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African Lessons for America's Transfer of Power

· Africa

American transition of power may be a miracle, as former President Reagan once said in 1981, but it has always been a role model for African nations on their arduous path to democracy. However, as the November 3 presidential election approaches in the U.S. amid doubts that Trump may not abide by election results (The Washington Post, 09/25/2020), the American model has become a questionable one. It has, for all practical purposes, become an unworthy example that could break America in the same way that so many African nations have been broken by election chaos and subversion.

Peaceful transfer of power?

Election observers, experts, and academics are furiously blinking as their screens blare red warning signs. DANGER! The U.S. is ripe for an election meltdown. There could be a crisis resulting from a non-peaceful transfer of power. The unthinkable in America has become a real possibility.

It is unheard of. But what makes this moment in history unique is the confluence of a number of new African leaders coming to power peacefully, with a mandate for reform and renewal and a plausible route to a future of shared freedom and prosperity for their people, with a first-time ever American president with an authoritarian bent, limited knowledge of the world (let alone Africa) and no experience governing and who has, for the first time ever in American history, cast real doubt on post-election transition of power. Trump has refused to commit to accepting the election results if the outcome is against him, thus calling into question the peaceful handover of power.

Political transitions in the U.S. have always created as much uncertainty and anxiety as optimism. But, as Barton Gellman writes in The Atlantic, the worst case “is not that Trump rejects the election outcome”. It’s that “he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him” and seizes on the uncertainty of a lack of consensus to hold on to power.

What happens when you hold on to power illegitimately?

The peaceful transfer of power is essential to good governance, which is closely linked to good economic stewardship and human security. If there’s one overriding lesson in democracy that many African leaders have learned is that accepting elections results is to the benefit of your country and yourself, as a leader and citizen.

Leaders who refuse to accept losing an election and hold on to power become prey to their delusional feelings and beliefs and the blind spots they create. Power becomes like an aphrodisiac and a heroin high all at once. Leadership becomes a constant search for a fix. The leader increasingly loses his sense of reality, and a constant feeling of persecution sets in. The result is power by force. Without authority, the leader becomes a victim of his self-sabotage, fear, an impending sense of doom, a lack of public trust, and a devastating loss of respect. In the end, the power-grabber sinks into the depths of insecurity, loses his grip with sanity and goes down infamously in history.

In Africa, just think of Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Charles Taylor of Liberia, or Mobutu Sese Seko of DRC, among others. Admitting defeat is devastating personally, but good leaders take it in stride for the good of their country and build on it to strengthen themselves as individuals. Indeed, bad leaders are the ones who hold on to control of power because they know, deep down, that they don’t deserve it. Trump and his acolytes would do well to dwell on this.

Lessons from transfers of power in Africa

The challenge of power transfer has always been a loaded subject in Africa. But it has become explosive in America. It is also the first time an American President casts doubt in Africa about elections in America.

Africa has always been characterized, almost by habit, as a continent with an anti-democratic political culture: prone to human rights abuses, entrenched in authoritarianism, rampant patronage, and political exploitation of ethnic divisions. The U.S. has often showcased African strongmen refusing to leave power as constitutionally required, while at the same time supporting African leaders who were convenient for U.S. interests.

Indeed, there are countless examples of doubt being cast on African presidential elections and of American-backed pre- or post-election power seizures. But never has an American President showcased anti-democratic behaviors at home while pursuing personal and partisan benefit through what some have called tribal politics.

It’s the first time an American President casts doubt on American elections and voices a disposition to grab power as a pretext in the quest for stability. Apparently, Africa’s “sins” seem to have bounced back on America like a backwards transference. It therefore seems appropriate to point out the lessons that Trump can learn from Africa’s experience with transfers of power in Africa.

In the 60+ years since sub-Saharan Africa started gaining independence from the colonial powers, who trampled existing seeds of African democracy so they could exploit their men and women and appropriate their valuable resources, Africa has made impressive if uneven strides toward democratic handovers. Judd Devermont and Jon Temin, in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “Africa’s Democratic Moment?”, point out that the sub-Saharan region experienced 9 transfers of power, and since 2015 it has experienced 26 of them. Their legitimacy comes not from their process but from their reformist agendas and increased democratic institutionalization.

