US Senate Impeachment Trial of Trump and Nigeria’s Legislative Conduct: An Assessment
By Omoshola Deji
In Athens, 510 BC, Cleisthenes instituted democracy to foster greater: accountability of institutions and leaders to citizens and the law. Today, the tenet is being flouted with impunity, especially in developing nations, where most of the heads of parliament are puppets of the president. Nigeria tops the list. While her legislature is failing in oversight and overlooking misconducts, that of the United States (US) prosecuted President Donald Trump and almost removed him from office. This piece evaluates the two countries legislative conduct, based on the proceedings of Trump’s impeachment trial.
Process and History of US and Nigerian President Impeachment
Article II, section 4 of the US Constitution empowers Congress – comprising the House of Representatives and Senate – to remove the president from office for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The House and Senate gets to remove the president in two separate trials. First, the House would deliberate and approve the articles of impeachment through a simple majority vote. The second trial occurs in the Senate, where conviction on any of the articles requires a two-third majority vote, which if gotten, results in the president’s removal from office. Trump’s impeachment succeeded in the House, but failed in the Senate, denoting he remains president.
Only three presidents has been impeached throughout US over 230 year old democracy. First, Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act. Then, Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for perjury, obstruction of justice and having an inappropriate relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Lastly, Donald Trump was impeached December 2019. Each of the three – Johnson, Clinton and Trump – escaped removal from office through Senate’s acquittal.
Impeaching Nigeria’s president is a difficult, almost impossible task. The lengthy, extremely cumbersome process is contained in Section 143 of the 1999 Constitution. No Nigerian president has been impeached, despite their gross incompetence and serial abuse of power.
Allegations against Trump and the Buhari Comparison
Trump’s impeachment trial was a straight confrontation between the ruling Republican, and opposition Democratic Party. The president was tried on two articles of impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The abuse of power bothers on alleged solicitation of foreign interference in the 2020 US presidential election. Trump allegedly withheld $391million aid to Ukraine; upon which he secretly pressurized President Volodymyr Zelensky (of Ukraine) to start investigating former US vice-president Joe Biden for Corruption. Trump only released the aid to Ukraine after a whistle-blower complaint.
Biden was ex-president Barrack Obama’s deputy and currently one of the Democratic Party’s presidential aspirant. Trump wants Biden and son, Hunter investigated for alleged corrupt practices during the Obama presidency’s (2009-2017) aid supply to Ukraine. The US president allegedly pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden, despite being aware that the US Prosecutor General had cleared him and his son of corruption in May 2019.
To ensure Biden is investigated, Trump allegedly refused to allow Zelensky visit the White House at a time Ukraine urgently needs the meeting to send fears to its aggressors – particularly Russia – that it has US backing. The Democrats insist Trump undermined US interests by his action, and must be removed for conditioning congressionally mandated aid on ‘quid pro quo’ – meaning ‘favor for favor.’
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is an adherent of ‘quid pro quo.’ His declaration that the Northern region, which gave him 95% votes would be favored than the Southeast that gave him 5% is ‘quid pro quo’ – conditioning governance favoritism on votes; favor for favor. Presidents are expected to govern with equity and fairness, but Buhari promised sectionalism and delivered as pledged. The proscription of IPOB, while killer herdsmen are operating unchecked, apparently because they’re among the 95% is a dangerous ‘quid pro quo’ adherence that can lead Nigeria into another civil war.
Aside Trump’s hold on aid, the second article of impeachment – obstruction of Congress – bothers on the president’s deliberate blockage of formal legislative inquiries. Trump allegedly instructed all government officials to ignore House subpoenas for testimonies and documents. He ensured no piece of paper or email was turned over to the House. Certainly Trump would have done worse if he’s a Nigerian.
If Trump is a Nigerian president, he would have ordered the police to lay siege on US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi’s residence as President Buhari repeatedly did to former Senate President Bukola Saraki. Pelosi would have been distracted with false asset declaration charges till she’s acquitted by the Supreme Court. The Dino Melaye’s in her camp would have been hounded and arraigned on several trumped-up charges. If Trump is a Nigerian president, masked, heavily-armed State Security Service (SSS) operatives would have obstructed the legislators from entering the chambers to carry out impeachment.
The Democrats resolve to impeach Trump is perhaps comeuppance, but certainly an insult to Nigerians. The same legislators rebuking Trump supported Obama’s interference in Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election. The poll, as Obama desired, resulted in the first-in-history defeat of then incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. It is at best surprising, and at worst annoying that the same Democrats who backed Obama’s action on Nigeria are scolding Trump for trying to aid his win through foreign interference. How miserable for them to live with their own nemesis!
Unlike the US, foreign interference in Nigerian elections attracts no legislative criticism, let alone impeachment. Nigerian legislators took no action when two state governors from Niger Republic crossed into Nigeria to join Buhari’s 2019 reelection campaign in Kano State.
The abuse of power charges against Trump can’t fly for impeachment in Nigeria. Successive presidents have committed greater offenses without reprimand. Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo spent heavily on electricity provision without result and ordered the Odi massacre. The legislature never summoned him. President Buhari has more than once repressed free speech, disobeyed court orders and spent without legislative approval. Yet the Senate has never cautioned him. Indeed, what the US lawmakers see as ‘abuse of office’ is what their Nigerian counterpart rank as ‘executive grace.’
US often punishes, but Nigeria rewards wrongdoing. The former’s first citizen, arguably the strongest man in the world was made to face a tough trial for abuse of office. His record is tainted even though he’s acquitted. Nigeria works the other way round. In the 8th Senate, suspended Senator Ovie Omo-Agege invade plenary with thugs, who took away the mace right before the cameras. Rather than prosecute him to serve as a deterrent, the ruling party rewards him with the exalted position of deputy-senate president in the subsequent, current 9th Senate. Omo-Agege is currently leading the same chamber he desecrated. Such can’t occur in the US.
