Compare these two announcements:
- The African Union is an institution that is built on the fundamentals of liberal democratic values and good governance. The AU is, therefore, disturbed by the statements by the incumbent President of the United States, Mr Donald J. Trump, on the possibility of electoral fraud during the forthcoming presidential elections in November.
- Upcoming Elections in Africa: The United States is committed to supporting free, fair, inclusive elections. The conduct of elections is important not only for Africans, but also for defenders of democracy around the world.
The first is a spoof written by Professor Babatunde Fagbayibo and published in The Continent, a weekly Pan-African newspaper. The second is an actual press release issued by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo barely a week later. Right on cue! Timing is everything in comedy.
But rather than comedy, let’s imagine that we are watching a pompous operatic tragedy. As an art form, tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate or the will of the gods. The fake AU letter sets the scene effectively by describing ‘the way in which US institutions have for decades passed judgment on the quality of African elections’. Now, however, the tables are turned, and the beacon of the free world is no longer shining so brightly. President Trump has repeatedly declined to confirm that he will accept the election results if he loses and has instead gone out of his way to discredit the electoral system and encourage vigilantism. The AU needs to act. According to the spoof, the African organization has resolved ‘to establish a high level committee to assess Mr Trump’s claims’ and to deploy an ‘electoral observer mission’ to the US.
As the US political theatre descends into turmoil and conflict, the plot thickens, and more characters appear on the stage – now in real life. Seasoned Africa observers suggest that the US is in need of a heavy dose of its own medicine of democracy promotion. African leaders and politicians join the chorus of condemnation, decrying systemic racism and its implications for a peaceful, free and fair election. The Chairperson of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemns the murder of George Floyd, and rejects the continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens in the United States of America. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo says he is ‘shocked and distraught by the killing of an unarmed black man… by a white police officer’, adding that it cannot be right ‘that, in the 21st century, the United States, this great bastion of democracy, continues to grapple with the problem of systemic racism.’
Enter Mr Pompeo: ‘As long-time partners to the nations of Africa, we care about the region’s democratic trajectory’. For dramatic effect, let’s add a threat: ‘We will watch closely the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences.’
He is joined by a minor supporting character, the US Ambassador to Tanzania, who enters the stage briefly and tweets: ‘I’m concerned by the reports I’m hearing of politically motivated violence and overall increase in tensions as we get closer to Tanzania’s elections.’
Hubris indeed! Bad habits are hard to kick, and so are decades of high-handed, moralizing foreign policy traditions.
At first glance, the AU and other the African characters in this play appear as the nemesis of the US, agents of poetic justice, where the good guys are rewarded for their virtues, and the evil ones punished for their vices, or at the very least, where hubris receives its comeuppance. The latter would be no bad thing, but in this real-life tragedy the democratic flaws of the noble hero are not the exclusive property of the US. They belong equally to many African countries.
In Guinea, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire, three countries where elections are due in October, citizens are worried about their freedoms and opposition parties are routinely harassed. Political violence is a real fear in both Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. Presidential elections are scheduled in at least 10 of Africa’s 54 countries over the next five months. All of the incumbents but one want to stay in office, giving some substance to the US State Department’s press release.
Fortunately, the audience of our play is not easily fooled by either the hero or his nemesis. African citizens and activists quickly recognized their own oppression and social injustice in the Black Lives Matter movement. In both South Africa and Kenya, for example, demonstrators marched not only for an end to police brutality in the US, but also to change the oppressive colonial style policing in their own countries. According to Amnesty International Kenya, the police killed 20 people during the country’s COVID-19 curfew. In South Africa protests erupted after the police shot 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who had Down Syndrome, for no other reason than they had problems understanding what he was saying. In Nigeria, protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) continue.
For the record, the Chairperson of the AU has yet to send an official letter of condemnation to President Kenyatta and President Ramaphosa.
As an art form, tragedy is said to have a cathartic effect. Watching great tragic theatre, both Plato and Aristotle argue, is a cleansing and purifying experience. By arousing terror and pity in the spectator, tragedy leads to catharsis of these emotions, and we leave the theatre feeling relieved, happy and more human.
Watching real-life political tragedy is rarely cathartic. The exit signs have been removed and the terror and pity cannot be left behind in an empty theatre. Instead, we are forced to take a long hard look at all the players – American and African alike – exposing the double standards all too easily concealed by political theatrics.
Checkout another great post from the CIPS Blog