By Femi Aribisala
FOR over eight years, Mitt Romney fought assiduously to be President of white Americans. He put up a considerable amount of his personal resources into this ambition. He also spent over one billion dollars of other peoples’ money; far more than the annual budget of most Nigerian states.
When the election results were finally tabulated on November 4, it was immediately clear Romney had achieved his objective. Mitt Romney was elected President of the United States of White Americans with 58% of the votes. As a matter of fact, he won the largest percentage of white votes of any Republican since 1988. Unfortunately, however, the election was not merely for white Americans. It was for all Americans.
Mitt Romney’s faux pas in the U.S. is similar to that of Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria. Buhari was the Northern candidate in the 2011 presidential elections in Nigeria. He hardly bothered to campaign in the South.
Convincing win in core northern states
When the results were announced, he won convincingly in the core Northern States with over 12 million votes. However, the election was not for the President of Northern Nigeria. It was for the President of the Federal Republic of all Nigerians.
Nigeria’s system of government is modelled after that of the United States, but neither Romney nor Buhari seem to understand the system. A lot of noise was made by Yorubas in particular about the annulment of the election of Moshood Abiola in the 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria. But the truth of the matter is that Abiola did not win that election because the Yorubas voted for him. The Yorubas cannot elect a president of Nigeria. To do that, they have to form alliances with other Nigerians.
The Nigerian Constitution requires a victorious presidential candidate to obtain a minimum of one-third of the votes in a minimum of two-thirds of the states. Indeed, most of the people who voted for Abiola in 1993 were not Southerners but Northerners. In 1999, the Yorubas, refused to vote for Olusegun Obasanjo, their kith and kin. Nevertheless, he was elected president. He became president by stringing together a coalition that stretched across the Niger into the far reaches of Nigeria, uniting the South-South, the South-East, the Middle Belt and the far North.
In light of a similar requirement, Mitt Romney really bungled it. He fought an election he could not lose. No sitting American president had ever been elected with as many as eight per cent of the people out of work. Romney drummed this into everyone that would listen: no less than 23 million able-bodied Americans are out of work. The parlous state of the American economy, still reeling from the throes of recession, ensured that the people would blame the incumbent for failing to redress the situation after four years. Obama was toast. The pundits on the Republican side were convinced Romney’s election was a foregone conclusion.
However, Mitt Romney lost; and he lost woefully. Since American elections are won or lost on the basis of the Electoral College, the 2012 presidential elections were not even close. Obama obtained 332 Electoral College votes to Romney’s 206. That is something of a landslide. Romney lost in eight of the nine key “battleground-states” in which American elections today are won or lost. When the final votes were tallied, Romney lagged behind Obama by over two and a half million votes.
According to exit polls, the electorate was 72 per cent white. Romney prevailed here 58 per cent to Obama’s 40 per cent. 13 per cent of electorate was African American. 93 per cent voted for Obama. 10 per cent of electorate was Latino. Obama prevailed 71 per cent to 27 per cent, along with 73 percent of Asians. When you add 55 per cent of female voters, many of them young and single, Obama was unstoppable. This makes Romney’s defeat something of an achievement in itself. Romney succeeded in losing an election that could not be lost. How did he manage to defeat himself so resoundingly?
I watched Romney’s Republican Party Convention in consternation from the comfort of my Lagos home. I could not believe how antediluvian it was. I marvelled at rows and rows of mostly white men. No blacks, no Latinos, no Asians, no Indians. How in heaven’s name could this be representative of the United States of today? Then I watched Obama’s Democratic Party Convention and saw on display the new coalition ushered in by Obama’s election as the first African-American President of the United States. Whites and Blacks; Latinos and Asian-Americans; men and women; young and old; they were all together on a soul train.
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party refused to acknowledge this new America to their disaster at the polls. As a matter of fact, they went out of their way to antagonise every constituency that was not part of their majoritarian white base. The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in the United States, disregarded the African-American voters as lost to the Democrats. Romney antagonised Latinos, the fastest growing bloc of voters in the United States, with his far-right stand on illegal immigration during the primaries, as he tried to beef up his conservative credentials. He really blew it by calling for “self-deportation” of illegal Latinos.
Romney antagonised women voters by threatening reproductive freedom, abortion rights and federal subsidy of contraceptives. Missouri Republican candidate for the Senate, Todd Akin, added fuel to the fire by declaring in a television interview that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy. In Indiana, Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said pregnancy caused by rape is something “God intended” and does not justify abortion. Women voters signified their disgust by giving Obama a plurality of their votes; 13 per cent more than Romney.
