Joe Biden is officially the President-elect of the United States of America. Several world leaders have congratulated him including our own former President Olusegun Obasanjo and current President Muhammadu Buhari. In an election that divided the country into two opposing camps, with accusations and counter-accusations and the highest number of voting in US history, Americans have unequivocally voted for change from the status quo. The outgoing president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, will go down in history as one of the most consequential world leaders in modern history. The presumed ‘Leader of the Free World’ is loved and hated almost in equal measure.
Those that loathe him are in awe of how a sane and decent person can be attracted to an alleged serial philanderer, a racist, a megalomaniac, a narcissist and a conman. They wonder how Evangelical Christians can swear by a man who allegedly hardly goes to church, cannot quote a verse of the bible, boasted that he has never asked God for forgiveness. How can any honest person admire a president who allegedly admitted to paying off a prostitute, cheated on his three wives, gamed the government by declaring bankruptcies and avoiding taxes?
The Donald Trump presidency defied odds. No one took him seriously when he declared his intention to run for president. Few people believed that an outsider like him could defeat the well-entrenched Hilary Clinton. He is thought by many to be racist, but he expanded his African-American vote. He accused Mexicans of sending rapist and murderers to the US, and his central campaign mantra was building a wall at the US Southern border with Mexico to be paid for by Mexico, but he increased his Latino support base throughout his presidency. Many know him for his anti-Islamic stance and rhetoric. Still, exit polls from the last election showed that he got an astounding 35% of the Muslim vote. In the US where there is a consensus that President Trump mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic, counties with worst virus surges overwhelmingly voted for him. An Associated Press analysis reveals that in 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority — 93 per cent of those counties — went for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas.
Donald Trump is simply a phenomenon.
Long before he launched his bid for the US presidency, he was a vocal proponent of the “birther” myth, claiming that Barack Obama, the first ever African-American president who was born of a Kenyan father, was not born in the US and therefore ineligible to be president. His derogatory comments in January 2018, where he described African states as ‘shitholes’ showed that he had scant regard for the continent.
The continent of Africa did not benefit much on the economic front. He did not have an African policy and never set his foot on African soil. He imposed tariffs on African countries like South Africa, Egypt and Rwanda. They have little power to retaliate, unlike the EU or China. His administration took extreme steps against Rwanda for taxing second-hand American clothes to protect its infant textile industry. He suspended the country from duty-free access to US markets.
President Donald Trump has met with just two African presidents at the White House in almost four years, fewer than any of his predecessors. He has repeatedly proposed deep cuts to foreign aid programmes, which are critical to the continent.
For Nigeria, specifically, it has been a challenging ride with Trump. Since US President Donald Trump took office in 2016, Nigeria has been one of the targets of several of his administration’s anti-immigration policies. There is the proposed change to student visa rules by the US Department of Homeland Security which will mean Nigerian students (alongside 35 other African countries) will only be issued with initial two-year visas even if their degree programmes will take longer. While extending these visas at extra costs, there is no guarantee they will be granted. Besides, there is the indefinite suspension of the visa interview waiver for Nigerian applicants and a ban on issuing immigrant visa to Nigerians. Nigeria recorded the most massive global drop-off in visitors to the US in 2019.
Despite these, Trump is seemingly loved in Africa, especially among Nigerian Pentecostals. On the day of the US elections last Tuesday, Trump tweeted to his 88 million followers a video of hundreds of people in Onitsha, Anambra State holding a rally and carrying banners in prayer and support for his re-election.
Nigerians are among the top five countries that follow Trump on Twitter.
The widespread assumption is that the main reason for Nigerians’ support for Trump is rooted in his well-cultivated political image of someone who represents conservative and family values. His policy stances in the areas of abortion and homosexuality pull among swathes of Nigerians where the population is mostly conservative. In Nigeria, most people grew up in religious homes, meaning that Nigerians are likely to be more conservative than liberal.
