Leadership: What Has Age Got To Do With It?


By James Ibori

The call for power shift from the older to the younger generation is fast gaining currency. This political discourse has occupied the public space in recent times and understandably so. The question is what level of leadership are we talking about and what age suitability should be considered; below age 40 or 50 or 60? Or even below age 30? We are yet to interrogate the idea that the failure of leadership may not necessarily be age related.

Closely related to this idea is the proposition that this failure is actually across all sections of society. That is to say, it may not be restricted to political leadership alone because other sections of the society that are by nature exclusive to the youth are also afflicted. For example, university students’ unions and the financial sector where we have a large proportion of young people in senior management positions. Have these young men and women exhibited the leadership qualities lacking in the older generation? We must, of necessity, answer this question. We also have young men and women as ministers of God. Many of them are at the helm of affairs in majority of the churches in Nigeria. Has the youth trumped the old in behaviour, morality, leadership, integrity and frugality? How have our youths fared in the professions, the military and the civil service? Do they even hold out any hope for the nation?

One problem that appears to have bedevilled Nigeria is the “one solution fits all” and “easy way out” syndrome. We are quick to proffer ill-thought out solutions to all our problems; transfer political power to the youths and all our problems are solved.

When nine years ago Americans voted in a 47-year old Barack Obama as their President, many Nigerians enthused that American politics had embraced youth power. That Obama had attended the best schools in his country, volunteered again and again in providing free services to his communities, and had been involved in politics as early as he could, and the fact that he had been elected into the country’s Senate did not matter in their reasoning. The only thing that registered was that a black person below age 50 was President. Many never bothered to study his trajectory to power. Had they done that, they would have realised that Obama did not become President simply because the United States of America decided that the old must give way to the young or whites to blacks. No, Obama became President because, at that moment, he was adjudged the best among those who offered themselves for election. He had built up some national gravitas. He had been noted as having something to offer his nation, something great enough to even transcend whatever obstacles that had blocked the way of every black politician before him. In as much as his election was a black revolution, it was actually personal to Barack Obama.

There was no national consensus before the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi began to defend people for free. And when he began that public service in 1969, he was a young lawyer. Let it not be forgotten that when the late Chief Anthony Eromesele Enahoro was jailed because of his struggle for Nigeria’s independence, he was just 21 years old. The Wole Soyinkas, the John Pepper Clarks, and the Chinua Achebes that we celebrate today achieved greatness while they were in their youth. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart at the age of 28. Ben Enwonwu became a master sculptor in his youth. There was no national consensus that literary greatness should be taken from the old to the young then. And when the Ben Okris and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies took over the mantle of becoming great writers, they begged for no let or leave from the old. They just did what they had to do. They tasked themselves until they achieved greatness.

The election of a 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron in France may have galvanised a section of Nigerians to think that the time is NOW. Monsieur Macron did not contest for office solely on the basis of being a “youth”; he ran in a national election based on concrete ideas. He ran against popular Eurosceptic and anti-immigration candidates. He believed in something. It was not because someone mobilised the French voters to support a young man. In electing Macron, France voted a left of centre politics.

Macron has been in public service for decades. He studied Philosophy at Paris Nanterre University before obtaining a Masters degree in Public Affairs at Sciences Po. He graduated from the École nationale d’administration (ÉNA) in 2004. He worked at the Inspectorate General of Finances, and later became an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque. Before entering politics, he was a senior civil servant and investment banker. He joined the Socialist Party in 2006 and was appointed Deputy Secretary General in François Hollande’s first government in May 2012. He was appointed Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs in 2014 under the Second Valls government, where he pushed through business-friendly reforms. He resigned in August 2016 to launch a bid for the 2017 presidential election under the banner of En Marche!, a centrist political movement he founded in April 2016, and won the election on 7 May 2017. Macron made history as the youngest President in the history of France, but he actually paid his dues. He learnt the ropes and acquired experience. He was tested to the hilt. He did not scream that he represented the youths whose turn it was to take over power.

A good look at Nigeria’s political history will throw up the fact that, ironically, the problem of Nigeria has been caused, in large part, by exuberant young men who were at the helm of affairs in the first decade of the nation’s independence; civilian and military alike. Major Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu was just 28 years old when he pulled off his January 15, 1966 coup. Gen. Yakubu Gowon, under whom Nigeria fought a civil war, was 32 when he became Head of State and could not prevent the war that started when he turned 33. Even the first military Head of State, Gen Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was 41 when he mounted the saddle. Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was in his 30s when he started the Egbe Omo Oduduwa as a university student in London. This association later metamorphosed into a political party, the Action Group. The late Sir Ahmadu Bello was in the same age bracket when he rallied the North together through the Northern Peoples Congress and the late Mallam Aminu Kano was also about the same age when he decided to speak up for the rights of the “talakawas”. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was just 30 years old when he returned from the US and began his Pan-Africanist struggle in Ghana. Their failures and successes cannot and should not be laid at the doorstep of age. It was not because they were old or young men. The reason for their failures must be found elsewhere.