Indeed, according to the Brookings Institution, the year 2018 was an encouraging one of peaceful power transition in Africa. “Sitting presidents relinquished power in Liberia and South Africa through established constitutional mechanisms, while last year the Republic of The Gambia’s president agreed—albeit reluctantly—to step down after losing his re-election bid”. In 2019, Felix Tshisekedi inauguration’s marked Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence.

Weaning African leaders off an addiction to power is, of course, an ongoing struggle. But positive change is afoot; 46 African countries have signed (34 had ratified in 2019) the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance that came into force in 2012 and was designed to guard against undemocratic governance and usher in good governance, democracy and security. Although not all African leaders were willing to be swept by this wave of democratic reforms, and some are quite simply addicted to power, Africa’s long-standing leaders are disappearing. New leadership, ordinary voters, non-governmental organizations and other institutional mechanisms are increasingly collaborating to share experiences to blend order, democracy, and inclusive development as a path to enduring democracy.

Two main obstacles have stood in the way of African democratic progress: economic stagnation and political stasis. Both are quite relevant to the present presidential pre-election run-up situation in the U.S.

To overcome economic obstacles, African leaders in countries like Angola, DRC, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Senegal have recognized the need to diversify their economies, reduce corruption and attract foreign investment. They have publicly pledged to deliver on these promises.

To overcome political obstacles, those leaders recognized the need to get buy-in of would-be opponents while pledging not to abandon their bold aspirations for shared progress and prosperity. They have made a concerted effort to address the concerns of their citizens without scaring off investors.

By getting the economics and politics right, these African countries will not only generate positive spillover effects throughout the region. They will also set off a virtuous cycle of reforms that could supercharge regional economic integration through the ACFTA. Beyond the continent and domestic distractions, success will make these African leaders into models for defending basic rights and enable them to demand a seat at the table to weigh in on global issues. They will also have the legitimacy to pressure violators of democratic principles through sanctions and their personal connections with other leaders.

In contrast, Trump is failing in both economics and politics, getting both wrong by refusing to admit any errors of leadership and escalating his efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. He is, in effect, preparing the American people for an unprecedented constitutional crisis that poses the most substantial threat to America’s free and fair elections and to the peaceful transition of power. His corrosive threats to cross democratic boundaries and constitutional norms and his attempts to create fear and confusion ahead of the elections is, alas, reminiscent of the past that many African nations have overcome.

African leaders can provide Trump with guidance

It is said that the presidency may be the loneliest job in the world, and many have characterized Trump as the loneliest, most alienated president of all, beset with anger, unhappiness, and friendlessness. Although he has always operated in isolation and doesn’t mind being alone, President Trump is perhaps the most White House prisoner-like of all American presidents. He is the one who has evidenced the greatest problem with maintaining contact with reality, the one least focused on objective information gathering, and the one who least understands his constituencies and most has failed to know when and how far to move in exercising leadership.

In fact, President Trump is the first American president to exemplify a condition of what can be called "personal anomie" (adapted from Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie as a social condition). Personal anomie can be understood as a condition evolving from conflict with one’s basic belief systems and the disintegration of previously held norms. It causes a breakdown of moral values and social bonds between the individual and the community at large.

African leaders who have learned to keep authoritarianism at bay can provide Trump with invaluable support. In the same way that several states in sub-Saharan Africa - Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Kenya –required significant supportive action by external countries in order to maintain or restore pluralist democracy, those African nations and their leaders can provide America with valuable guidance and support on how not to go forward to the past by reimagining what is possible for good.

Reimagining American democracy with African insights

The Cameroonian philosopher, Achille Mbembe, provides valuable insights into the possibility of reimagining democracy not only as a form of human mutuality and freedom, but also as a community of life that can overcome the salience of wealth and poverty, race and difference as central idioms for framing and naming the ongoing social struggles in America.

The currently stymied prospects for American capitalism and democracy are not simply acquisitions, or impositions, of elements drawn from other western societies. They reflect the failures of American theories and prescriptions, which today risk reducing democracy in America to mimicry, or worse, to a convenient way of becoming more “presentable” in the world. Verbally espousing democratic ideals while building reliance on modes of authoritarian governance is dangerous. It can, in the end, merely reflect a new consensus among the elites on the continued unequal reallocation of power and resources.

As in the case of the African countries mentioned above, domestic and external coalitions can work creatively to support the rebuilding of an American state system that is authoritative, effective, accountable, and admired domestically as well as internationally. The blending of order, democracy, and inclusive development is a path still available for Americans under appropriate leadership with the will to learn from others.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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