By James N. Kariuki*
Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009 was by far more glorious than the one four years later. It captured the initial dramatic affirmation that America was sincerely loosening its grip on politics of racial hatred. To Africa, the same inauguration should have had an equally poignant message that political differences should not invariably degenerate into personal or ethnic hatred.
At the Obama’s first inauguration, bitter political rivals sat side by side united in their American-ness. The contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination was bitter. Yet, despite her stunning defeat, Clinton sat immediately behind the new president at the inauguration. And yet this honorable act paled in comparison to Republican John McCain’s graciousness in his short concession-of-defeat speech two months earlier. Is such remarkable political sophistication worthy of Africa’s notice or emulation?
Philosophically, the US Republican Party does not have much to offer to the international community but, in context of American national the politics, it does play a significant role. For example, in the 1996 presidential campaign the Republican contender, Robert Dole, was urged by his campaign subordinates to make some unflattering remarks against his Democratic rival, Bill Clinton. To his eternal credit Dole declined, stating that Clinton was his opponent, not his enemy.
Those simple words were loaded with political wisdom and maturity. Bob Dole disagreed with Bill Clinton on almost every political issue. Yet, more fundamentally, he knew and understood that both were comrades-in-arms in a shared interest in America’s welfare. The same sentiments were clearly there when McCain conceded to Obama.
That was patriotism; it was what bound them together as Americans. In other words, Dole implied, it was important to be a Republican but it was more so that he, like Clinton, was American first and foremost.
In Africa, there is a prevailing tendency for presidential incumbents and contenders to view political differences as personal affronts. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has repeatedly shown personal loathing for the country’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Could it be the case that Kenya’s J.M. Kariuki lost his life in 1975 for questioning the moral authority of the country’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta? What about Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko?
When public issues are personalized, visions of ‘national interests’ become blurred. Put another way, since African leaders have habitually fallen short of putting national visions above personal interests, they have betrayed the continent and their respective countries. This legacy is uncommon in the US experience.
In the American political history, Richard Nixon is remembered as the most ambitious politician at the presidential level. But this ambition was mitigated by national loyalty. In 1960, Nixon lost in the bid for US presidency against John Kennedy. Yet, the margin was so small that Republican advisors urged Nixon to demand a recount. Nixon dismissed the suggestion outright on the grounds that such a recount would have plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis.
While the so-called ‘ambitious’ Nixon could smell the pinnacle of power, he loathed the prospect of ripping his country apart constitutionally in the interest of his quest for personal power. His sense of being American left no room for distortion of national interests in pursuit of his ambitions. He thus made the honorable choice: my-country-before-my-ambitions.
It is true that in the years to come, Nixon ambitiousness brought his presidency to grief when he resigned the presidency in disgrace because of the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s. However, this does not minimize that his decision not to contest the 1960 election results was a measure of remarkable leadership and patriotism.
In Africa today, it is almost a fashionable trend to challenge election results. The ‘political disease’ first erupted in Angola’s 1992 national elections in form of what came to be known as the ‘Savimbi Syndrome,’ the claim that “either I win or the elections were not free and fair.” In his ambitions Jonas Savimbi had popularized the notion that, if he did not win the 1992 elections, the voting process was faulty. Question: if the election results were so clear even before the voting, why bother to vote at all?
Critics of the Savimbi Syndrome reject it because, inherently, elections presume that there will be losers and winners. Those who suggest otherwise merely are bent on destroying. Savimbi himself did lose the 1992 national elections and, sure enough, he plunged Angola into the next phase of its protracted civil war. Yet, the Savimbi Syndrome virus had slowly drifted North-East to Kenya.
Just before the 2007-08 elections, Raila Odinga visited South Africa and was asked about his prospects in the impeding elections. He stated on national television, “In the absence of rigging, I will win.” Odinga did not win. All he did was repeat his self-proclaimed prophesy that if he did not win, the elections were rigged. That is all it took to plunge Kenya into senseless violence that verged on a civil war.
Five years later, in 2013, Raila Odinga repeated his political forecasting, that he would win the presidency against Uhuru Kenyatta, that the election “wouldn’t even be close.” He was wrong on both counts: the elections were close and, again, he was the loser.
Once more, Raila Odinga has failed to accept principle that elections presume that there will be winners and losers and has challenged the announced election results in court. Meanwhile, he holds the nation at ransom: fulfill my ambitions or I will unleash disaster upon you.Raila Odinga has been a great political tactician but he has fallen short of becoming a genuinely patriotic Kenyan.
*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa.The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.