‘Why do you have to say goodbye?
‘If I say goodbye the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I am gone. One last time, the people will learn from me. And if we get it right, we are gonna teach them how to say goodbye…..I will use my position to move the people along’.
The quote above is an excerpt from a musical titled ‘Hamilton’. The words were attributed to George Washington, the first President of the United States of America. This was when after decades in public service and about five years as President, he made up his mind to stand down from the most powerful job in the world. He could have held on.
There would have been many reasons to do so maybe to complete one more project, one more monument; or to clip the powers of ambitious underlings; or to stabilise the foreign allies particularly England and France which were threatening war at the time; or even to stabilise the home front. But he felt he had done enough for his country and the last important lesson he wanted to impart was to teach the people how to let go; how to say goodbye. He said he too wanted to sit in the shade of his scriptural vine and fig tree and be safe in the nation ‘we have built’.
This lesson must have been well imparted and well learnt because for almost two hundred years, there has been a smooth and peaceful transfer of power in the US – and in the one exception where a sitting President didn’t want to leave office, he found the office simply left him. American democracy has endured many stress tests over the years – few people want to leave power willingly anywhere in the world.
Many therefore had tried within the boundaries of politics and guile, to cling on. But the system had always held. Donald Trump, the 45thPresident, had in the last couple of months, done everything possible not to leave power. He refused to learn from George Washington and most of the 44 Presidents before him. He was indecent, he was indecorous, he was blatant in his quest to hold on to power. In the end, it was not only the American constitution that held out. It was the interpretation of the constitution – and the norms – by ordinary officials, some of them fellow Republicans. These folks upheld democracy even at the risk of losing lives and limbs against the relentless onslaughts of the most powerful man in America.
That he got so far, that he garnered so much support, shows the fragility of democracy. Each of the processes that Americans had taken for granted was tested. Two or three shook under stress. But they all held firm at the end. Had Trump been in Eastern Europe, he might have succeeded. Had he been in Africa, he would have been in good company. All it takes after all, is the complicity of only a few people in certain positions for democracy to derail.
Donald Trump is a big man, even by American standards. And all his life, he has been used to dominating space and people. But on Wednesday as he walked towards Marine One for his last trip, he looked small, forlorn and deserted. He tried to put on a brave face but it was obvious his worst nightmares had come to pass.
For a man who craves adulation, who loves to work the crowd, that final walk from the White House, that walk to the aircraft, to eventual and inevitable sunset proved lonely. Only a handful of staff and family met him at Andrews Airforce Base for his under two hour journey to Florida. Even the last big bang, the last hurray he wanted in the form of a big send- off was denied him. He left a disgraced man, a twice impeached man with the lowest approval rating of an American President. All because he didn’t learn how to say goodbye. There will be times in the near future he would wish he hadn’t been such a sore loser, times he would wish he had handled the defeat with more grace, times he would wish he had permitted himself to attend the inaugural ceremony of his successor.
Trump is a man of many faults. But then so are we all. His ‘sin’ in this case was in trying to subvert the wishes of the seven million more Americans who no longer wanted him in the White House. It is a sin in democracy which is a game of numbers.
But it is a sin that is so commonplace in our part of the world that we no longer raise any eyebrow. Almost every politician seeking an elective office subverts the wishes of the people in one way or the other in Nigeria and parts of Africa. And unlike in the US, there are enough complicit functionaries to help him – from INEC to the courts. So he behaves like a demagogue ignoring and oftentimes trampling on the wishes of the people. He turns the office into his birth right and stays as long as feasible.
When he is done, he puts in a proxy while he gravitates to another position in an unending game of roulette. He gets so busy looking for enemies that he forgets to look for solutions to the myriad of problems besetting his country. At the end of the day, everybody comes up empty – himself, his people and his country. If only he can learn to let go. If only he can learn to sit in the shade of his vine or fig tree according to George Washington and enjoy the nation he has helped in building.
President Goodluck Jonathan taught us a lesson when he said his ambition was not worth the shedding of an innocent blood. He taught the nation to move on when he conceded defeat without recourse to violence or even the courts. Some people said he had no choice. But we know that is not true. He had his followers. Some of them were fanatical and were prepared to upturn the applecart. But he chose to look beyond him to a bigger picture.
The nation will always remember this of him. He is the second Head of State to relinquish power. The first was Olusegun Obasanjo. Is it a coincidence that they are both Southern Christians out of the plethora of leaders we have had? Nigeria will be a better place if we can all learn to let goof whatever office we hold–from Club Chairmanship to the Presidency. If anything, it lets in new thinking, new vibrancy. It will also reduce tension when we are assured that each tenure will be respected. Every tenure then becomes like a new birth.
Donald Trump cut a pitiable figure on Wednesday. But it was no less pitiable than Robert Mugabe’s. Or of anybody who does not learn to say goodbye.