Trial Debate: Democrat vs. Republican
The US senate impeachment trial of Trump was a pure intellectual, thrilling and rigorous debate. The House Managers, comprising mainly the Democrats argued that Trump deserves to be sacked for obstructing Congress investigation; promoting foreign interference in US election; and withholding economic, diplomatic and military aid to a strategic US ally (Ukraine) in need.
Defending the allegation, Trump’s defense team, comprising the Republicans, contend that the Democrats are trying to upturn Trump’s mandate in order to prevent him from contesting the next election. They argued that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine because 1) he wants a burden sharing agreement with Europe; and 2) he was unsure of its efficient use, due to the high level of corruption in Ukraine.
Opposing the submission, the Democrats argued that Trump showed no interest in Ukraine’s corruption before Biden announced his presidential ambition. The Republicans disagreed, and accused the Democrat caucus of using impeachment to shield Biden from corruption investigation. They insist Biden has a case to answer over his actions on Ukraine when he was vice-president.
Contesting the obstruction of Congress article, Trump’s team argued that the president has the power to assert immunity on his top aides, and he did so against Congress to protect the sensitive operations of government from getting to the public. Citing former presidents that have used such privilege, the Republicans argued that the Democrat-sponsored articles of impeachment is wholly based on presumptions, assumptions and unsupported conclusions. The Democrats, however refused to back down; they insist they have a “mountain of evidence” to prove Trump is guilty.
To support their arguments, both the House Managers and Trump’s defense team went deep into the archives; they went as far as referencing what happened in 1796, during the administration of the first US President George Washington. Several Supreme Court judgments, dating back to 1893 were cited. Both parties showed resourcefulness as they used historical, legal and rational arguments to establish their case. Their knowledge of history, politics and law in astounding.
Sadly, majority of Nigerian legislators lack such proficiency. Their contribution to motions are often based on partisan, personal interests and their arguments are often shallow, uninformative and irrational. While watching the trial, I couldn’t help but crave for power to order Nigerian legislators into the US Senate to learn functional legislative practice.
Plenary Session: Nigeria-US Comparison
Both the US House and Senate displayed exceptional commitment to public involvement. Many nations won’t permit the live airing of a sensitive issue such as the impeachment trial of a president. But the US stands out. Every minute of the trial was aired live to the local and global population. Nigerian House and Senate are not doing badly in this regard. Most of their sessions are aired live, including the election of principal officers. However, as being done in the US, the Nigerian legislature needs to make public the details of her income, constituency projects and budgetary allocations.
US senators are more open than their Nigerian counterpart. They boldly reveal their planned vote and the reasons for their decision. Many disclosed that they would vote on the impeachment based on personal conviction and desired legacy. Nigerian senators understandably can’t be that outspoken out of the fear of being hounded. This doesn’t however rob off the fact majority of them vote ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ based on financial gain, ethnic and religious sentiments, party instruction, and ‘quid pro quo.’
Public interest is not always primary to politicians, including the US senators. Most of the Republican senators were more interested in acquitting Trump than ensuring a fair trial. They denied the public access to crucial information by voting against the admission of additional witnesses and documents. Voting in favor of the motion would have made the Senate evaluate the leaked indicting videos and testimonies of crucial anti-Trump witnesses such as John Bolton, the ex-national security adviser. Without a doubt, Nigerian progressive senators would have done same to save Buhari.
The US legislators conduct at plenary and commitment to national service need to be emulated by the Nigerian Senate. The US Senate leaders and the Chief Justice, John Roberts coordinated the sessions impartially. They, unlike their Nigerian counterpart, acted neutral, even though they too (as humans) have their own viewpoint and desires. They set rules that would make everyone listen and participate such as prohibiting the use of phones.
Rather than deploy speech interjection, shout-match and walk-out as commonly done in Nigerian chambers, the US legislators acted responsibly. No one spoke without being recognized and they yield back time promptly. More than once they sat for about twelve hours on the impeachment and everyone stayed on strong. If the impeachment trial took place in Nigeria, the senate president would have hurriedly adjourn sitting or ‘dabaru’ the process in favor of his party. Moreover, the senators, many of whom are old and lazy, would have yelled for adjournment or sleep off.
Trump’s acquittal by the US senate sets a bad precedence for succeeding presidents to solicit foreign interference in US election and obstruct the investigation of Congress. Conversely, conviction would have opened the door for future sharply partisan, malicious impeachments.
Both the United States and Nigeria need more executive-legislature synergy. The frosty relationship between Trump and Pelosi has worsened over the impeachment trial. They must be reconciled for the benefit of the American people. It’s difficult, but not impossible to have intergovernmental synergy and a vibrant legislature under the Buhari administration. Perhaps Senate President Ahmed Lawan and House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila need to attend classes on ‘how to function without being a puppet.’
US democracy is not perfect, but Nigeria has a lot to learn from it. The latter must adopt the former’s positive deeds and embrace attitudinal change. One may blame the large efficiency gap between US and Nigeria’s democracy on the year of adoption. US democracy is over 230 years old, while Nigeria’s current democratic experiment is only 20 years old. But then, if Nigeria’s systemic failure is anything to go by, it will take us over a thousand years to achieve the progress US made in 230 years. The reason is not far-fetch. US has what Nigeria lacks: Transparency, accountability and leadership commitment to growth and development.
*Omoshola Deji is a political and public affairs analyst. He wrote in via firstname.lastname@example.org