The Reward to Come

By Matt Mossman

It was June 10, 2015 — five days before Donald Trump descended a golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign. Things still seemed normal. I went to a panel discussion in downtown DC, at a foreign-policy think tank. In the lobby I waved to another Africa reporter I knew, went up a flight of stairs, and took a seat near the back of the conference room. I was still distracted on my phone when the guest came in. People suddenly exploded out of their seats into a standing ovation.

It was Attahiru Jega, then head of Nigeria’s elections commission. People in this role are normally anonymous bureaucrats, even despite the importance of the job. But Jega had just overseen the most successful election in Nigeria’s short history as a democracy. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that this wasn’t going to be a normal, dry panel discussion. The incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan had tried a few tricks to stay in office, including postponing the vote, and withholding security at polling places. In the end he lost, and became the first incumbent in the country’s history to lose an election and accept the results.

It’s normal to feel relieved in fragile democracies when elections are peaceful, but this was something more. It was the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another since Nigeria flipped from autocracy to democracy in 1999, and the only time an incumbent didn’t win a second term in office. In other words, this was the first time in Nigerian history that the people successfully held a politician accountable. In fragile democracies these are massive gains, and the Nigerians in the conference room that day were giddy with pride.

Of course I was happy for them, and for Nigeria, but the feelings were more complex than that. I felt a sense of awe, because the specific combination of relief and exuberance in this room was a feeling I thought would never be available to me — here in the US we didn’t think we would ever have these kinds of problems. I also felt admiration for the resilience this must surely require. It’s easy to marvel at what people can endure in poor places with mendacious governments. It’s hard to summon that level of consistent, day-to-day courage. Americans are learning that now that our democracy is on the line.

This comparison is of course limited. Most Nigerians earn less than $2 a day and have a far better claim to existential crisis than us. But there’s still a comparison, because as citizens we both now have the same basic task — eject leaders who consider themselves above the law, and use people power to make government work for all of us instead of just rich people. In Nigeria, it wasn’t just enough to have that great election outcome in 2015 — today, as you read this, thousands of Nigerians are out protesting injustices.

That’s a lesson for us. We’re voting today, and we’d like this awful nightmare to be over tonight. But we also know that’s not going to happen, even if Trump suddenly finds it in himself to be a gracious loser. We have to remain activists, because being a citizen is not just for the first Tuesday of some Novembers. If we engage in politics tomorrow and every day following, we will win. And, at some point very soon, feel that same immense joy I witnessed in that conference room in 2015. Saving your democracy from bad people is not an opportunity, a privilege, or even a choice. But it is something that we’ll remember and savor for the rest of our lives. Let’s go make ourselves proud.

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