Autocratic Rule: ‘See, Even the Americans Do It’

On the night of the 2016 election in the United States, a group of men from the Ethiopian Diaspora are sitting and chatting away at a table of a popular bar in San Francisco, California. It is past midnight and the likely outcome of a Donald Trump victory has cast a dark and gloomy shadow inside the establishment. Everyone is subdued and quiet as election results stream in on the television screens.

Even among the Ethiopian patrons, their usual animation is curtailed. They are softly talking and watching the television screens that display maps of the US steadily turning Republican-leaning as state after state falls behind Trump.

“It is Obama’s fault,” declares one of the men, connecting the former president to the improbable triumph of a person who is poised to be the new president.

The point is argued roundly, defended and disparaged with equal measure, and then the discussion somehow turns to Ethiopian politics.

Ethiopian politics is never too far from any gathering of the Diaspora and it remains the centrifugal force that bends and shapes the core of all discussions.

“When President Obama visited Addis Abeba, he did not hold the government accountable. He did not hold them to the fire. He just laughed, smiled and shook their hands and left without doing much,” concludes the first man.

The “them” and “they” is the oblique and frequent reference to the leaders of the country.

“That is true,” agrees his companion sitting opposite, “but Trump is different, though. He will not allow our leaders to play games with America anymore. He is a shrewd businessman and he will hold them accountable.”

To the anguish of all the customers at the bar, and the shock and clamour of the world, Donald Trump is anointed President that night. The United States – a bastion of justice, freedom, democracy and human rights to many – has just elected a leader that we are more likely to find in Africa.

Trump unveils himself rather swiftly eager to display his true colours. He begins by dismantling the immigration laws in a way that will negatively affect the Diaspora, disparages Africans, and quickly finds himself mired in personal scandals.

Donald Trump, who never had a view on Africa, let alone Ethiopia, is internally wired like many of our continent’s dictators, past and present. He shares with African leaders many common autocratic traits that Americans find alarming and bewitching.

Most of us Africans, however, are inured to the ways of dictators. He breaks norms and customs of governance, makes public speeches as if he is engaged in a beerhouse brawl with his drinking buddies, throws insults freely, mocks and disparages innocent people, and stares down and scowls at those that challenge him.

The familiar scent of the strongman traits in Donald Trump is too apparent. The trademark signs are there for all to see – the grownup children who imitate him, the cadre of yes men that surround him, and his bullying and intimidation.

There is little danger, however, that Trump will alter the American system of government. Unlike Africa, where governments can rule by decrees and declarations or can prolong their hold on power endlessly by manipulating elections and parliamentary procedures, the governmental system of the United States is resilient enough to toss him out after two terms.

Yes, he must first muster a re-election win for a second four-year term. But, this is also assuming that he survives his first term from impeachment by Congress, an indictment by the US Justice Department criminal investigators, or he may just resign to ward off a Special Counsel probe that is looking into alleged criminal behaviours.

The United States will rid of him sooner or later. Then, the pendulum will swing away from Donald Trump and a new beginning will dawn much as it does after each president. President Barack Obama, whatever his legacy might be, allowed the nation a new sweep after the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars created by his predecessor, President George Bush.

The real danger of a Trump presidency lies elsewhere. African leaders, who are still grudgingly weaning themselves away from dictatorial bents, may take heart in this fringe President and begin to justify their grip on power by pointing to America.

The discredited argument that Africa, and indeed Ethiopia, is better off under a strongman rule may reemerge, and the new mantra may be “see, even America is doing it.”

The American system of governance may allow the emergence of the likes of Trump, but it has, fortunately, the resiliency to check it. It has the ability to renew and adjust itself, amend its laws and regulations, and otherwise respond to the crises effectively.

The United States deals with its political difficulties by turning to a beautifully choreographed, operatic, stylistic and legalistic movements controlled by the constitution that keep the whole in tack but evict the sickness.

There is no need for emergency military declarations, command posts and suspension of fundamental rights. The rule of law will continue to reign supremely over the entire country, and the system will merely renew itself without having to alter the basic system of checks and balances. Americans can afford to go about their business and outwait Trump, work to defeat him in the next election, or just kick back and let the justice system hunt him down if he has violated any law.

This American trajectory is what is hoped for Ethiopia – a system of government that is capable of checks and balances, rule of law and renewals. The unending discussions of Ethiopian politics by the American Diaspora, where homesickness and anxiety over separation add to the emotions, often leads to circular arguments.

But almost all agree that the United States, home to thousands of Ethiopians, is both a safe refuge and the desired model of government to be emulated by the homeland. Most of the Ethiopian men watching the election results at the San Francisco bar had voted against Trump earlier that day. They had hoped for his defeat but accept the results as a true and legal outcome of the American experience. Meanwhile, they hanker and wait to witness a similar political process in the home country.

The men fell silent after results start coming in showing that the State of Florida has fallen into Donald Trump’s camp, essentially sealing the election of an implausible candidate. As the men left the bar, the true picture of a Trump Presidency has not emerged, and they had no suspicion about what will unfold within days of his inauguration.

Published on Jun 02,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 944]



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