Nkasi Wodu is a lawyer, peacebuilding practitioner, and development expert based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
On January 6, a large group of rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to unconstitutionally obstruct the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, following his triumph in the presidential election held on November 3. Fortunately for U.S. democracy, centuries-old institutions held firm in the face of this assault, as Vice President Mike Pence officially announced President-Elect Biden’s victory after Congress completed the counting of the votes. Unfortunately, the events on January 6 could prove detrimental for democracy in the developing world.
For many years, the United States has stood as the beacon of hope for democracy in the world, using its resources to promote democratic values and discourage autocracy from Africa to Latin America to the former Soviet Union. While there have, admittedly, been valid criticisms targeted at some of these efforts, what is apparent is that for decades the United States has helped create space for civil society actors to push for reforms, hold their governments accountable, and build the capacity of emerging activists.
Specifically, the United States has stood as the prototype for which civil society actors in African countries push their governments to pursue. However, in a dark twist of fate, many African dictators and faux democrats are now bolstered by the recent happenings in the United States—dubbed an insurrection by President-Elect Biden, while others have called it a coup or domestic terrorism—as an excuse not to uphold democratic tenets which the United States has long defended. Sadly, for many African countries, the events at Capitol Hill may have done irreparable damage to their struggling democracies.
Civil society actors have pointed to seamless, non-violent transitions of power in the United States as norms that African governments should aspire to meet. There are numerous examples in sub-Saharan Africa—including Nigeria, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burundi, and Ethiopia—where mismanaged election processes have truncated transitions and led to violence, military coups, and even civil wars. Activists in African countries have pushed for electoral reform as an essential ingredient for democracy and an antidote to African leaders’ penchant for decades-long terms. The allegations of fraud from many of President Trump’s supporters have not only cast a shadow on the integrity of the process, but also made the work of civil society actors harder by emboldening African political leaders—whose first victim is usually the integrity of the electoral process—to continue organizing elections in which results bear no resemblance to the collective will of the majority.
Human rights abuses committed by security forces are another area where African activists have challenged governments. Many African leaders are quick to use the various security agencies under their control to suppress dissent. The efforts of civil society organizations in mobilizing against this practice in the past two decades have been impressive. While the United States has many documented problems regarding police brutality, particularly against persons of color, many civil society actors in Africa have pushed for more accountability of security agencies in their countries using the United States as an imperfect example. Following the violent response to Black Live Matters protests by many U.S. police departments in the summer of 2020, some African countries—such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Kenya, Uganda, and Ivory Coast—have also seen increasing crackdowns on peaceful protesters.
The same can be said of restrictions on civic space in many African countries. While it can be argued that some African governments have consistently pursued dissenting voices, the Trump administration’s inclination to label unflattering news as “fake” and offer “alternative facts” has allowed governments to clamp down on dissenting voices under the guise of limiting the spread of fake news. Nigeria’s minister of information, for example, has continued to push for legislation imposing harsh penalties for the sharing of fake news on social media.
When U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer said that “January 6 will go down as one of the darkest days of recent American history,” he was not speaking only for Americans. African civil society actors’ painstaking efforts to build the foundations of representative democracy have inevitably been made more difficult as the guiding light from the “shining city on a hill” has become dimmer. So, while American institutions have seemingly survived the latest assault, its effects will certainly reverberate abroad in many African countries. As then-President Biden begins the difficult task of rebuilding the country after taking his oath of office on January 20, he should consider that restoring functional democracy in the United States is a prerequisite for his foreign policy agenda of revitalizing the American commitment to human rights and democracy around the world. As Biden himself said, the United States leads not by the example of its power, but the power of its example.