When Donald Trump announced his intention to run against Hilary Clinton for the presidency of the United States, I thought it was a long shot. I could not imagine that many people would take him seriously.
After his early campaign commitment to impose a ban on Muslim people entering the United States, I thought that he had no chance at all. As we know, it turned out that he had a far more astute read on the nation than I did. A couple of dear friends of mine, who pride themselves with being non-partisan in their politics, told me that my opposition to Donald Trump betrayed a partisan bias. They argued that he had not broken the law and if I did not like anything he had done, I should lobby Congress to pass a law against it.
Interestingly, this conversation took place on the evening that the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape had been broadcast all day long. For a fleeting moment, it felt to me as if a rubicon of decency had been crossed and that Donald Trump‘s presidential goose had been cooked. Not so. A day or so after the tape aired, I saw a news clip on television of a small group of women, cheering a man who was holding up a hand written sign that read, ‘Better grab a pussy than be one!’ This was echoed from across the Atlantic in the words of the British media personality Katie Hopkins, whose comment on the subject was “I’d rather be grabbed by the pussy than have a pussy for President.”
Then, the phrase ‘locker room talk’ slithered into the American political lexicon. I am still not sure why this was so readily excused as acceptable behavior. What followed was a raft of sexual molestation allegations, the exposure of fraudulent activity by his charitable foundation and his Trump University, which resulted in sizable punitive fines. None of this rose to the standard of disqualifying conduct for the electorate.
A cousin of mine joined the United States government in the 1970’s, I remember listening in admiration as he explained to me that unlike in Nigeria, where the Scania bus scandal was rocking the nation, the standard of probity to which the US government held its officials was really stringent. Their regulations did not just prohibit impropriety, they forbade the mere appearance of impropriety. Of course, I knew even then, that the rich and powerful have always been able to make their bad behavior vanish from public view; but that is the point: they had to make it disappear because if a scandal was exposed it could lead to a resignation. That really was a thing.
I thought about that in stark contrast to the parroted talking point that Mr Trump had not broken the law. Today, my non-partisan friends no longer openly support Trump, but they still can’t seem to muster the ability to oppose him either. They now say that all politicians are the same, even after the events that culminated on January 6th 2021. We have remained friends by being a bit circumspect in our conversations and by refusing to cede the power to end decades of friendship to …, to who or what exactly?
There was a time when if someone wanted to stake out a position, they would be provoked by a combination of their own intellect and self-respect. They would be challenged to marshal arguments that could survive the test of contrary opinions. We have arrived today at a place that I liken to putting on political blinkers so that the wearer only sees things one way and is unwilling or unable to countenance other possibilities. I first encountered this behavior portrayed as a virtue when some analysts on US cable news described George W Bush as an artful politician because he had a talent for staying on message. ‘Staying on message’ was euphemism for saying whatever he liked in answer to a question, regardless of whether it had anything to do with what he had been asked. An astute politician before him was the unquestionably brilliant Bill Clinton who in a legal deposition made his infamous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is …” statement. His followers tried to spin this as high intellect. It was not intellect, it was obfuscation and everyone could see that. What it did do though, was further reduce the tenor of the political conversation to tribal alliances. Those on his side saying that he was brilliant and his adversaries maintaining that he was just a liar. Those lessons were not lost on observers in parts of the world under some degree of American political influence including my own. Even today, we still make references to how things are done in the United States as if it is some sort of yardstick for our politicians to aspire to.
In the aftermath of the 2023 Nigerian presidential election, I thought that Bola Tinubu had made a strategic blunder by putting himself up for president. I thought that decades old whispers about his involvement in various crimes would be elevated to formal allegations in legal processes. It turns out that he had a far more accurate read on the nation than I did.
This elementary thought exercise about the fundamentals of Tinubu’s eligibility to run for president shows how wrong I was.
To run for the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a contender does not need to have a university degree. Therefore Bola Tinubu’s attending and graduating or not from any university is utterly irrelevant to this exercise.
Did Bola Tinubu submit documents to INEC in support of his candidacy for the election and was one of them a graduation certificate from a university? There is no disagreement that he did.
Is the authenticity of documents submitted to INEC relevant to his ability to run for president? I am told that both the electoral law and the constitution say that it is. They go so far as to say that submitting a false document disqualifies the candidate from contesting. So do we agree that the authenticity of the document is central to this exercise?
Can the university that issued the document be relied on to authenticate the document submitted to INEC by Tinubu? Did the university, under oath, authenticate the document that Tinubu submitted to INEC or did it say that the document was not issued by them and they were unequivocal about that?
If the document presented to INEC by Bola Tinubu was disowned by the university, is it a forgery?
This is the end of the exercise. All that remans to decide is if whatever conclusion you have come to matters. That question, we are each left to ponder for ourselves; from the Supreme Court Justice who was called upon to adjudicate on it at the appeal, to the petty criminal who has no silk to argue that time limits bar consideration of his transgression.
Why am I thinking about this? Surely that ship has sailed, the Supreme Court has ruled and we have to get on with the business of running the country. True, but on the day that we lament, ‘how we got here?’ we should remember we live with the consequences of our choices. There is no doubt that the university graduating certificate, unnecessarily, submitted to INEC by Bola Tinubu was counterfeit. Hired hands, SANs and members of our society have chosen to either agree but say it is too late to consider, or have chosen to treat it as another example of the mercurial political genius that is BAT. If we forget it and move on then we the citizens of Nigeria are the ones who have decided that probity is not an essential quality of our political leadership.
When the end justifies the means
Laws are the tangible scaffolding that support a society, but the super glue that holds the whole ball of wax together and lets it grow and prosper, are the intangible qualities of embarrassment, trust, honour, probity, service, empathy, self-control, decency. These are easily recognisable characteristics that are today considered weakness and naivety. But without them society is left unmoored and we project our aspirations onto pitiably flawed characters. Yesterday, I was told that “This country is in such a bad state, that we do not need a saint to clean it up, we need the strength of a Tinubu who knows how to wheel and deal. He may have stolen money to get there but now that he is president, he does not need to do that any more and he will develop the economy. Jide you will see.”
I have misread the tea leaves on both sides of the Atlantic so badly that I have nothing else to say.