Most Nigerian Christians, like the evangelicals in the United States, are staunch supporters of the US President. Despite his racist’s tendencies and bad character, they see him as a ‘messiah’ who has come to ‘restore God to America’ after Barack Obama’s days of promoting the ‘evil of homosexuality.’
As Trump exits the stage, the impact of his four-year drama-like presidency will reverberate in Africa for years to come. For one, after the way President Trump has so demeaned American’s once-revered institutions, the United States may have lost the moral authority to dictate to any African leader how to conduct him or herself in office. This president, both when he first ran in 2016 and later during his re-election campaign in 2020, refused blatantly to commit himself to the orderly transfer of power in the event of a loss.
He had alleged that the American electoral system is rigged, claimed victory in an election when the votes were still being counted, alleged massive voter fraud in the US electioneering process and called the counting process a “major fraud,” and then announced that he would call on the Supreme Court to give him victory. He has asked that his political opponents be sent to prison and allegedly has personally profited illegally while in power. He unilaterally pulled the United States out of international accords like the Paris Climate Agreement, started acrimonious trade wars with friends and foes of America and threatened to withdraw from NATO.
It has been astonishing to many people, watching the most powerful man in the world throwing childish tantrums, insulting adversaries, undermining the institutions of the state and mercilessly attacking the foundations of American democracy. When an African leader takes a clue and re-enacts the Trump precept, what becomes of that particular country considering the prevalence of weak institutions and strong personalities all across the African leadership spectrum? Suppose an African president loses an election tomorrow and refuses to accept the outcome with the excuse of unsubstantiated voter fraud as Trump is doing. Will the US State Department have the guts or temerity to issue the usual threat of condemnation and sanctions when the strongman is only moulding himself in the form of Donald Trump?
There were the good sides of Donald J. Trump. He brought his business expertise to bear on his economic policies, and the result was that the American economy was thriving before Covid-19 came and upturned everything.
However, the outgoing US President would be more remembered for the name callings, the impetuousness, his war with facts and truth, his internecine battle with the American news media, the decimation of global alliances and treaties, the counter-productive disruptions he brought to the world order. More dishonourably, Mr Trump will be remembered as the American president who relentlessly attacked and tried to destroy the American electioneering process and by extension, the foundation of America’s once admirable democracy.
The first lesson for Nigeria is that the Donald Trump presidency demonstrated the importance of having strong institutions. He showed crass cronyism in appointing his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to official government positions. He fired his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, because the former senator refused to do his biddings and replaced him with a more compliant William Barr. He fought ferociously to keep his tax returns hidden.
However, the United States was able to survive these because the country has over the years built strong institutions. Institutions are so strong that they can survive a vicious and sustained attack by a sitting president. Therefore, Nigeria shall strive to strengthen its institutions. We should recognise that leadership is transient. Leaders come and go. However, the institutions transcend the leaders.
Donald Trump waged a fierce war against the press. A leader who has scant regard for truth and facts will always come in conflict with a free press. The outgoing US President derided unfavourable news reports as fake news and declared the media as the enemy of the people.
But the US media refused to bow to the whims and caprices of Mr Trump. He has shown his admiration for authoritarian leaders. They continued to hold his government accountable and his defeat, the first of an incumbent American president in almost 30 years, is a sort of vindication for the US mainstream media.
In this vein, the Nigerian press should strive harder to prove that they are the Fourth Estate of the Realm. They should continue to hold the government accountable by providing an objective and unbiased appraisal of government policies and programmes.
The major US networks called the election for Joe Biden when he crossed the threshold of 270 Electoral votes. With the call, the former vice president was automatically regarded by all and sundry as the president-elect even when the states who are legally entitled to declare the winner of the election in their various states were yet to certify the election results.
The above is an indication of how well regarded the American media are. Can the Nigerian media do this?
Trump came to the reckoning of most Americans and the world as the host of The Apprentice – a reality show. He probably treated the American presidency as another reality show. And in the process left a stain that will take years, if not decades to clean up.
•Dr Dakuku Peterside (DAP) is a leadership & organisational development consultant and corporate political strategist.