I told the story of Walga on this page eight years ago to mark the onset of the Obama Presidency in the United States but Sanusi Tanko Nguru demanded that I should retell the story today, given the impending inauguration of Donald J. Trump as 45th US President. Many Nigerians are already saying that Trump will become “the most powerful man in the world” when he is inaugurated in five days’ time. I may be the only person in the world who does not think so.
Maybe people are saying so because Trump will have the power to appoint 4,000 top officials of the US Federal Government, including Secretaries of Departments [i.e. ministers], deputy and assistant secretaries, ambassadors, White House Chief of Staff and Assistants to the President. He also gets to appoint the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chiefs of the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, Directors of the CIA and FBI, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, as well as fill vacancies for Federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices, subject in many cases to Senate confirmation.
Most people’s idea of Donald Trump’s power is because he will become Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces which include the 540,000-man US Army; the 317,000-man, 430 warship strong US Navy; the 333,000-man, 5,137 aircraft strong US Air Force; the 195,000-man US Marine Corps; the 42,000-man US Coast Guard and their combined 800,000-reserves. How much power is that when these soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are not personally loyal to you, as the Gambian Army is to Alhaji Yahya Jammeh? Trump cannot declare war without the US Congress’ consent. He must also seek Congressional approval under the War Powers Act for any military deployment abroad that exceeds three months. That is not my idea of real power.
Even though Donald Trump has lived a privileged existence all his life, he will now get to live in the iconic White House, take possession of Camp David, Air Force One, the helicopter Marine One, several custom-built Lincoln Continental limos as well as a 2,000-strong White House staff. Yet, Mr. Trump’s new salary of $400,000 a year is peanuts compared to what he earned in Trump Towers. That is why he said he will accept only $1 salary a year. When Trump visits American cities, he must stay in hotels. In Nigeria here, every state government has sunk billions of naira to build a Presidential Lodge even though the president may not visit the state for many years, so who is more powerful?
Power is sweet only when one can exercise it arbitrarily. Trump did a lot of that as a businessman but he will now find that he is circumscribed by laws, rules and regulations in the exercise of his presidential power. What we call “incumbency” in Nigeria is not potent power in America. President Obama could not even anoint his candidate in the Democratic primaries. Everyone knew that he preferred Hillary Clinton to Barry Sanders but he had to remain neutral until she won the primaries on her own. Obama could not “zone” the ticket to serving Democratic governors, as Obasanjo did here in 2007. Obama was even lucky that Mrs. Clinton invited him to the party convention because he had a high job approval rating. In 2008, Republican candidate John McCain refused to invite President George Bush to the party’s convention because he had a 28% job approval rating.
Where was the American president’s “incumbency powers” when Obama watched helplessly as his party’s presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates went down to defeat all over the country? Even though Trump is threatening to rip up Obama’s Affordable Care Act and repudiate trade treaties, Obama cannot do anything about it. Compare that to Yahya Jammeh. When President-elect Adama Barrow hinted that he will probe him, Jammeh simply announced that he will not hand over when his term expires. If the US President is all that powerful, Obama should refuse to hand over on Friday since he clearly does not like what Trump is about to do.
Trump could already be in trouble by appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as Senior White House Adviser. Top American lawyers are also saying Trump will be in trouble if he does not divest his holdings in Trump Organization or put them into a blind trust. They say that by putting his two sons and daughter Ivanka in charge of the businesses, there could be conflict of interest. Compare that to Nicaragua, where President Ortega has just been sworn in for a third term in office with his wife Rosario Murillo as his Vice President.
I often wonder why people say the US President is powerful when you remember that President Bill Clinton could not find a job for his intern girlfriend Monica Lewinsky. You would have thought that he could fix her in a job with a flash of his finger but Clinton, as sitting US President, had to beg his friend, the black lawyer Vernon Jordan, to help get a job for Monica Lewinsky. Even though Jordan was a director of eight blue chip American companies, he too failed to get a job for Monica Lewinsky. That is equivalent to President Buhari and Chief Wale Babalakin combined failing to find a job for a fresh graduate in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians think of the US’ $18 trillion economy and its $3.8 trillion federal budget and begin to salivate, saying the US President is really powerful to be in charge of all that money. What is the use of having a four trillion dollar budget when you cannot award a contract to yourself? It is more lucrative to be a Nigerian Local Government Chairman, who can pocket his LG’s entire monthly allocation. Despite the Republican Party’s control of the White House and both houses of the US Congress, Donald Trump cannot guarantee passage of any legislative bill. Powerful interests such as gun manufacturers, oil companies, drug manufacturers or even the Israeli lobby can defeat a bill despite presidential support, so which power does he have?
As president, Donald Trump will be travelling all over the US and the world, making numerous speeches, holding long meetings, listening to endless intelligence briefs, tweeting every day, making endless phone calls and lobbying Congressional leaders at endless dinners, all in order to push through his program. Is that the measure of power? Look, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un could disappear from public view for many months but he can get anything done without lobbying anyone. That is what I regard as real power.
When people talk about the US President being “the most powerful man in the world,” they remind me of Walga, the hulking, mentally-disturbed 7-foot plus giant who used to terrorise our village market in the late 1960s. Walga lived in an abandoned shed on the edge of town; it was once used by the construction firm Dumez. Every now and then Walga would enter the market and head straight for the food section. All the food sellers will abandon their pots and calabashes and flee in all directions. Walga will go from pot to pot, scooping up bean cakes, rice, porridge etc. He will eat his fill and carry some food back to his Sambisa-like redoubt. As he is leaving, he will be singing a self deprecatory song, saying:
In kagga Walga kaga mai karfi
[When you see Walga, [you think] you see a powerful man.]
In kat tara ka kwashi bungasa
[But if you challenge him, you will discover that he is a weakling.]
*This article was first published in the Daily Trust