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US Senate’s failure to impeach Trump a cause for dismay among African democrats

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John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

US Congressman Joe Neguse, the son of Eritrean immigrants with insights into the African diaspora, asserted that if Donald Trump were allowed impunity, it would risk encouraging other democratically elected demagogues to try to retain power in similar ways. His warning should be heeded by citizens everywhere.

African democrats have cause for dismay at the US Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump. Trump’s impeachment cited his several alleged attacks on essential elements of democratic integrity, accountability and sustainability that have been tried by populist autocrats in African nations seeking to remain in power, creating what political scientists call “electoral autocracies”.

Here are just a few aspects of Trump’s impeachment that have threatened democratic consolidation and resilience across Africa.

The populist appeal to tribal identity

In his 2016 campaign, Trump blatantly appealed to white supremacists by fallaciously asserting Barack Obama was an illegitimate president, with the false claim that he had been born in Kenya. 

Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” was understood by his white nationalist base to mean great again – for them. 

As the Covid-19 crisis deepened in 2020 and the economy cratered, Trump became more strident in stoking fears among his white ethnic base that he could only lose because the election fraudulently favoured those who were not “real” Americans.  

Trump refused to agree to concede

His second attack on the democratic process was his refusal to say whether he would accept the results of the election, should he lose. 

All main candidates in US presidential quadrennial elections since the first in 1788/89 have freely given such assurance in advance. In the current US system, this means accepting the result of the electoral college vote, even if one wins the popular vote, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016 by nearly three million votes. 

Although Biden won both the popular and the electoral college votes in 2020, Trump refused to concede defeat, which is a serious affront to a core feature of any sustainable democracy.

Pressuring changes in voting results

As also documented in video recordings, Trump pressured electoral officials in at least one key swing state, Georgia, to change the results, and award him their electoral college votes. 

In the many African elections that I observed as an officer of the Carter Centre, I know how challenging it can be to ensure that the voting registration and tabulation is fully transparent and reflects the will of the people. 

A just-released Afrobarometer survey in a representative range of African countries confirms a worrying trend that, while a majority of voters still has faith in elections, their support for elections is weakening as growing numbers believe they are ineffective in holding leaders accountable. Trump’s behaviour similarly threatened broader public confidence in election results.

Use of violence

Finally, and most egregiously, was Trump’s instigation of violence. 

US House of Representatives impeachment managers presented a fact-based indictment in pleading for convicting Trump of instigating his supporters to violently assault the US Capitol. 

On 6 January 2021, the day of the assault, Congress had convened to certify his challenger, Joe Biden, as the winner of the 3 November 2020 presidential election. Provoking the mob was Trump’s last desperate tactic to obstruct the results of an election he had not won.

Although American elections have been stained by violence against black people seeking to exercise their voting rights, no incumbent president has ever used violence against a challenger. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence, including first-hand video accounts of the victims of both parties now sitting as Senate jurors, the final vote failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority to convict.

Conviction was blocked by a Republican minority of 43 senators, primarily from small rural states – predominantly white, Christian conservatives. 

Wyoming, with less than a million people, has two senators. Nearby is highly pluralistic liberal California with a population of 40 million, but also represented by only two senators. It is a further indication of the threat to inclusive democracy by a highly motivated ethnic minority seeking to dominate others, another form of “state capture”, a familiar threat to many diverse African democracies. 

Listening to Trump’s impeachment hearings, I recall congressman Joe Neguse asserting that if Trump were allowed impunity, it would risk encouraging other democratically elected demagogues to try to retain power in similar ways. 

Neguse, the youngest impeachment manager at 37, is also the son of Eritrean immigrants, with insights into the African diaspora. His warning should be heeded by citizens everywhere.

Establishing regular and politically salient African channels for cooperation on issues such as public health, climate change, and benefits and costs of new technologies, could be tied to their respective needs to render democratic governance more transparent and accountable, thereby gaining citizen support for the very reforms necessary to prevent the abuses of power at the heart of Trump’s impeachment. DM

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