BusinessDay

President Biden’s inaugural speech could have been made for Nigeria

The inaugural address by President Joseph R Biden, Jr, the new US president, could easily have been aimed at Nigerians. Take, for example, the following lines: “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.” Those words will resonate with Nigerians. For in this country, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; there is no progress, only exhausting outrage; and there is no ‘nation’, only a state of chaos. And all these happen because, in Nigeria, there is no unity!

But why would President Biden talk about America as if he were talking about Nigeria? After all, America is the world’s most powerful country, the world’s richest country, the world’s strongest democracy. Well, he spoke that way because American democracy, institutions and unity were recently tested and shaken to their foundations.

Americans have always regarded themselves as exceptional and their democracy and institutions as innately superior to those of other countries until they had a rogue president, Donald J Trump, who shook the stability of the American political system. First, Trump undermined the integrity of America’s democracy by refusing to concede defeat in a free and fair election; then, in an attempt to overturn the result of the election, he incited an insurrection as his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, leaving five dead.

That was the backdrop to President Biden’s inaugural speech. He recognised that no country, not even the United States, could take its democracy for granted. As he said: “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious, and democracy is fragile.” Furthermore, he recognised that no country could take its unity for granted, and that what he described as “our uniquely American way” could easily be hijacked by evil forces. He continued: “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we confront and defeat.”

But these are problems you would associate with Nigeria: political intolerance, ethnic chauvinism, domestic terrorism, such as the Boko Haram insurgency, armed bandits, militants, and, of course, killer herdsmen. The idea that America faces similar challenges might give some people comfort that Nigeria is not alone in confronting such problems.

Yet, what happened in America was an aberration. It was the result of the rare emergence of a narcissistic and demagogic leader, who tested the limits of the resilience of the American institutions and the strength of the nation. But he failed woefully. All institutions and pillars of integrity in the United States – from state electoral bodies and federal agencies to the judiciary and Congress –stoutly rebuffed Donald Trump and prevented him from subverting America’s democracy. Thus, as President Biden said: “America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it.”

But the same cannot be said with confidence about Nigeria. In the US, despite intense pressure and bullying by President Trump, state officials, even those from states controlled by his party, told him they would only follow the Constitution and would not manipulate election results for him. Well, in Nigeria, state institutions are likely to do the bidding of such president because, in this country, public officers owe their allegiance not to the Constitution, but to godfathers or the person who appointed them into office.

Consider this. After the invasion of the Capitol by Trump’s supporters, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement describing the violent riot as “a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process.” More importantly, as fear grew that President Trump might use the military to achieve his nefarious goal, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in the statement: “The U.S. military will obey lawful orders from civilian leadership.” Note the word “lawful.” They then reassured Americans that: “On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief.”In other words, they were saying: We will not do President Trump’s bidding.

By contrast, in Nigeria, general elections are heavily militarised, with soldiers used to intimidate voters and rig elections. During the 2015 presidential poll, there was widespread criticism, including by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, that the military was being politicised. The Defence Headquarters (DHQs) issued a statement lampooning Obasanjo and saying it owed total allegiance to the incumbent president, which was not helpful when the same president was a candidate in the election. What about saying, as the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said, that they would protect the Constitution and obey “lawful orders” from the civilian leadership? Well, as I said, in Nigeria, public officers, military or civilian, profess their loyalty to politicians, not to the Constitution, which means that if Nigeria is really tested, as America has been, it can’t weather the storm.

Which brings us to the overarching theme of President Biden’s inaugural address: unity. As he put it, “With unity we can do great things. Important things.” But the unity Biden was talking about was not in terms of threats to America’s corporate existence. Rather, it was in terms of the deep polarisation between the two political parties – Democrats and Republicans – and their supporters, who see each other as ideological enemies. Thus, Biden said: “Politics needs not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. We must end this uncivil war.”

As I said, President Biden’s speech could have been directed at Nigerians. Of course, unlike in the US, the polarisation in Nigeria is not between political parties, given that there are no ideological differences between parties in this country and politicians change parties at the drop of a hat. But the disunity is between ethnic groups and between religions. The insecurity and threat to unity in Nigeria are largely inter-ethnic and inter-religion in nature.

Take recent weeks’ events. Tensions rose between Yoruba and Fulani in the South West when Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State gave Fulani herdsmen a seven-day ultimatum to leave the state, and a Yoruba activist Sunday Igboho gave the herdsmen an ultimatum to leave Oyo State, leading to clashes between Fulani and Yoruba in the state. The northern nationalist group Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, threatened that “there may be counter-attacks in the North and the country will be up in flames.” Evoking the spectre of war, the ACF said: “We recall that the civil war started with attacks and counter attacks like these”, adding: “The government must be proactive and stop history from repeating itself.”

More than fifty years after a devastating civil war, Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities are still beating the drums of war. President Biden said: “Without unity, there is no nation, only a state of chaos.” Well, that’s already the situation in Nigeria. Truth is, Nigeria is not a nation, in the true definition of nationhood, but merely a state and a chaotic one at that!

But if Nigeria is not a nation and lacks internal cohesion, then it cannot make progress. This is because internal cohesion, especially in a multi-ethnic state, is a precondition for development. Thus, multi-ethnic countries that lack nationhood and internal cohesion must undertake self-examination and embark on fundamental political and constitutional reforms that would engender unity and internal cohesion. Sadly, arrogance and selfish interests continue to blind Nigerian political elites to the need for political restructuring and for a negotiated and enduring political settlement central to the country’s development.

Like America, Nigeria thinks it’s exceptional. But, unlike America, it lacks the political system, the constitutional arrangement and the governance structure to withstand America’s recent trauma. President Biden spoke more for Nigerians, than Americans, in his inaugural speech!

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