Nigeria’s third military ruler, the late Gen. Murtala Muhammed entered office at 38. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded him at 39. Alhaji Shehu Shagari became President while in his mid-50s, so he was not a Methuselah. Actually, Nigeria has favoured the youth in elections. That Obasanjo and President Muhammadu Buhari returned to power was because they ran on their records as leaders in their youth. Obasanjo returned exactly 20 years after his military presidency and Buhari, 30 years after his overthrow. That the same charges for which Buhari was overthrown are still being levelled against him in his democratic government may show that if there is any fault in him, it could be ascribed to his personality, not age.

We can still remember the likes of the then youthful Chief Jim Nwobodo and Abubakar Rimi as state Governors. In the early 1990s the two contending parties were led by two relatively young men; Chief Tom Ikimi of the National Republican Convention (NRC) and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). And they were new breed politicians in that they were untainted by the politics of either the First or the Second Republics. The military regime that initiated the Third Republic was headed by a relatively young Commander-in-Chief, Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. Yet, that Republic did not take off. The “gerontocrats” that have ruled Nigeria are just Obasanjo and Buhari. President Goodluck Jonathan was in his 50s when he took office on the demise of President Umaru Yar’Adua. His failures would have to be located anywhere but age. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua himself became President at 56 but was hobbled by health challenges. An “old” President Obasanjo showed he had capacity, tenacity, strength of character, but for many other characteristics which are not the subject of this article, his administration would have truly transformed Nigeria and his personal reputation would have soared like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela’s.

The choice we face is not that of “Paedarchy” or “Paedocracy” versus gerontocracy. It is one of strength, character, vision, courage, capacity, intellect and a deep understanding of Nigeria. This age-related argument should not be aimed at Buhari. The constitution gives him the right to seek the Presidency for two terms. The argument for and against him should be based on his record of achievement. Fifteen years ago, when President Buhari first contested against President Obasanjo, he was already 60. The issue of age did not rear its head then because President Obasanjo himself was in that age bracket and he exercised his right to a second term. Age is definitely a major determinant of good leadership especially in a democracy such as ours. Among my colleagues in the set of 1999 to 2007 Governors, were young, charismatic and intellectually sound Nigerians. Some of them danced to the drumbeat of anti-democratic and dictatorial tendencies not out conviction but out of convenience and conformity. What we need is courage, character and vision as age has nothing to do with good leadership.

I plead with Nigerians who extend the France/Macron example here to please learn from history. John F. Kennedy’s presidency at age 41 was just another election and no generational power shift. Some 20 years later, the US elected a 69-year-old Ronald Reagan who teamed up with 55 years old Mrs. Margret Thatcher of Britain in a conservative alliance to give the West a new direction. Of course, after that Britain elected a young Tony Blair at 44 into office and its present Prime Minister came into office at the age of 60. So, in both Britain and the US, policies, ideological considerations and the likes have been affecting elections, not age. Remarkably, as this generational discourse is going on in Nigeria, the US has put a 75 year-old Donald Trump in office. The Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is 69, Japan’s Shinzo Abe is 63; his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke served as Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and his great-uncle Sato Eisaku held the same post from 1964 to 1972. His father, Abe Shintaro, was Japan’s foreign minister. In Nigeria, someone would have called that a dynasty. China is right now on the ascendancy and its President is the 64 years old Xi Jinping. Norway’s female Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, is 56. Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is 60; this welder has no university degree, but launched into politics from his post as a trade unionist. Canada’s Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister at the age of 43 but he has been a parliamentarian since 2008.

Politics is a game of ideas, policies and numbers. The Nigerian youth needs to pay the required price, make the necessary sacrifice, study the problems facing the society, master how to solve the problems of the various parts of the Nigerian federation by first appreciating that Nigeria is a federation and that these federating units have dissimilar problems and that one size fits all approach to solving Nigeria’s problems will not work. The youths have to be disciplined enough to attend political meetings, play party roles, canvass for votes, identify the needs of their various peoples and seek to effectively represent them. They have to acquire organisational abilities, learn from the mistakes of the past and put themselves up for public service. There are young men and women doing just that across the country without making a song and dance of it. Plum offices will surely come to them as early as they did to Barack Obama, Canada’s Justin Trudeau or, France’s Emmanuel Macron or a few Nigerians including myself.

Every nation is a work in progress. Governance is constant since it is what sustains the different nations of the world. Nigerian youths should be proactive and not tarry hoping that leadership will be thrust on them. It has never been so and it will never be so.

* Chief James Ibori was Governor of Delta State from 1999 to 2007.


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