The U.S. Election through African Eyes

Dec 302008

By Musiliu Layiwola Lawal

I will say without mincing words that being part of the Election 2008 Visiting Journalists Program was a privilege which I will cherish for a long time to come. First of all, I was exposed to how elections are conducted in a civilized society with almost perfect logistic arrangement, mature debates, displays of patriotism and commitment to governance by the electorate and effective use of appropriate technology.

Secondly, I witnessed a system where the wishes of the people matter and are respected, not a situation where people may cast their ballots but the result may be different from their expressed wishes.

Thirdly, it was an election where even in losing, magnanimity was demonstrated by the Republican Party's candidate, John McCain, when it was obvious the result was in favor of his opponent, Barack Obama – a contrast from what normally happens in developing countries, especially in subSaharan Africa.

My ten-day posting to Minnesota Public Radio was another training ground where I had the opportunity to see how fellow journalists work with adequate facilities and in a conducive environment. Editorial conferences are held twice daily to set the agenda and review performance. This put reporters on their toes, and the public is fed regularly on developments within the society, something that journalists in developing countries could not do due to constraints ranging from inadequate training, lack of essential tools and poor remuneration to inaccessibility to adequate information because of stringent laws by the government.

In Minnesota, I was able to attend two rallies: one for Al Franken of the Democratic Party which featured former President Bill Clinton at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and the other by his opponent who is seeking to return to office, Senator Norm Coleman. I was able to cover the two rallies in the company of reporters from the public radio. I also covered the campaign by the Independent Party candidate at a college near Minneapolis.

I was able to move round on Election Day unharassed or molested by security agents or thugs, which is a common scene in developing countries. Voting was orderly and complaints were attended to within minutes, which is a feat yet to be achieved in Africa.

I witnessed an election where issues of the moment determine who wins, not who you are, where you come from or who is your "god father". An election where your intelligence and capability are factors considered by the electorates, not because your forefathers were rulers or kings who have built an empire which must not be dislodged under any circumstance.

I learned how the media could really set the agenda and make those in leadership positions accountable to the people on their unfulfilled promises. However, the problem is how far can one go in a situation where there is a limit to what you can do or not do, especially when you are trying to probe what is being done by a government in Africa.

I feel challenged to think of how I could be an agent of change within the confines of the law. I will say without hesitation that the visitors' program was highly rewarding and beneficial to me personally and will continue to guide my professional reasoning and conduct for the benefit of the general public which I am serving.

When you saw people weeping all over the world, it was because virtually nobody including Americans could say without an iota of doubt that a black American could indeed become a resident of the White House this century. As the President-elect said in his post-election speech, “Those who think that America is a mere combination of different races and tribes who are not one [got] their answer.” The election has indeed proven to the world that it is a democracy based on principle of equality and oneness under God.

The writer is a controller for news and foreign desk editor for Radio Nigeria.