Nigeria: Why the U.S. Election Matters Dr. Abati
I could not turn down the invitation to comment on this subject and express my personal views. US Presidential elections are important for one primary reason: they bear far-reaching implications for geo-politics, and since President Barack Obama’s emergence, even for racial relations across the globe. America remains, at the moment, the world’s superior power. Whoever, or whichever political party gains control of the White House automatically influences the levers of geo-politics, for no other reason than that the identity matrix of America’s politics is properly defined and in that definition lies the character of America’s political engagement with the rest of the world, and the other’s responses to its projections.
I hasten to add however, that the reasons why the US Presidential election due on Tuesday, are important to the average American living in or outside America may not be and are rarely, the same reasons why the same election is important to non-Americans, outside America, say for example, Nigerians. The only close exception perhaps must have been demonstrated in the wake of President Barack Obama’s emergence in 2008. Americans wanted change, and many Africans saw that change in the colour of President Obama’s skin. They raised funds, they organized street campaigns, they promoted the candidate…they did all of that although they had no say in the outcome of the election, they were motivated nonetheless by the symbolism of hope represented by the Obama candidacy, and its resonance.
The evaporation of that global euphoria today attests to the temporocentricism of human emotions; more so for the America-centric international audience, race is not such an important issue in the 2012 US Presidential election, and for the American, there are more urgent existential considerations. Still, US elections continue to matter to the rest of the world. The significance lies in the influence of America in the world, and the variegated economic and cultural implications of the outcome of the election. One quick example: the world economy is linked to the American economy almost umblically; with current unemployment rates and domestic stress generating doubts about the efficiency of the system, further contraction in the domestic US economy and an isolationist President in power, could translate into a withdrawal from global responsibilities in the shape of reduction in aid. Many African countries continue to depend on US aid, too many economies have their fortunes tied to America’s.
For the average American, and there is a lesson here for us well conveyed by the Obama-Romney debates, a Presidential election is more about difference and ideological choices about the future of the United States and its people. The American voter that we have seen in the run up to the elections was, in this context, constantly reminded of his or her significance. What was signposted was the right of the voter to choose. Thus, when all is said and done, the morning after November 6, the final scene of the drama of the last few weeks will be the voter’s choice, with the accent properly placed on the fact that the American people would have spoken. Elections in an established democracy are not won on the basis of the power of incumbency. Witness Barack Obama, a sitting American President having to fight for his shirt, county to county, city to city, state to state, sweating, lobbying, arguing…yet at this moment, the race is so close the leading contenders are losing their voices and pleading with volunteers to help out. The dictatorship of the American voter should matter a lot to the African voter who for the most part is disempowered and discounted.
The changing pattern of the public opinion polls has proven further that in this election, as in every other US election, more dramatically shown in the Dewey-Truman 1948 debacle, the outcome cannot be taken for granted until the race is over, and the battle is won and lost.
This should mean something to us in Nigeria, and in the larger African community, for it is at the centre of President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda. It is the same electoral ethic that President Jonathan has insisted upon since his assumption of office as President. Nigerians, long used to a political situation in which the privilege of incumbency confers all powers have seen under President Jonathan’s watch, a completely different arrangement. It used to be the case in this land, that all that was required of an incumbent in the position of a President or Governor was to sit back and assume that incumbency will confer automatic re-election, and if the incumbent managed to stir at all, he did so with so much arrogance. Most of the time, this worked. The incumbent bullied and forced his way through to a second term. Not since President Jonathan assumed the mantle of office, though. In the recent Gubernatorial elections, in Bayelsa, Edo and Ondo, and in other elections since 2011, we saw how the incumbents had to struggle hard to convince and mobilize the electorate. President Jonathan’s signature cry of one man, one vote, one woman, one vote, one youth one vote, reiterates the power of the voter. I have seen the same principle well advertised in the humility of the two US Presidential candidates, and the struggle over the swing states that are so crucial to the electoral college arrangement. Candidates will go to the polls on Tuesday completely humbled by the supremacy of the American voter, who has been called upon to use his vote as an instrument of either power or “revenge.” That is what democracy is all about: Ideas, competition, debate, choice. African politicians who manipulate electoral processes to suit their own purposes will be among the many observers of the US elections. They need to look beyond the drama at the morality of the experience.
The US Presidential election further matters because institutions matter. Americans are going into the election on Tuesday convinced that the system will protect the voters and their choice. So much money has been spent on the campaigns -over one million TV ads, and more than $7 billion on television advertising alone- but not money on a desperate attempt to bribe the voter. There are political parties but those political parties function as institutions not as personal fiefdoms. There are individuals occupying such positions as Chairmanship of the political parties and of the Electoral Commission, but they are not part of the debate because the system does not make them unduly obtrusive. Apart from the Presidential election, Americans will determine who controls the Senate. There are 33 Senate seats up for grabs. The Democrats currently hold a 53-47 majority; if the Republicans are able to gain 4 seats, they will gain control of the Senate and also maintain their control over the House of Representatives. These elections are just as important as the Presidential election.
The candidates are important too. This sounds like a restatement of the obvious. But of course, that is what it is. There is no candidate in this election who has not been subjected to laser jet scrutiny: who they are, what they represent, what they say, what they will do or not do, this is not really about their villages or state of origin; but their beliefs and non-beliefs. The voter can make a mistake, but he or she is given enough opportunity and latitude to make an informed choice. There is no room for anyone to smuggle himself or herself into office without passing through the crucible of scrutiny. The emphasis is on the responsibility that comes with office and the ability and character of the applicant to it. When all is over, Americans want to wake up with the feeling that they have chosen the better man for this time and that the choice is a true reflection of the majority. That is what matters.
And all of these matter because it is the country that matters most. Pro patria: Love of country. This is all about country, that is, America’s prestige and place in the world. The average American will make a choice to sustain the exceptionalism of the United States as a country that can still be remembered and protected as “God’s own country,” a country where all Americans can still feel that sense of pride, that they are “the best” in the world. And that is why the key issue has been how to make America better for Americans: healthcare, medicare, social security, housing, energy, immigration reform, taxes, jobs, national security, the economy, foreign policy- issues that connect with the ordinary people in their daily circumstances.
And one more thing: in the midst of last minute 2012 US electioneering, Hurricane Sandy occurred, wrecking such havoc on the Eastern Coast of the United States that should be familiar to Nigerians who had also just witnessed the same devastating impact of climate change in parts of the country. During that critical moment, Americans refused to play the politics of disaster. They all united as Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, even the Romney team praised Obama for his leadership. Great lesson!
So, as they say, what is our own in this matter? As Nigerians monitor the US elections along with the rest of the world, we must spare a thought for our own democracy and this administration’s efforts at its consolidation; in noting the differences and commonalities, we should reflect on the projected values of duty, responsibility, institutional integrity and love of country. That is what I think. And let me add: Good luck to the Americans.
Dr. Abati is Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to President Goodluck Jonathan