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Learning from America’s Democratic challenges

ON July 4, 1776, thirteen British colonies made a Declaration of Independence that established the United States of America as a free and democratic nation.

After 236 years and many democratic challenges, the United States still stands as a leader of freedom and democracy. Suffice to say, “in today’s world of improved global interaction, any nation serious about building strong democracy must learn and implement the right values from America’s democratic challenges”.

That was what my political science professor told me many years ago when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

In saying this, he instilled in me the idea that societies can, in a very short time, learn and implement the right values for democracy to thrive. He also made me understand that achieving a strong democracy is not a reinvention of the wheel. It is a matter of applying the right principles and values.  So, those who make the argument that Nigeria requires two centuries to get democracy right are wrong.

If this logic is right, then Nigerians require just as much time to learn to drive cars and use the cell phones and computer technologies they are using today. Such arguments are illogical and prejudice against Nigerians the right to learn. Yet we claim to have produced some of the world’s best scholars.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court set another good example for nations that are serious about achieving a functioning constitutional democracy. It upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Obama Health Care Plan opposed by Republicans.

The “individual mandate” clause specifies that people who have the means to buy health insurance must do so or face a penalty. Republicans argued that it is unconstitutional for the government to mandate its citizens to buy a particular product. In a 5 to 4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the government is within its constitutional limits.

There is nothing unusual about this ruling, but the lesson is in the judge upon whose vote the constitutionality of Obama Care was determined.

Justice John Roberts is a conservative judge appointed to the Supreme Court by former President George Bush. As a Senator, Obama vehemently opposed the appointment of Justice Roberts to the Supreme Court.

Yet, he became the man who helped establish Obama’s legacy as the President who changed health care. Justice Roberts interpreted the United States Constitution purely as a constitutional scholar who is guided by moral principles regardless of who is on the other end of the argument.

He adhered to personal conviction guided by a deep sense of morality. Perhaps, if Nigerian leaders learn to be guided by morals and personal conviction, Nigeria would be a better nation. I have once argued that Nigeria has a moral and not structural or constitutional problem.

This recent example proves that for any constitutional democracy to function well, all three aspects of government must operate independently. Over the years, the United States has set good examples of what democracy is all about. But Nigerian leaders pervert the lessons from these examples in order to use them for selfish reasons.

They indoctrinate Nigerians into accepting these perverted lessons in order to legitimatise actions that impede Nigeria’s democratic path. In fact, it has become a very noticeable trend.

This trend started in a more pronounced manner during the 2000 American presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore.

Al Gore won the national popular vote, which is the regular balloting. However, George Bush was awarded the electoral votes of Florida and thus the election. Amid allegations of voter misconduct and hanging chad ballots, Al Gore challenged the elections results in court.

It took five weeks and the intervention of the American Supreme Court to stop the counting of chads, and Bush was declared the winner. This election became one of the most challenging presidential elections in the history of America’s democracy, and other nations, including Nigeria, looked on with interest.

Nigerian politicians worked very
hard to get Nigerians to accept the Al Gore and George Bush elections as  evidence that elections are rigged, even in the United States.

They used it to validate the blatant rigging of elections in Nigeria. But there are several positive lessons in the Gore/ Bush elections for any nation that is serious about its own democratic process. For instance, the prevalence of domestic peace in a time of great democratic challenges in the United States, the swiftness with which the courtrooms in Florida and the Supreme Court resolved the issues (the United States Supreme Court resolved the case in 72 hours), and the civility and restraint exercised by supporters on both sides.

But in all this, what bothers me the most is the underlying mentality that Nigeria cannot do better with the same democratic challenges faced by the United States.

The widespread idea that if something is wrong with America, Nigeria has no business in trying to make it better is a crippling democratic factor. This is not the general mentality in many other nations who are serious about building a strong society.

In fact other nations are determined to do better than the United States, not only in instilling democratic values, they are determined to do better than the United States in innovations and education; this is the only way for any  nation to survive the future.

In a time when the rest of world is learning the right values in democracy, Nigeria’s democracy remains questionable if it continues to use the United States as excuse for what it fails to get right. The democratic process is not always a smooth one.

Nigerian leaders must come to understand that for democracy to survive in Nigeria, the collective goal must be to learn and to implement the positives. Democracy in action is a complex process. What makes it complex is that it must evolve as societies keep getting more sophisticated. Serious nations must learn and implement the right democratic values.

Mr. HAMILTON ODUNZE, a journalist, wrote from USA.

 


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