VIGILANCE, ACCOUNTABILITY

Lessons from Trump's impeachment hearing

Democracy is work in progress.

In Summary
  • Freedom is one generation away from extinction.
  • Eternal vigilance is our only insurance.
US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump
Image: Reuters

The impeachment inquiry in the US may be off-limits for most US envoys around the world but for those in nascent democracies, there are lessons galore to be learnt.

The events in America remind us that democracy is work in progress. Freedom is one generation away from extinction. Eternal vigilance is our only insurance. But even more importantly, choices have consequences!

And yet, even as America unravels, we see a ray of hope. We see the strength of its institutions and the courage of its leaders. We see ‘American exceptionalism’ in its purest form. What are the lessons? I’ve picked three so far. 

First, the impeachment process demonstrates that no one is above the law. Starting with the ‘Mueller Investigations’ that closed with several indictments and convictions, the impeachment inquiry is one more attempt to ensure the law reaches all.

Second, the process reveals that an apolitical civil service that serves the country more than it serves the president or prime minister of the day is critical for the survival of a democracy. Members of the American civil service and foreign service have come out at great cost to their reputations, security and careers to testify.

The lesson here is that a politicised civil service that only functions at the behest of the president is a danger to the rule of law. Government bureaucrats must remember that presidential incumbency is temporary. What is perpetual is the government organisation itself.

Holding the Executive accountable is the only way to deepen democracy. Accountability has to go high up. It has to reach the top levels of the Executive. It has to reach the President.

Third, separation of powers and independence of state organs provide the best platform for checks and balances. The impeachment process is being undertaken by the House before it proceeds to the Senate. This vertical power arrangement is itself another layer of checks and balances, so that no one legislative chamber decides entirely on a process as critical as presidential impeachment.

There is an argument in Kenya that the Jubilee regime has failed because the “opposition” is dead. How convenient. In presidential systems as ours, accountability on the Executive is primarily a function of state institutions—Legislature and Judiciary, constitutional commissions and independent offices.

Even within the Executive itself, quasi-independent institutions such as Inspectorate of State Corporations, Efficiency Monitoring Unit and the Financial Reporting Centre all function to entrench accountability in governance. The political opposition, civil society and media can only support these institutions but cannot replace them.

In America, we have seen the robust ‘agenda-setting’ that the media has engaged in, to the extent that the powers that be – no less the President – has without much success branded the press “fake news media”.

Civil society groups, often referred to as non-profit organisations, have also supported accountability processes on the Executive by continuously demanding government-held information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has exposed hitherto hidden information. Whenever revealed, the disclosures have become the “dossier” that forms the ground for charges of misconduct by public officials.

Democratic players in the developing world can learn a thing or two on collaboration for action. Holding the Executive accountable is the only way to deepen democracy. Accountability has to go high up. It has to reach the top levels of the Executive. It has to reach the President.