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Africa’s lessons for Trump’s America

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Africa’s lessons for Trump’s America

Compared to Liberia, which emerged from a civil war and elected a woman as president, the US’s skewed democracy, with its bizarre electoral college and its recent penchant for electing the least qualified, has a lot to learn, writes Robtel Neajai Pailey.

During the African Studies Association annual meeting held in Washington, DC in December 2016, Ghanaian scholar Dr. Takyiwaa Manuh wittily encouraged Americans to “consult Africa on how to trump your Trump”.

On the surface, she was alluding to how Africans have perfected the art of outmanoeuvring leaders who do not have a legitimate mandate.

But there’s a more profound element to the suggestion made by Manuh, now a senior manager at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).

Trump’s victory has exposed the emperor’s nakedness. For a country that believes it has a monopoly on democracy, lecturing Africa and other parts of the world about how to do it well, the US has failed miserably in democratising the franchise.

Now, Africa was never a permanent fixture in any US presidential debate leading up to the 8 November election, nor did the continent feature prominently in public discourse. Yet, one thing remains clear to me. For a region that barely got a sideways glance, it remains a continent to which Americans must look for inspiration now more than ever before.

Let’s begin with the presidential candidates themselves and the US’s  unique brand of vote weighing. The least qualified US presidential candidate of all time beat the most qualified through a deeply flawed electoral college system.

Add the misogynistic vitriol hurled at Clinton, independent of her political flaws, and you have got the makings of a truly lopsided system that rewards inexperience, “locker room talk”, brashness and bullying to the nth degree.

Compare that to my own country, Liberia, where the most qualified candidate in 2005 – a septuagenarian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who had spent 40 years in politics, international development and banking – managed to wrestle victory from hugely popular football star-turned-politician George Weah in a high stakes run-off.

If a country like Liberia can elect its first female president in back-to-back post-war elections, then we must be doing something right.

The US’s elitist two-party system and low voter turnout are also telling. 43.5% of the American electorate was either too disillusioned or did not care enough to vote in one of the most important elections of the country’s history.


We have seen disaffected and disillusioned voters in Africa eject authoritarian leaders.


Perhaps the choice between Trump and Clinton did not seem like a real choice at all. But this is exactly where America must learn from Africa. Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging, in most African elections voter turn-out averages 50-60 per cent (or more), each vote counts equally and the majority rules. Although the Liberian electoral system is modelled after the US’s, Liberia’s 2005 and 2011 elections saw more than 70% voter turnout, 20 presidential candidates with a few front-runners and no one party dominating our bicameral House or Senate. If we say democracy is about expanded choice, Liberians will be spoilt for it once again come October 2017.

In the past decade alone, we have seen disaffected and disillusioned voters in Africa eject authoritarian leaders, if not through revolutionary zeal – Egypt, Tunisia and Burkina Faso come to mind – then certainly through the ballot box.

While ultra-conservative rhetoric has hypnotised many US and European voters, African citizens have galvanised resistance movements across the continent. We have a long, rich history of trumping the likes of Trump and what he stands for – from Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa’s battle against British colonialism in Ghana, to the Mau Mau anti-colonial struggles in Kenya, to the more recent protests amongst the Oromo in pockets of Ethiopia.

When women peace activists in Liberia pushed for the removal of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor in 2003 by threatening to strip naked and feigning a sex strike, they were paying homage to Nigerian women who led the Aba Riots in 1929.

We must remember that Nelson Mandela and comrades were labelled terrorists by the apartheid regime for launching Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, an armed struggle that made South Africa ungovernable for decades.

Lest the world forget, Africans were battling structural adjustment before it got euphemised as “austerity” and we have also resisted widespread land grabbing, natural resource exploitation and extraction, deregulation, privatisation, and lived to tell countless stories about our exploits.

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Written by Robtel Neajai Pailey

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book, Gbagba.
(Profile image by Kate Lloyd Photography)

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