US elections showed how strong institutions can hold up a nation

Wednesday December 02 2020

Systems are built with a big picture in mind: The picture of nationalism over partisanship. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


It is unheard of to see words like rigging and vote stealing, vote destruction and the threat of violence as issues in a US election.

No one was sure what would happen even with a clear winner according to the votes that had been counted.

If the things that happened in their election were to occur in any other country, America would have issued their regular threats, reminding all about the need to preserve democracy and honour the will of the people.

Now, a strongman believed that in the states where he won, the elections were free and fair and in those where he lost, the elections were rigged. It did not matter that in some places where he lost the presidential vote, his party still won the Senate and House votes.

Eventually, the system won and things are gradually going back to what the world was used to — an America with a transition of power.

You will never know the strength of the system until a demand is made on it. For a system to stand up to powerful people is testimony to its efficacy and the power of the culture that drives it.


The biggest lesson for us from the US election is that without strong institutions, the very foundations of a nation can be threatened.

Strong institutions are not built by issuing decrees or wishful thinking or committees. Neither are they built by partisanship and politics. Systems are built with a big picture in mind: The picture of nationalism over partisanship.

Patriotism and loyalty to a country’s Constitution must overwhelmingly supersede the culture of partisanship and loyalty to a political party, an individual or to self interests. Efficient institutions are the visible expressions of strong cultures.

Strong culture

Culture has two parts, the visible —office plan, dress codes and the general day to day rituals of the team — and the invisible — a belief system that influences behaviour. What played out in the US is a culture so strong that a judge could say that even though he is a Republican, the Constitution comes first.

What does it take to develop this kind of system? What we believe ultimately is what determines what we do. The task of the culture change expert is therefore to work on belief systems.

Culture has to be driven from a mindset perspective. Actions are not just about obeying “instructions from above”.

The reason why corruption thrives in many countries is because there is an environment that supports it. Every situation presents a clash of belief systems, and the most prevalent wins.

Corruption thrives because there are no consequences, as the corrupt are also the supposed custodians of the law. So the law becomes selective in its implementation. There are no consequences because past experiences show that whistleblowers become the victims.

It is difficult for the ordinary person to win against the selfish interests of a few. Before long the mindset of “if you can't beat them, join them” sets in. Every time a thief gets special appointments and hobnobs with power, the belief system is strengthened. Without a public sector culture overhaul, the African strongman will beat the system and corruption will be the prevailing culture.

Wale Akinyemi is the convenor of the Street University ( and chief transformation officer, PowerTalks