Romney was unrelenting in courting defeat. He made no appeal to Asian-Americans. He antagonised the gay and lesbian communities by speaking against homosexuality and gay marriage. In short, he put all his eggs in the white basket. When the election results were announced, the white votes had shrunk by three per cent from the 2008 figure. The Latino share had increased to 10 per cent for the very first time. The African-Americans came out in larger numbers in favour of Obama, angry at the failed attempts by Republicans to prevent them from voting by changing the rules. Obama cruised to an easy victory. The election that pundits predicted would be a long night was over only a few hours after the polls closed. Romney and the Republicans went into shock, disbelief and denial. There were calls for a recount in Ohio. But it soon sank in that they had committed one big blunder.
”We’ve lost the country,” concluded Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk-show host. He angrily described the United States as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” said Ann Coulter, another disgruntled Republican commentator. Added Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.” O’Reilly is correct; Obama’s America is the new America. If the Republican Party does not want to be consigned to the sidelines for the foreseeable future, it has to re-fashion itself and develop a genuine, creative passion for inclusion. This is what Reverend Jesse Jackson has long-called the Rainbow Coalition. Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins told the New York Times: “We have to recognize the demographic changes in this country. Republicans cannot win with just rural, white voters.”
People of colour
Felicia Davis of the Black Women’s Roundtable provided insight into the alliance of groups that gave Obama four more years: “The Obama campaign was able to put together a progressive coalition that included people of colour and white women that then put white men in the minority. This broader coalition now has broken up 200 years of white male privilege to the advantage of everyone else.
Should Obama be successful in rebuilding the U.S. economy during a second term, and once voters grasp that “Obamacare” has liberated them from the fear of being driven into bankruptcy by medical emergencies, the new Democratic coalition could prove to have a kind of staying power not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Lessons for Nigeria
The lessons of the U.S. presidential elections should not be lost on Nigerians. Many are dissatisfied with the Peoples Democratic Party, which has been in power since 1999 to little avail. But the truth of the matter is that the PDP is the only national party currently in Nigeria. It is the only party that strings together a national coalition in the elections. Its closest rival, the ACN is essentially a regional party. It has no effective foothold in the North, the South-East or the South-South.
The ACN has three years left to address this imbalance before the 2015 elections. Its leader, Bola Tinubu, should recognise that the President of Nigeria must appeal to a broad coalition of Nigerians. Presidential candidates cannot be elected by mere reliance on South-West votes. Neither can they be elected by Northerners, who for long had a lock on elections at the centre. In the new political dispensation of democratic Nigeria, the president of Nigeria must be a true representative of the people.
In the primary season of the 2011 elections in Nigeria, a big song and dance was made about choosing a Northern candidate for the PDP. Some Northern electoral college was cobbled together and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar was proclaimed the Northern candidate. That proved his undoing.
The Northern candidate had a problem transforming himself into a national candidate. He lost to Goodluck Jonathan, a man from a minority ethnic group, but with a majoritarian political calculus.
After Romney lost, some disgruntled Americans signed petitions calling for the secession of their states from the American union. When Buhari lost in 2011, some core Northerners went on the rampage, burning, looting and killing. They were clearly fed up with the union. The Boko Haram was revived, asking for the division of Nigeria into a Moslem Northern state and a Christian Southern state. But that is hardly the answer and that is just not going to happen. Nigeria will not be divided. To be successful, the next Northern candidate must not be a Northern candidate: he must be a national candidate.
The Igbos deserve to have their kith and kin elected as President of Nigeria. The election of an Igbo as president is long overdue. More than anything else, it will signal the effective end of the Civil War, and the successful re-integration of the Igbos back into Nigeria. But that is just not going to happen unless the Igbos learn from the failure of Mitt Romney.
In the past several weeks, Igbos have been engaged in a war of words with the Yorubas over culpability for the 1967-70 Civil War as a result of Chinua Achebe’s provocative new book: There was a Country. That is bad politics plain and simple. No Yoruba is likely to be president of Nigeria for the next 20 years, given Obasanjo’s recent eight years in power. That makes the Yorubas, the single largest ethnic group in the country who have a tendency to vote en bloc, the kingmakers of Nigerian presidential politics for the foreseeable future. Nigerian presidential aspirants should be careful not to antagonise the Yorubas. They should be courted.That is the new political calculus of democratic Nigeria.