By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, OFR, CON
Political institutions have been defined as the organisations in government that create, enforce and apply laws; they prescribe, enact and implement the set of rules which an orderly society obeys and ultimately decides and administers the laws for violators.
One of the most important elements of governance is stability, and without time-hallowed political institutions, a democratic political system cannot work. In addition, political institutions constrain the political actors by punishing deviations from institutionally-prescribed behaviours.
Recently, the United States of America witnessed a tumultuous post-election era and violence resulting in the death of some of its citizens, with President Donald Trump employing all antics to retain political power despite his clear loss at the Presidential elections.
From intimidations, dismissal of perceived non-conformists and bullying of political adversaries, social media rants, outright lies, incitement to violence, the United States of America is at one of its darkest political hours. Fuelled by the President and his deliberate spread of anti-democratic falsehoods, Capitol – the seat of the US Congress in Washington DC – was, for the first time since the War of 1812, invaded.
The extremists bashed in doors, smashed windows and clashed with the police, caused the evacuation of members of the Congress, vandalised and desecrated the House chamber and occupied the Speaker’s rostrum. The Washington Post, in its January 7, 2021 issue, reeled out a macabre headline: Trump Mob Storms Capitol: President Incites Crowd to Acts of Insurrection, Violence.
No doubt, these recent events have attracted the attention of the world, even our own APC-led Federal Government reportedly condemned the invasion in the following words: “The events of the past 72 hours in the United States of America is, to say the least condemnable. Over time, the elections of the US has been used as a touchstone for elections in other democracies. It is settled that strong institutions are fundamental to the sustenance of democracies. However, this US election saga strongly underscores the fact that the integrity of the country’s leader essentially complements the workings of these institutions”.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, however, one thing is clear: no democratically elected President of the United States can topple the system. Trump employed a multi-faceted strategy to retain power, attempting to use the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, all to no avail. Under the Constitution of the United States, the Vice President is an officer of the legislative branch as the President of the Senate.
Trump had attempted to use Pence’s position in the Senate to discard the electoral votes required to make Biden the next President. However, Pence insisted that he did not have the powers to throw out the electoral votes as Trump had wanted. Trump had earlier filed about 57 electoral lawsuits to challenge the results of the Presidential elections, most of which were either denied, dismissed or withdrawn.
In addition, Trump had attempted to coerce the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough Republican votes to overturn the State’s presidential election result, and when the transcripts of this conversation were released to the press, many agreed that it constituted an offence that can ground an impeachment. From all these, it is clear that the United States has political institutions which are bigger than any of its elected representatives, one which cannot falter to threats, intimidation or coercion even from the sitting President. This, however, is not the case in Nigeria.
The Nigerian situation: It is a known fact that politics in Nigeria is constituted by bribery, nepotism, intimidation, use of overwhelming political force, among others. Perhaps if Trump were to be Nigerian or President of an African country, all he did would have been enough to stay in power.
Nigeria practices a presidential system of government wherein the president is both the head of state and the head of government. The country’s legislative powers are reposed in a two-chamber National Assembly and the respective Houses of Assembly. Based on the present structure, there is the centralisation of powers in the Federal Government.
The Constitution ensures that the central government controls the revenues and nearly all of the country’s resources, especially oil and natural gas. Revenues accrue in the Federation Account, where it is allocated monthly to the states and the local government authorities by a federal executive body, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation, and Fiscal Commission. There is an incidence of total resource control by the Federal Government, wherein the component states are weakened and impaired to carry on self-sustenance. In addition, the Nigerian political space is characterised by a total lack of ideology, whereby politicians are free to move about the myriad of political parties to achieve their whims.
Reposed with wide executive powers, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria wields enormous political influence cutting across all governmental and private institutions, including the press. We recently witnessed how the government imposed fines on Channels television, AIT and Arise TV over alleged ethical infractions during the #ENDSARS protests and the ensuing crises, unlike in the United States wherein the government respected the freedom of the press to cover the riots objectively.
In fact, the US media, including social media like Twitter and Facebook, played a major role in steadily debunking all the news of electoral fraud being spread by the President. Were it to be in Nigeria, those media houses would have been subjected to heavy fines for daring to challenge the reports being made by the President.
There had been other instances wherein the general will of the people faltered to the whims of individuals in power – the incidence of the annulment of the June 12 presidential election, which was won by Alhaji MKO Abiola as case in point. This attests to the weakness of the nation’s political institutions.
The strong, independent judiciary of the United States stood its grounds in denying or dismissing several of the President’s electoral cases wherein he alleged massive fraud in the presidential elections, without being able to prove a single instance of such. A law professor of the Harvard University, Laurence Tribe, noted as follows: “It has been reassuring – and, to cynics, stunning – to see judges across the country, whether appointed by Republican or Democratic presidents, following the law and insisting that allegations of fraud or other grounds for upsetting the elections conducted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia be proven.
“A tweet or a press conference do not require proof, and freedom of speech protects the right to make false claims. Although courts are supposed to be different, in some countries they have failed to stop despots from taking or staying in power. Perhaps the most important story of the 2020 election for American democracy will be about the dog that didn’t bark: the judges who did their jobs exactly as the Constitution envisions.”
Without any doubt, the strength of any democracy is the judiciary which must remain independent, impartial and unwavering in its pursuit of ensuring that justice is done. It must not be subject to the whims and caprices of those in power. The United States judiciary once again proved to the world that they can discharge their constitutional duties without any fear or favour, notwithstanding their appointment by any political office holder.
Recently, the nine justices of the US Supreme Court – including the three appointed by Trump – denied an appeal by a Republican representative, who had sought to have his state’s election results thrown out with a terse, one-sentence order: “The application for injunctive relief presented to Justice [Samuel] Alito and by him referred to the Court is denied”.
Unlike Nigeria which keeps on failing most of its democratic stress tests, the United States of America has proven that the antics of one man, no matter how concerted cannot, and should not cause the country to flounder badly. A nation’s political institutions are the bedrock of its sustainable governance. It is, therefore, imperative that steps are taken to strengthen Nigerian political institutions to bring them to the point where they can serve as effective safeguards against political tyranny and maladministration.
Unfortunately, this may prove difficult in view of the lopsided nature of the structure of the country which is itself a product of a constitution that was thrust upon the country by the military. Until steps are taken to forge a true people’s Constitution through the machinery of a properly constituted Sovereign Conference, the dream of having strong and virile political institutions may remain just that: a dream or to borrow the words of the late Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie “a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained.”