Obama: What American democracy offers Nigeria

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THE re-election of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, for another term of four years last Tuesday, calls for both celebration and sober reflection. For many Americans and positive-minded people around the world, Obama’s return to the White House debunks the view of some people that his election four years ago was a fluke. For us in Nigeria, it is time to engage in serious thinking about our own political system and see what lessons we can learn from the American example. 

No doubt, Americans guard their independence and democracy jealously. This was reflected in every aspect of this last election. For instance, the Democrats and Republicans selected their standard-bearers without any “godfather” breathing down their necks; without anybody making frivolous demands because they gave the candidates huge sums of money. We are all familiar with the Nigerian system that encourages some persons labelled “godfather” to singlehandedly select candidates for elections.

Unfortunately, some Nigerians continue to rationalise the failure of our political system by saying that our democracy is still young while America’s is old. On the contrary, Americans got their political system right from inception. And since their Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Constitution has been changed 18 times with 27 amendments made. The first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were adopted at once. Even the changes in the electoral system were mainly in the voting pattern.  George Washington, the first President, had declared in 1776, “To form a new government requires infinite care and unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid, the superstructure must be bad.”

The godfather syndrome has made it possible for people who were never prepared for leadership to emerge as occupants of the highest seats in the land. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was in prison when some godfathers brought him out and foisted him on the nation as the acceptable face of the South-West, which was being pacified following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by another South-Westerner. Obasanjo himself went on to foist the late President Umaru Yar’Adua on the nation in 2007. The incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, was propelled to the presidency by some political overlords. 

Unlike many of our rulers, Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, did not hinge their hopes on religion, ethnicity, and some other narrow sentiments. They wooed voters with their blueprints on the economy, tax plans, job creation, health care, education, foreign affairs, and so on.

On Election Day, the best of American democracy was on display: people trooped out en masse to cast their votes; they conducted themselves peacefully; there were no thugs snatching ballot boxes; neither were there gun-toting soldiers and policemen harassing the electorate. The enthusiasm was such that even a 21-year-old woman, Galicia Malone, who was in labour, still went to exercise her franchise en route to the hospital. In our own case, an election in one state could attract battalions of soldiers and bring vehicular movement to a standstill in a section of the country as was witnessed in the recently held governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states respectively. And contrary to the views of those who say we are still learning, the orderliness of last Tuesday has been the pattern in the USA for over 200 years. American democracy did not start with thuggery and criminality.

In deciding the form of government for themselves, the America’s founding fathers, first considered what the end of government is. According to one of them, John Adams, “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best”. For Americans, therefore, the love of the country comes first.

Obama and Romney demonstrated that in their actions and speeches throughout the election period. It is that love for the American values that propelled Romney to immediately concede defeat and congratulate Obama.  “I believe in America,” Romney said, “I believe in the people of America. And I ran for office because I’m concerned about America. This election is over, but our principles endure… I so wish that I had been able to fulfil your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader. And so Ann (his wife) and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.”

Obama himself brought that love home when he said, “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”

One important thing to note is that less than 24 hours after the election, the result was known. There was no cry of rigging, no endless waiting for result, and no threats of violence or litigation. The process was so smooth that it puts the so-called elections in Nigeria to serious ridicule.

Even when the parties spent billions of dollars in the campaigns, nobody tampered with the state treasury. The money came from voluntary donations. And there was no question of bribing electoral officers, security men or voters with money, recharge cards, bags of salt or rice to vote a particular candidate.

We always give the excuse that Nigeria is a complex, multi-ethnic society. But we are not more complex than America. America has 50 states with diverse people made up of blacks, whites, Africans, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, and many others. Based on an appropriate political structure, they have been able to galvanise these diverse groups such that the son of an immigrant from Kenya is now a two-term President of America. This unity in diversity is what makes America the greatest nation on earth.

Nigeria can also attain greater heights if we acknowledge our diversity, jettison all pretensions to uniformity and entrench transparency and selflessness in our actions.  It is practically impossible and naïve to expect a country of more than 250 ethnic nationalities to remain caged in a centralised government. While we rejoice with Obama and Americans for this electoral feat, we must remind ourselves of the words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

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