My first encounter with a US election was very early in my teenage years. With a blue Walkman player (in the days before ipods and mp3s) I had discovered the Voice of America on short wave, and it was thoroughly fascinating that issues and happenings from faraway were now in my ears as real as someone standing next to me speaking to me.
That was election 2000, George W. Bush vs Al Gore. Eight years later, I was an intern in arguably one of Nigeria’s finest multinational Accounting & Business Advisory firms. It was my first real exposure to the corporate world, the corner office and office bureaucracies. It was spiced by meeting lovely ambitious people, young and old, intellectual discussions over lunch over sumptuous meals and appetizing deserts.
The topic most often up for discussion was Barack Obama vs Hillary Clinton. Clearly CNN on the plasma TV in the dining room fuelled the debate. It was exciting, educative and strange at the same time watching staff argue over the black candidate or the female candidate. Their knowledge of issues in the United States were deeply rooted in either an educational background in the States or Canada, a living experience of some sort in the US, a passport stamped over and over with a United States Visa, or hours spent watching CNN and reading Time Magazine.
It felt strange though as I couldn’t understand how an election in another country could resonate in many ways in Lagos, Nigeria even almost leading to factions existing in the firm. For some reason, I don’t remember Nigerian issues debated over lunch. I do remember vividly however, Nigeria being a butt joke for not winning a Gold medal at the Beijing Olympics despite carrying a plane load of athletes, however ONE man, an American, Michael Phelps had won eight gold medals, or so the joke went.
Looking back now, I do understand. I am now older, and I have seen enough to realise that Nigeria’s urban culture thrives on a sort of escapism. We are too ashamed to confront the realities before us, so we escape with our minds to ‘foreign issues’ and every four years when the US elections come around, we become Republican or Democrat. We hold our own small debates with our ‘elite’ friends over a drink, in office hallways, and even in church.
Anand Giridharadas wrote about this in his The New York Times article of October 08, 2011 titled: ‘In Lagos, Putting The Frills Before The Basics’, saying: “The prosperous have their ways around these burdens. Today they are as much a part of a global conversation as a Nigerian one, thanks to their technologies. The pockmarked, flooded roads beneath their feet toss them up and down inside their cars, but on their phones and iPads they can be somewhere else. The Lagos elite, I found, have more interest in, and knowledge about, the latest twists and turns of the U.S. presidential race than many Americans. One way to escape the afflictions of your own place is to preoccupy yourself with another’s.”
We all agree that US Election 08 was historical, with a worldwide effect. A Black man, Senator Barack Obama became President Barack Obama. I still remember being roused from sleep by boys screaming: ‘Obama! Obama!! Obama!!!’ around the University hall of residence, as they made a mad rush to the common room to watch the highlights on CNN. I was too tired to join as I had stayed up following the numbers on the Internet until I finally gave up and retired to bed.
This time in 2012, I have begun to follow the elections again but this time, my mind switches back to Nigeria with each thought. Last week as I watched a bit of the Republican Conventions, I wondered if the politicians in Nigeria watched this sort of thing. The organization was superb, keynote speakers were lined up to endorse Governor Mitt Romney. The speakers addressed ISSUES not PERSONALITIES. No foul words were used, intellectual arguments were put forward in an orderly manner and even the Obama campaign team know that they have to address certain issues, reassure Americans or get voted out.
Have we all noticed that no one is talking about rigging? That every address by everyone who has spoken at the Republican or Democratic Convention primarily addressed ISSUES?
I am especially impressed at the number of debates that go on before the election itself. Governor Romney debated severally with other candidates before he was nominated on issues around the economy, Defence Budgets, Tax matters, the Stock Markets, Job Creation, Health Care Issues and more. Nigerians do candidates within PDP or ACN have debates before their primaries?
Now you would also observe that both national conventions were attended by everyday people and not only rich politicians. The average American has a political allegiance rooted many times in family values, and upbringing. A huge percentage of Americans are Republican or Democrats, and take these loyalties seriously. How many ordinary Nigerians are devoted PDP, ACN or ANPP members? Aren’t our party meetings dominated by money sharing schemes, and dirty talk? Party meetings have few intellectuals and more touts and so what do we expect?
Nigeria needs to observe and learn from the US in this context. The average Nigerian is illiterate on issues surrounding governance in this nation and so it is easy for politicians to manipulate the populace. The common assumption that a government is bad, and only in power to steal, has made us as a people unwilling to hold leadership at any level accountable. If you disagree with me, I challenge you to tell me the name of your Local Government chairman, your State and Federal constituency ward of the place you reside in and your representatives at both levels. Many of us don’t know and this is where it begins.
The US is certainly not perfect, neither is the on-going Election perfect, however Nigeria has a lot to learn. Let Nigerians leave the debates to the Americans, let us only observe, learn the lessons and then we can debate Nigerian issues and hold our government accountable.