It is fascinating watching US President Donald Trump.
It used to be that the bizarre and crazy behaviour of Trump was something you expected from Third World leaders, mostly the African ones. The nepotism, lying, bullying, threats against opponents, sacking bothersome officials, and raving, that was our thing. Not anymore.
And the world will be the better for it. First, half the books on politics need to be rewritten. There is a lot of literature about how “mature” democracies behave, and the politics of industrialised societies.
One thing that seemed settled was that these societies were “governed by law” and could not be subverted by power-hungry or deranged politicians, however hard they tried. That their “institutions” were so entrenched, they would stop any Trump-like rogue behaviour.
In the case of the US it was held, as the Kenyans like to say, that the country “had its owners.” That these invisible owners were all-powerful, and would quickly oust any president who threatened the wider national interest.
Now events in the US are suggesting that even in so-called advanced democracies, the rule of law survives perhaps not because the institutions are strong, but because leaders don’t try hard enough to subvert them. And those who try, like Richard Nixon, aren’t smart or bold enough to pull it off.
The genius of Trump is that he understands what adept guerrilla leaders figured out ages ago – do that which the opponent thinks is impossible or so unthinkable, they have not planned how to defend against it.
Trump has turned the White House into a private family business. It is unthinkable; no one seems to know what to do. I suspect that someone like South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who is getting a lot of hell for lesser transgressions, is wishing he were president of the US of A.
So, it seems, that there is really no institution created by man or woman, that cannot be undone by wo/man. There is no democracy on this Earth that is so established that it cannot be subverted by a leader who is mad enough to attack it, and is supported by a substantial population that is frightened by the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world.
Can media freedom actually disappear in the US? Based on five months of Trump’s rule, yes it can. Can America become a failed state? In the past, it would have been a stupid question to ask. Today, it is valid. And the answer is yes.
It is easy now to see why the democratic advances made in some parts of Africa are so tenuous. We are witnessing it in Zambia, a nation of mild-mannered people and politicians, where over the past 25 years freedoms and democratic rule had made impressive advances. Then the booze-happy and colourless Edgar Lungu got elected (or stole the vote, depending on where you sit) in 2015. And just like that, in two short years, he’s all but wiped out the progress of two decades and is turning the place into a tin pot dictatorship.
So yes, Trump – or indeed any leader in an “advanced” democracy – can turn into an Idi Amin.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]