By Georges Budagu Makoko, Publisher of Amjambo Africa
The beauty of a democracy is that the system is grounded in power bestowed to the citizenry to decide who will be voted into office. Many of the 7.8 billion people worldwide are not blessed with the privilege of choosing their leaders, but U.S. citizens are, and an historic 161 million Americans came out to vote during the 2020 presidential election. In fact, 2020 was the most civically engaged election in modern U.S. history – and this despite the extraordinary COVID-19 pandemic that has taken away hundreds of thousands of lives and devastated families. Even in the midst of such widespread suffering, millions of Americans made sure they exercised the power of their vote. My immigrant friends believe that the reason so many people turned out was to fight for democratic values. People of color voted in huge numbers, and we are proud that our voices can no longer be ignored in the election process. Even young people who don’t normally vote turned out.
I’ve been in the United States for the last 18 years and have participated in several elections. But I have never experienced an election season such as this one (although I realize a similar event happened in 2000, before I arrived) with a winner not declared on Election Day, and the palpable anxiety level in the immigrant community growing day by day as the nation waited for results. I know I kept my own phone near me 24/7, and woke each night many times to see if the final results had been posted. Most of the people I know spent a lot of time talking to friends both in the U.S. and abroad, all of us trying to make accurate predictions about the outcome. Everyone I know was razor-focused on the elections.
The emotions my fellow immigrants shared with me during election week ran deep. Four tempestuous years living under the current administration have been extremely hard on the immigrant community. Many shared with me that they had completely lost confidence in the country, and that their hopes and dreams for the future had been shattered over the last four years. They talked about the impact Donald Trump’s immigration policies have had within the immigrant community here in Maine, and said that their belief in the American core value of welcoming immigrants had been significantly tarnished. They said they were traumatized by the frequent executive orders targeting immigrants, and that thousands of people had given up on the U.S. and moved on to Canada, to seek asylum there.
Community members believe that the outcome of this year’s elections is very good news for immigrants, and they are looking forward to better days ahead. They are relieved that they will no longer wake to tweets potentially telling them to pack up and leave the country they have adopted as their new, safe home. People spoke of Joe Biden’s election as a victory over fear. A young woman I spoke with, who has participated in three U.S. elections since becoming a citizen, said, “This administration was very stressful for immigrants, and the constant rule changes about immigration that were frequently executed made the lives of immigrants very hard. My hope for the new administration is that I will be able to know what to expect and not be shocked all the time – the last four years were emotionally draining. I hope that Joe Biden’s new administration will help us in the healing process.” Hope is restored abroad, as well as in Maine. A Congolese refugee living in Kenya told me, “American leadership around the world was seriously tarnished. We hope to see it coming back again.”
The fact that the sitting president is contesting the election results concerns many people in the immigrant community, who fear potential civil unrest. Most immigrants from Africa are familiar with civil unrest following elections, especially when one political party refuses to concede. Recent examples are the 2015 election in Burundi, the 2017 election in Kenya, and the 2018 election in DR Congo. Immigrants who see Republicans demonstrating in the streets and President Trump contesting the election results are afraid civil unrest could turn violent.
Democracy is very fragile and must be protected – once it is lost, it takes many years to get it back, and sometimes it is lost forever. For example, in the 1930s a democratic election brought Adolf Hitler to power, but then the nationalist party got control and imposed their agenda on the whole country.
My sincere prayer is that hundreds of years of building strong, democratic institutions in the U.S. will prevail over individual greed and self-interest. May God bless America with a return to our core values.