By Azu Ishiekwene
If Donald J. Trump were president of Wakanda on the eve of an election, that country would have received several warnings from the US State Department on the need for free and fair polls, and the necessity for all parties to play by the rules.
But what is playing by the rules if parties will not accept an orderly transfer of power?
During two recent off-cycle state elections in the south of Nigeria, for example, the US Embassy threatened to invoke visa restrictions on candidates, agents or security officials who impede the electoral process. It was not an empty threat and the junket-obsessed political elite knew it.
Yet, as this welcome US fore-finger was wagging at Nigerian politicians, four other fingers of the same hand were pointing back at the US, where its own President, Trump, has threatened that he would not accept the result of the November 3 election, if he loses.
He made the same threat in 2016, saying he would not accept the outcome in the race against Hilary Clinton because the system was “rigged”. We may never know what would have happened since he won.
As of the time of writing, Facebook was planning to implement stringent standards to prevent the shambles of 2016 or the likelihood of a repeat of Cambodia 2018 where the prime minister was accused of buying fake fans to boost his electoral chances – a clear indication of how low the US that prides itself on sterling democratic values has fallen.
By this time next week, the US presidential election would be over. But there are a number of reasons why even days after the election, voters may still not be able to say for sure whether Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden won.
One reason why is because aspects of the labyrinthine voting and counting process in US elections which gives states and counties considerable latitude in the conduct of elections are being challenged in court. While some states may still be counting mail-in ballots (and they would be significantly more in this COVID-19 year), others, especially Republican states, want mail-in ballot counting to end before or on voting day.
The main reason why this election is fraught, however, is because Trump has hinted darkly that he would not accept the result, if he loses. He said he could not guarantee an orderly transfer of power, if the outcome does not favour him. Trump’s base is listening and the violent elements among them are waiting. The US faces a dark winter of post-election chaos.
Trump’s threat not to accept defeat is the main fuel stoking the flames. Yet, what he is doing and what is being done in his name are much worse. In a number of states across the US, especially in the battleground states, Republican governors are still desperately trying to use the courts to block counting of mail-in votes beyond election day, even where the law allows it.
The Supreme Court weighed in with a precarious 4-4 ruling but the matter is not settled yet. The inauguration on Monday of the conservative-leaning Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could tip over the final decision on mail-in votes – a consequential matter in a COVID-19 year and beyond.
In other states, various voter suppression methods, including stringent voter ID requirements and last-minute gerrymandering have become a part of the kitchen sink.
It doesn’t end there. Concerns about Trump’s race baiting, suspicion that he may yet again deploy the National Guard as he did after George Floyd’s murder, and the rush to confirm Judge Barrett on the eve of election, all look like ingredients from a dictator’s cookbook.
But he does not care. Trump has said over and over again that “the system is rigged”, that he suspects serious fraud with mail-in ballots, that China is helping the Democratic Party compromise the system, that he is a victim of an Obama spy ring, all with barely a shred of proof. Yet, he seems determined to use self-help, if the results don’t go his way.
At first, it was like a joke. But since he makes no distinction between opinions and facts, Trump has taught the world to take him by his jokes. He indulges in fiction, which he invents with a single-minded talent that beggars belief.
Insisting – up till last week – that he would not accept an orderly transfer of power if he loses the election, is frightening. He makes Guinea where President Alpha Conde has just foisted a third term on the country look like a beacon of democracy.
Conde can, at least, argue that the Guinean parliament extended his mandate, even though he obtained the extension by fraud. But for a sitting US president to repudiate the prospects of an orderly transfer of power if he loses, is not just a dangerous precedent for that country, it increases the chances of more Condes rising in Africa and elsewhere. Has anyone noticed that the AU has been resoundingly silent about Conde’s travesty?
If Trump does not believe senior government officials across party lines and even independent think tanks that have insisted that his claim of mail-in fraud or a “rigged system” is false, why should incumbents in Africa or elsewhere not undermine the electoral system in their own countries on the excuse that every ballot must match their testosterone specimen?
In the last two decades, a significant number of African countries have come under representative governments largely because of external pressure from the West, led by the European Union and the US. Even though more money has poured in from China – often with few questions or scruples – pressure from the west and improvements in technology have put more governments on the continent on the spot.
Politicians may not have been altogether pleased with the outcome of the elections, but because they have seen the consequences of chaos elsewhere, because they have seen the US live up to its pledge to punish persons responsible for deadly election violence whether in Kenya, Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire, they have yielded to orderly transfer of power.
Nigeria provided a spectacular example of orderly transition five years ago, when former President Goodluck Jonathan called Muhammadu Buhari and conceded defeat even before the final results were announced in an election that could have descended into chaos.
Despite deep misgivings in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) at the time that Jonathan was being wangled out of office by a conspiracy of the Northern elite, the former president endured his misery and walked away.
Kenya and Zimbabwe followed suit. When Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia refused to accept the outcome of elections in that country the regional body, ECOWAS, shooed the yam-head out of office. Until recent events in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea threatened to spoil the broth, Africa has been looking like the fireside where the world could at last light its candle.
A US president threatening to impede an orderly transition of power, is a danger not just to his own country but also to politicians elsewhere who might copy his bad example. This year, out of five African countries holding major elections, the presidents of two of them – Alassane Quattara of Cote d’Ivoire and Conde of Guinea – have maneuvered themselves into positions for a controversial third term.
Which Trump would stand up to Quattara, Conde or any other political outlaw on the continent? The Trump begging China to help him win election at home or the one hiding his tax records in plain sight? The Trump crying wolf over a “rigged system” even before the first ballot was cast or the one that unleashed the National Guard on unarmed protesters? The Trump who bullies women and indulges in race-baiting or the one who pledged not to accept an orderly transfer of power, if he loses at the poll?
Which Trump is the world modelling on the eve of November 3?
After four years of “America First”, the world is learning to find its own path even in matters where the US used to provide leadership and direction. Yet, if this is the new face of American exceptionalism – a US presidential candidate who undermines the electoral system for the heck of it and refuses to accept an orderly transfer of power if he loses, then we must brace up for a bitter winter in global politics.
Not even in shit-hole countries is it fashionable anymore to insist on victory as precondition for elections. Who needs elections if they must win before the contest, anyway?
But that is what Trump insists on. It’s apparent that America’s problems are worse than shambolic race relations and COVID-19. Trump-mylitis or the new epidemic of electoral-victory-at-all-costs is also a new contagion the world must guard against.
Ishiekwene is MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview