges, three judges of the US court for International Trade, 10 judges for the Court of Federal Claims, seven judges for the Tax Court, six judges for the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims, two judges for the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and one judge for the Court of Military Commission Review. None of them proved to be of value to Trump. In dismissing one of his numerous law suits as lacking merit at the Pennsylvania-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Stephanos Bibas, (a former professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania elevated to the bench in 2017 by Trump) stated on 27th November 2020: “Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
Trump played his final judicial joker with the lawsuit filed by Texas against four states he lost and whose results he was seeking to overturn: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. For a man whose life revolves around quid pro quo, Trump saw no reason why those he helped to the highest judicial positions in the country would rule against him. When pushing for Amy Coney Barret to be quickly confirmed to the Supreme Court by the Senate last year, Trump had specifically stated that she would be needed for any post-election lawsuits. In the end, Barret joined the majority to dismiss Trump’s suit on the technical ground that Texas “has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections.”
Unable to conceal his displeasure, Trump tweeted that the Supreme Court decision was “a legal disgrace, an embarrassment to the USA!!!” A few hours later, he posted another tweet: “a great and disgraceful miscarriage of justice. The people of the United States were cheated, and our Country disgraced. Never even given our day in Court!” In how many countries on the continent would the judiciary exhibit such independence given a similar scenario?
Trump of course did not put all his eggs in the judicial basket. When he realised Michigan had flipped in favour of Biden, he sought the intervention of the Republican-controlled legislature by inviting their leaders to the White House. That gambit also failed. “We will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (a Republican) and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (also a Republican) said in a joint statement after their meeting with Trump. We can hazard a guess as to what would have happened on the continent after such a meeting between a sitting president and the leadership of a state legislature controlled by his party.
Following that abortive effort, Trump turned his attention to the executive in one of the states he lost. In an hour-long phone conversation with the Georgia secretary of state and fellow Republican, Brad Raffensperger, Trump was direct about his request: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state…The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry…And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you’ve recalculated…” And to this, Raffensperger responded: “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”
Can you imagine such effrontery from a local state official?!
When his pardoned former National Security Advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn flew a kite that Trump could impose martial law and deploy the military to re-run the election, he was invited to the White House by the president to hear more about this formula. You don’t even need to remind military leaders on the continent that their main job is regime protection.
But the Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville responded with a joint statement that, “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
Checkmated at every point, Trump and his mob remained undeterred. But after their madness in Washington, Congress reconvened to put a final nail in the political coffin of the president who will leave office next Wednesday whether he likes it or not. On Tuesday, the entire American Joint Chiefs of Staff (the eight most senior military officers in the country led by General Mark Milley) signed what was considered an extraordinary joint statement in which they condemned the violent invasion of the US Capitol as “sedition and insurrection” before concluding: “On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief.”
Perhaps to further rub salt in his injury, tech giants have also dealt heavy blows to the ‘most powerful man in the world’.
Twitter was the first to de-platform Trump (who actually helped to grow their brand) before Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitch followed and YouTube removed many of his videos. To cap it all, Parler, the app where the majority of his supporters are now camped, was yanked off by Amazon Web Services (AWS). “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS (president of the United States) loudspeaker without checks and balances is perplexing”, said the European Union (EU) Commissioner, Thiery Breton who has joined other world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to express genuine concern about the implications of what these business moguls are doing to Trump. But the import should not be lost on us: There are enough power centres (public and private) in the United States to deal with any emerging dictatorship. Can we say the same of Nigeria or for that matter any other country in Africa?
Yes, it is true that the overwhelmingly white Trump mob breached national security at the Capitol and further exposed contradictions within the American society. At the same time, they damaged their country’s global brand. Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential aspirant and Philip H. Gordon, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, wrote in their joint article for Foreign Policy magazine in July last year, “Trump has abandoned multiple treaties and agreements, undermined the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees, bullied and belittled allies, and cozied up to dictators who threaten those allies and the United States” with the result that he will now be bequeathing “a world in which the United States is less safe, less respected, and less able to deal with the enormous challenges it faces: climate change, pandemics, refugees, cyberattacks, election interference, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, modern technology, and the rise of China.”
For those who read their scripts upside down, the foregoing is not PR for America. What I am saying is that it is not our business to take Augmentin for their Covid-19. That is Biden’s problem now. What should pre-occupy us on the continent are the lessons we can take from Trump’s failed attempt to use unconstitutional means to hold on to power and the pushback he got from the system. It is especially important in a year that no fewer than 21 African countries will be holding national elections. Ten of those 2021 elections include presidential. It begins today in Uganda where the incumbent Yoweri Museveni—who has been in power since 1986—is seeking re-election for the seventh time. Museveni of course will play Trump and we all know what the outcome will be!
There is no system that is entirely foolproof from the subversion of any leader who is bent on imposing his warped values. But as we have also seen from the example of Trump, where the institutions are strong and there are enough good people to challenge the excesses of such leaders and their enablers, the rule of law will prevail. Rather than mock America over the mob attack at the Capitol, I would rather we learn from the experience. No matter how badly battered and shaken by Trump’s excesses, there is evidence that America’s democratic institutions have held through this crisis. Is our own system resilient enough to withstand such autocratic pressure?
I leave readers to ponder over that JAMB question!
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