What some Africans can teach Trump about democracy

Last spring, when I was head of the U.S. embassy’s political section in the East African nation of Burundi, we did what we could to encourage a free, fair and inclusive election. It was, and continues to be, one of the primary objectives of U.S. foreign policy in Africa, as in other parts of the world. I was hopeful that the country’s election last May — given Burundi’s turbulent history as a democracy — would be relatively uneventful. If successful, it would be the first time the country would experience two consecutive peaceful transfers of power.

Burundi was still under U.S. and EU sanctions due to 2015’s post-election violence, and a peaceful outcome was by no means a given, as hinted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We urge all sides,” he stated as Burundians headed to the polls on May 20, “to refrain from provocations and allow there to be an election with no violence, to let every citizen have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.” I knew from my meetings with both ruling party and opposition officials that all sides hoped peaceful elections would lead to a normalization of relations with U.S. and European capitals.

As a mid-level Army officer two decades ago, I attended Germany’s General Staff College. My classmates there often asked me to explain U.S. policies or statements. This was just after the 9/11 attacks; we were trying to wrap things up in Afghanistan even as we geared up to invade Iraq. Usually I would shrug in response — I joked I had little insight into the minds of Rumsfeld, Rove or Cheney. But when my colleagues poked fun at the 2000 presidential election, I bristled. “Sure, the system has some flaws,” I admitted. But we had strong democratic institutions. And though there might be a few bumps in the road, I asserted, no one had any doubts that everything would eventually work out, and life would go on pretty much as it had before.

In 2011, I retired from the Army and became a U.S. diplomat, serving in American embassies and consulates abroad. As a political officer, I sought out jobs where I felt we could have an impact. This led me to be posted in countries with difficult political histories, and had the opportunity to observe their elections up close — Madagascar in 2018, the Comoros in 2019. I understood a key part of my job to be the promotion of democratic principles and universal human rights. This was generally done by reporting on the local situation to Washington, and collaborating with high-ranking colleagues, on social media and in person, to encourage foreign governments to respect international norms and remind them the United States was watching. It quickly became clear to me that in times of crisis, much of the international community would take its cues from the actions and statements of the U.S. Embassy, recognized as a gold standard of democracy, particularly where peaceful transfers of power were concerned.

In Burundi, the election came and went without any serious incidents. Few observers would characterize the election as “free and fair” — the party in power won handily — but there was very little violence and the results were accepted. This was repeated less than three weeks later, when the incumbent president suddenly died. For the first time in Burundi’s history, the death of a president did not lead to rioting and bloodshed. The State Department’s spokesperson “commended” the people of Burundi for “participating peacefully” in the election and saluted their commitment to a “peaceful transfer of power.”

And then the United States election happened. In a first, President Trump refused — and continues to refuse — to concede. Virtually all Republican members of Congress would adopt the same bizarre stance. Secretary Pompeo would appear to deny U.S. election results, promising a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” All actions which threatened to undermine Americans’ faith in the integrity of their own electoral process.

The irony of Donald Trump’s own refusal to concede the election — egged on by his own advisors — was not lost on Burundians. As votes were being counted in Pennsylvania, a meme circulated on Burundian social media which jokingly chastised Trump for alleging election fraud, thus stealing an “African trademark”: [Caption/translation from French: Donald Trump is in the process of stealing one of Africa’s values. He complains about electoral fraud despite the term being an African trademark. We must denounce this].

I reached out to a number of stakeholders in the Burundian election and was taken aback to learn the extent to which the elections script had flipped. Domitien Ndayizeye, a presidential candidate in Burundi’s 2020 elections, was Burundi’s president from 2003 to 2005. He expressed surprise at Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat, and compared his behavior to “dictatorial political leaders.” Still, he said he had confidence the American people would avoid violence, warning that otherwise, this would be “a very sad example.” He emphasized the importance of dialogue, “especially in the U.S., where many people are armed.”

Primary opposition candidate Agathon Rwasa, who conceded defeat despite issuing a lengthy list of irregularities observed in Burundi’s election, gave a neutral to positive statement congratulating the American people. One of his close advisors noted, however, that he (the advisor) was “very embarrassed by the outgoing President clinging to power despite his defeat,” adding, “I guess he has other things to hide, or else he is being influenced by people who want the downfall of the United States. This behavior is purely African and not that of a strong democracy such as the USA.”

Concern about the conduct of American elections was not limited to Burundians. A functionary of the African Union noted, “Trump lies as he breathes,” adding, “He is no different from some African dictators; he divides more than he unites. That is not a good leader.”

Leandre Sikuyavuga, the acting editor of Burundi’s only remaining independent media outlet, Iwacu, said, “Many are astonished at Trump’s announcement of victory before the vote count was complete. In addition, we are disappointed at his baseless claims of cheating. We believed the United States was the model of democracy and did not know that cheating takes place there as well. I have one question: what lesson will they teach our countries?”

American democratic institutions remain strong, and will help see us through this crisis. But President Trump’s continuing efforts to undermine the results of the election is a dangerous precedent that has undermined America’s position on the world stage.

The refusal by Trump and many in the GOP to acknowledge their loss and the growing frequency of terms like “coup,” “civil war” and “post-election violence” in our domestic news — often accompanied by nervous laughter — are disturbing trends that alarm many Americans. They embolden his most ardent supporters and encourage violence and division. More alarming, however, is that these actions undermine American credibility in calling out abuses by nondemocratic regimes. In a very short time, the United States has ceded its ability to lead the international community in promoting democracy internationally and condemning election irregularities, autocrats and despots for years — perhaps decades — to come.

In the eyes of the world, Trump has shattered any illusions that America is some sort of “shining city on a hill” that can serve as a beacon for others. His actions between now and January 20th will determine the extent to which this is permanent.

These are the writer’s personal views, and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.

Film photographer, documentary filmmaker, aspiring journalist.

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