Opinion… Juju Priest, By Sam Omatseye
Africans are looking at Donald Trump, but they are seeing a black man. It is as though the American President is the incarnation, the biological certainty, the fulfillment in flesh and soul of Frantz Fanon’s language, Black Skin, White Masks. In an astral act, providence transfigured the gene of the African despot into a hulk of a bully in the White House.
It is a transcontinental, trans-racial and trans-cultural moment in civilization. A new oeuvre on the concept of otherness. How can one culture, or one race, or one tribe, or one continent understand, empathise or embody another? Africans are looking at the leader of the so-called free world and their eyes blink. Is it Mobutu or Mugabe hectoring at his party hierarchs, capsizing the numbers, reinventing electoral reality? It is a white man as juju priest using the power of suggestion to tell followers what they must believe, how they must act, and what they must reject. It is not only what he says, but what he does not say. His silences intoxicate. They stir the pot of the rabble. They make orators of dissent when he wants. They would shed blood, shed tears, rage and spill over to the streets of protest even if all he does is swing a golf club in Mar-a-Lago.
We can see the small Trumps here even in the local government polls. It is not the numbers that matter. It is the will of the leader. If mister A is to win the election, it does not matter if Mister A is the enemy of the people. It does not matter if he scores 30 percent of the votes and the other gulps 70 percent. Math collapses. It is like Dostoevsky’s smirk in his novel, The Man from the Underground, in which he opines that one plus one is no longer two. Even Einstein, the master of science, knew the abracadabra of math: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Stalin, another juju priest, may have said or may have not said it, but the following quote is part of his fable: “It is not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the vote.” Some big men of republics in the past have said votes should not be about the majority. John C. Calhoun, former US vice president, sneered at the popular vote with an eye to the rural south. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli also said votes should not be “counted but weighed.” But who makes the scales?
This is the mind of the African democrat. This is the spirit of Trump. I quipped to a few colleagues the other day that Trump has not perfected the African style of rigging. He might have come to Africa for consultancy. We rig before the fact. He is trying to rig after the fact. The African makes sure the results are not announced until the numbers “make sense.” But he still wants to do it before certification. It is his own way of rigging before the fact.
Not long ago, the United States blacklisted Nigerians who rigged. What shall the world do to the oga at the top of democracy? If correction lies in the hand that committed wrong, to whom shall we complain? That is a moral question the American conscience will face in the coming months.
But America is now dealing with the limits of constitutional democracy, and the failings of law. In spite of the vision and moral grandeur of the American founding fathers, never once did they anticipate that a man would rise in their history like Trump, a loser who would not concede a loss. Benjamin Franklyn may have had his doubt when a reporter asked him about the quality of their constitution. “A republic,” he quipped, “if you can keep it.” The constitution has been tested by a secessionist impulse, squeaked under Andrew Jackson’s trail of tears, adapted the shrills of the women’s suffrage, survived the ravages of world wars, refined with the civil rights maelstrom, progressed with the disruptions of technology, gasped at the vista of a black president. Can the US keep it today?
But, at bottom, is the whole human subservience to document as salvation, for sustaining or growing a society, or nation or even a club. Hilla Liman, a former Ghanaian leader, once warned, “No constitution, no document can save a nation if it is not ready to save itself.” It seems to upend what John Adams said, that the US is a “nation of laws and not of men.” This is an idealist notion. As Jesus said, the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath. The law is of no effect if the people are not ready to make it work. A society works by faith, not by sight of the constitution.
United States historians have not found a parallel to Trump, and do not know the way out other than an appeal to decency. Scholars often talk of the clash between institutions and rational choice. Today, we are seeing that the work of the institution lies in the hands of the rational choice of humans.
On the cusp of the industrial age, the US elected Rutherford Hayes as president in a contentious poll. Just like today, they disputed the counts. It was in a pre-computer era. His opponents called him “His Fraudulency.” Nixon in his memoirs referred to the 1960 polls with Kennedy and said he did not want to disrupt the American democracy by endless challenges over Ohio. Al Gore’s was over Florida. He too relented. But Trump is different. All facts lead to his defeat, except his own manufactured reality. So what we are witnessing is a potential historic implosion of the American system or the triumph of the American spirit.
It is not just about the law. It is the spirit of the law. As the Bible says, the letter of the law killeth, but the spirit giveth life. Even for prophets, the Bible says the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet. In the end, a system is not about the document but about what Edmund Burke calls the “moral majority.” It is the same concept that empowers novelist and thinker James Fenimore Cooper to call for a republic of gentlemen. Democracy relies on the decency of democrats. In Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia et al, democracy is breeding autocrats. The irony? Their cheerleaders are the people. Madmen have become specialists of the people, a la Soyinka.
Now, the founding fathers tried to prevent a demagogue or populist by instituting the Electoral College. Yet a Trump lost both popular votes and Electoral College. It shows that no checks are enough for the human beast. The Oyo Empire worked under checks and balances until the age of Aole. Ibadan was an experiment in diversity but it did not last forever.
Laws are good, and they are efforts for freedom and equality. But laws have limitation. Our call for restructuring in Nigeria has been seen as the solution of all problems. But while it is good, it will not work if suspicions of ethnic and religious characters continue to fester. In fact, philosopher Michel Foucault warned in his Madness and Civilisation, that the more laws we have, the less the freedom. The laws may seed the soil for revolt. Laws are good, men are better when they follow the angels of our nature, not the beast. Hence systems after systems have failed us. Some are today calling for Westminster system for us again, even though we rode it to a 30-month bloodbath in this land.
The laws are made to prevent anarchy. The human spirit is made to save the law. The noble human refines the law. It is better to save the human spirit than the law. It is a tension of when to keep the Rottweiler in the cage and when to unlatch the door. While the Trump drama is another chapter in the decline of the USA, we should learn a lesson that our salvation is not in playing copycats of systems but to look inward into the Nigerian soul. Our problems here are in our character, in the pursuit of an ethical republic rather than clutching at technicalities and laws.
Juju priests are everywhere. Only the sick consult them.