IN 2015, the United States exerted unbearable pressure on Nigeria to ensure its presidential election did not descend into a much-feared existential crisis. It worked! Nigeria had an orderly transfer of power. But now, the same physician could not, it seems, heal herself! Last week, America convulsed as it held its presidential poll. For four agonising days, the US kept the world on tenterhooks amid wild allegations of massive electoral fraud. Even today, ten days after the poll, held on November 3, the situation remains febrile as the losing candidate refuses to make the customary concession speech.
But as I watched the unfortunate events in the United States, I couldn’t help but remember Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015 and how America’s active intervention helped ensure its success, averting a widely predicted post-election catastrophe. The history of Nigeria’s 2015 presidential poll is incomplete without a prominent place for America’s role. In a statement in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said: “I will never forget the role the US played in the stability of Nigeria.” He implied that had the US not “exerted pressure”, as he put it, things would have turned out differently! Of course, this was against the backdrop of a high-stakes election dogged by apocalyptic predictions of widespread post-election violence and possible disintegration of Nigeria. As many will recall, the election campaign was extremely divisive and polarising. President Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters threatened to blow up oil installations if he lost. Buhari’s supporters vowed to make Nigeria ungovernable if he did not win. These were not empty threats. In 2011, when Buhari lost to Jonathan in that year’s presidential race, nearly 900 people died in post-election violence in the North. And the Niger Delta militants had a history of blowing up oil and gas installations. So, the western world did not take the risks of post-election violence and Nigeria’s possible breakup lightly. They swung into action, led by the United States.
The then US vice president, now president-elect, Joe Biden made many phone calls to Buhari and Jonathan urging them to ensure a free, fair and peaceful election. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, visited Nigeria several times to talk to Buhari and Jonathan. And President Barack Obama himself addressed Nigerians directly via a broadcast, invoking the old civil war mantra: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done!” In 2015, Nigeria kept the world awake. But the US held its feet to the fire and kept it on the straight and narrow! Take one example. When the final results of the presidential poll were not announced for three days, amid false claims by PDP apparatchiks that the party had won in 23 states, John Kerry and his UK counterpart, Phillip Hammond, issued a joint statement, warning of “disturbing indications that the collation process may be subject to deliberate political interferences.” The statement probably forestalled some shenanigans.
President Jonathan, who said nothing as “a heated argument ensued”, suddenly “got up and left the room.” Returning about 20 minutes later, he said: “It is done. I have called President-elect Buhari and conceded!” He deservedly earned a legacy for that singular act! Of course, one consideration in Jonathan’s decision was to avoid bloodshed. As he always said, “my ambition is not worth the blood of a single Nigerian.” But truth be told, another consideration must be the realisation that if he refused to go, American pressure would hit him like a tonne of bricks. I said all the above in light of the bizarre situation in the US. President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, urged his father to “go to total war” over the election results. Joe Biden’s camp said that if President Trump refused to leave office after losing: “The US government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out the White House.” You would think this was Nigeria in 2015! But no, it is the United States of America today! But, in fairness to the US, this is about one man: Donald J Trump! Like Jonathan, President Trump is surrounded by hawks who allege widespread irregularities and want him to “fight on.” But unlike President Jonathan, Trump doesn’t have any sense of duty to concede to president-elect Biden or fully support a smooth transition of power. As someone put it, President Trump, who fired his defence secretary by tweet this week, is so angry he harbours a “burn it down on the way out” feeling, and willing to wreck the transition. Of course, President Trump has the right to challenge his defeat in the courts and has filed multiple cases. But as former President George W Bush said earlier this week, “The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.” World leaders believe so too, hence they have been congratulating president-elect Joe Biden. But Trump is apparently not for turning! To be sure, there is no legal requirement that a loser makes a concession speech, but every losing US presidential candidate has done so since 1896. With 71m votes (Biden has 75m), President Trump’s insistence that the election was “rigged” would inflame his electoral base. At the best of times, America is utterly divided along partisan lines. A genuine concession speech could at least assuage some of his restive supporters. All said, America’s decentralised political system and independent institutions can weather the Trumpian storm. But unless President Trump takes a leaf out of Jonathan’s book, America lacks the moral authority to lecture anyone on democratic values. Physician, heal thyself!