Global Opinion

If America were in Africa, U.S. diplomats would be ringing the alarm bells

By Reuben E. Brigety II

Armed Trump supporters face off against coun​ter-protesters in Louisville, Ke​ntucky, September 2020. Alex Lourie / Redux

In April 2013, when I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, I accompanied former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young to a meeting with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Then Secretary of State John Kerry had dispatched us to Harare to convince Mugabe to allow free and fair elections later that summer. For years, Zimbabwean elections had been marred by violence, voter intimidation, and manipulation of the legal system by the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). If Mugabe and his cronies refrained from such tactics in the upcoming ballot, we told the Zimbabwean president, the United States was prepared to ease sanctions that had been in place since 2001 and fully normalize relations with his country. Mugabe and Young were well acquainted from the heady days following Zimbabwe’s independence from the United Kingdom. It was said that Young was the only man left on earth to whom Mugabe would listen with a friendly and willing ear.

Mugabe listened to us, but he did not heed our advice. On July 31, 2013, the Zimbabwean president was reelected to a sixth term in office amid allegations of widespread irregularities at the polls. Zanu-PF won a two-thirds majority in Parliament. A little more than four years later, Mugabe was overthrown in a coup by members of his own party. He died in exile in Singapore in 2019.

As a U.S. diplomat in Africa, I often raised concerns with my African interlocutors about the quality of elections and the state of democracy in their countries. From Kenya to Cameroon, Burundi to Burkina Faso, my colleagues and I spoke up wherever we saw democracy under threat. We encouraged African leaders to adhere to the rule of law and to refrain from violence against their own people. We called on ordinary African citizens to put aside their tribal affiliations and cast their votes for the common good of their countries. And we advised local media to stick to reporting the facts and to avoid fanning the flames of sectarian animosity.

Such engagement is not unique to U.S. diplomacy in Africa. Under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, U.S. diplomats have long defended democracy around the globe—in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. And in any of these regions, if U.S. diplomats observed the same troubling signs that are currently on display in the United States, they would ring the diplomatic alarm bells at the highest levels of government.

Primed to explode

On the eve of the 2020 presidential election, the United States arguably faces the greatest risk of civil unrest and violent revolt since 1860, when 11 states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and eventually seceded from the Union. American citizens are armed to the teeth, with record firearms sales during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among first-time gun buyers. Partisan loyalties have hardened to such an extent that they now resemble tribal divisions, making it seemingly impossible for Americans to find personal or political common ground across party lines. Foreign adversaries are using “bot farms” to spread disinformation that will further divide the electorate. The percentage of Americans who have no trust whatsoever in the media is at an all-time high.

The potential for electoral violence in the United States has been evident for months. During the protests against racial injustice and coronavirus restrictions this summer, citizens clashed with one another and with the police. In Portland, Oregon, unidentified “security forces” dragged demonstrators into unmarked vans. In Seattle, left-wing protesters seized an entire section of the city, setting up a so-called autonomous zone that local authorities were forbidden to enter. A 17-year-old counterprotester shot and killed two unarmed people and injured a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Members of the far-right boogaloo bois assassinated law enforcement officers in Oakland and Santa Cruz. And in Michigan, the FBI foiled a plot by members of a right-wing militia to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and try her for treason.

Armed Trump supporters demonstrate in Louisville, Ke​ntucky, September 2020Alex Lourie / Redux

In the final weeks before the election, President Donald Trump has primed his supporters to reject any result except his victory. In a year in which a record number of Americans have cast their ballots by mail because of the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly asserted that mail-in ballots are inherently illegitimate, laying the groundwork to claim that the election was “rigged” if he doesn’t win. Both he and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, the only time in American history that a major party ticket for the presidency—let alone the current occupant of the White House—has not committed to honoring this sacred tradition of democracy. For the first time in living memory, the United States is at risk of suffering a disputed election with a potentially violent aftermath.

Every presidential election offers a choice for the future. The election of 2020, no less than any previous election, presents different visions for U.S. society at home and U.S. engagement abroad. Reasonable and well-meaning people can disagree on all manner of important issues of domestic and foreign policy. They should cast their votes accordingly. Yet no matter who wins the White House, the United States must conclude this election season with its democracy intact. At the moment, that is not assured.

Heeding our own advice

In this moment of crisis for American democracy, the United States must heed the advice that for years it has dispensed to fragile governments in Africa and around the world. That means demanding of American citizens the same spirit of civic engagement that U.S. diplomats seek to inspire in citizens in foreign countries and demanding of U.S. leaders the same respect for the rule of law that they demand of foreign leaders.

Americans of every political tribe must categorically condemn violence against people and property in all circumstances, making clear that Americans do not resolve their political differences at the barrel of a gun or by hurling rocks in the street. In a democracy, every vote is said to matter. Every voice matters, too. In personal conversations and on social media, Americans must remind one another that there is no cause, however noble, for which violence is justified—not even racial justice or individual freedom.

To be certain, there will be some who say and act otherwise. But the more people speak up against such aberrant behavior, the more likely those who are inclined toward violence will be persuaded that engaging their fellow citizens nonviolently is the more patriotic course of action. If the U.S. government can encourage the people of Sudan to confront a brutal dictator such as Omar al-Bashir through nonviolent protest, then surely Americans can insist that their fellow citizens manage civic disagreements with similar restraint.

The legal wrangling in this election could make that which followed the 2000 election in Florida look like a cakewalk.

Americans must demand that the election and its aftermath proceed according to the rule of law. The initial results could take days to be released, and many weeks could pass before any legal challenges are resolved—in part because of the unusually high number of mail-in votes. The legal wrangling in this election could make that which followed the 2000 election in Florida look like a cakewalk. In such a moment of uncertainty, Americans must insist on transparency in vote tabulation and strict adherence to both state election laws and federal constitutional requirements. They must also insist that police and private security forces be held accountable should they interfere with members of the public peacefully exercising freedom of expression or the right to vote.

What does this mean in practice? Americans should call their elected representatives and post to their social media accounts. They should talk with relatives over Thanksgiving dinner and call in to radio shows. It is essential for Americans to demonstrate an overwhelming popular consensus that they will not tolerate the undermining of the U.S. electoral process. The United States asked no less of Kenyan citizens and their leaders during that country’s violently contested election of 2007 and during every election since then. And the United States must ask the same of itself now. 

Similarly, no matter who they support in the upcoming election, all Americans should insist that both candidates commit to a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power on January 20, 2021. That the sitting president of the United States has yet to make such a commitment is profoundly troubling. (To their credit, some members of Trump’s party are demanding that he do so.) The American people must make clear that the peaceful transfer of power is non-negotiable. U.S. diplomats carried exactly this message to Malawi after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012 and to Nigeria after Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015—the first time in Nigerian history that an incumbent president suffered defeat at the polls and voluntarily left power. In both cases, U.S. pressure helped ensure peaceful and constitutional transfers of power. As stunning as it is that Americans can no longer count on their leader to respect the Constitution and the will of the people, they must insist that these basic standards of democracy apply to their own country.

Rarely in U.S. history have the stakes been so high. The alarm bells are ringing and the warning signs are plain to see. What is at stake in the 2020 election is not simply the choice of a presidential candidate but the durability of U.S. democracy itself. To prevent the kind of electoral catastrophe that has so often seized the attention of U.S. diplomats in Africa and elsewhere, American citizens must now do urgently what I spent a fair portion of my diplomatic career urging African citizens to do—demand that political leaders respect democratic norms and uphold the rule of law. Americans must heed the counsel that they have so often given to others and place the preservation of democracy above hardened tribal loyalties. – Foreign Affairs.

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