Leadership (Abuja)

Nigeria: Why the U.S. Election Matters

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This should mean something to us in Nigeria, and in the larger African community, for it is at the centre of President Goodluck Jonathan's Transformation Agenda. It is the same electoral ethic that President Jonathan has insisted upon since his assumption of office as President. Nigerians, long used to a political situation in which the privilege of incumbency confers all powers have seen under President Jonathan's watch, a completely different arrangement. It used to be the case in this land, that all that was required of an incumbent in the position of a President or Governor was to sit back and assume that incumbency will confer automatic re-election, and if the incumbent managed to stir at all, he did so with so much arrogance. Most of the time, this worked. The incumbent bullied and forced his way through to a second term. Not since President Jonathan assumed the mantle of office, though. In the recent Gubernatorial elections, in Bayelsa, Edo and Ondo, and in other elections since 2011, we saw how the incumbents had to struggle hard to convince and mobilize the electorate. President Jonathan's signature cry of one man, one vote, one woman, one vote, one youth one vote, reiterates the power of the voter. I have seen the same principle well advertised in the humility of the two US Presidential candidates, and the struggle over the swing states that are so crucial to the electoral college arrangement. Candidates will go to the polls on Tuesday completely humbled by the supremacy of the American voter, who has been called upon to use his vote as an instrument of either power or "revenge." That is what democracy is all about: Ideas, competition, debate, choice. African politicians who manipulate electoral processes to suit their own purposes will be among the many observers of the US elections. They need to look beyond the drama at the morality of the experience.

The US Presidential election further matters because institutions matter. Americans are going into the election on Tuesday convinced that the system will protect the voters and their choice. So much money has been spent on the campaigns -over one million TV ads, and more than $7 billion on television advertising alone- but not money on a desperate attempt to bribe the voter. There are political parties but those political parties function as institutions not as personal fiefdoms. There are individuals occupying such positions as Chairmanship of the political parties and of the Electoral Commission, but they are not part of the debate because the system does not make them unduly obtrusive. Apart from the Presidential election, Americans will determine who controls the Senate. There are 33 Senate seats up for grabs. The Democrats currently hold a 53-47 majority; if the Republicans are able to gain 4 seats, they will gain control of the Senate and also maintain their control over the House of Representatives. These elections are just as important as the Presidential election.

The candidates are important too. This sounds like a restatement of the obvious. But of course, that is what it is. There is no candidate in this election who has not been subjected to laser jet scrutiny: who they are, what they represent, what they say, what they will do or not do, this is not really about their villages or state of origin; but their beliefs and non-beliefs. The voter can make a mistake, but he or she is given enough opportunity and latitude to make an informed choice. There is no room for anyone to smuggle himself or herself into office without passing through the crucible of scrutiny. The emphasis is on the responsibility that comes with office and the ability and character of the applicant to it. When all is over, Americans want to wake up with the feeling that they have chosen the better man for this time and that the choice is a true reflection of the majority. That is what matters.

And all of these matter because it is the country that matters most. Pro patria: Love of country. This is all about country, that is, America's prestige and place in the world. The average American will make a choice to sustain the exceptionalism of the United States as a country that can still be remembered and protected as "God's own country," a country where all Americans can still feel that sense of pride, that they are "the best" in the world. And that is why the key issue has been how to make America better for Americans: healthcare, medicare, social security, housing, energy, immigration reform, taxes, jobs, national security, the economy, foreign policy- issues that connect with the ordinary people in their daily circumstances.

And one more thing: in the midst of last minute 2012 US electioneering, Hurricane Sandy occurred, wrecking such havoc on the Eastern Coast of the United States that should be familiar to Nigerians who had also just witnessed the same devastating impact of climate change in parts of the country. During that critical moment, Americans refused to play the politics of disaster. They all united as Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, even the Romney team praised Obama for his leadership. Great lesson!

So, as they say, what is our own in this matter? As Nigerians monitor the US elections along with the rest of the world, we must spare a thought for our own democracy and this administration's efforts at its consolidation; in noting the differences and commonalities, we should reflect on the projected values of duty, responsibility, institutional integrity and love of country. That is what I think. And let me add: Good luck to the Americans.

Dr. Abati is Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to President Goodluck Jonathan

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