Buhari has 99 problems, but age isn’t one
Over the years there has been a growing chorus for more youth participation in politics and governance, with proponents arguing that the same old tired politicians who have been at the helm since Nigeria’s independence need to retire.
In a recent video that went viral, the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Enugu – Reverend Dr. Emmanuel Chukwuma, gave an impassioned speech from the pulpit during the Interdenominational Commendation service for Late Vice President Dr. Alex Ekwueme. He called for a new Nigeria, admonishing politicians over 70 years to retire.
To remove any ambiguity about who the target of his ire was, he asserted that nobody over 65 [years] should be president of Nigeria. He referred to older politicians as having “analog brains”, urging that the country needs new brains and a new spirit – a digital one, I imagine.
His speech coupled with the recent calls by former President Olusegun Obasanjo for current President Buhari not to seek reelection, set me on a path to explore two key points. Firstly, whether Nigeria was indeed prone to electing older men to higher office and secondly, whether age was a factor in determining effectiveness in office.
While there is near unanimous agreement that more youth participation in politics and government would give the nation a much needed “shot in the arm”, the facts call into question the undergirding theory that age adversely affects governance and also the idea that Nigeria’s problems stem from the age of its elected leaders.
On October 1, 1963, following the adoption of the new constitution Sir Tafawa Balewa aged 51, became the first post-independence Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Since then, Nigeria has had 12 heads of state, with two of them serving multiple non-consecutive terms.
While they’ve been almost evenly split between democratically elected governments and military regimes, all of them except for the current president would have passed the Bishops analogue test (capped at 65) at their time of accession.
Consider that the average age of accession for Nigerian leaders is about 49 years old. That number goes up to 58 years if you count only the democratically elected leaders, which you would have to do with other non-democratic nations for equivalence.
While that number isn’t exactly the prime of physical activity, it is in line with the averages of the so-called developed world we clamour to emulate. In the United States, the number is about 55 years old including its current president who was sworn in at 70 years. In the UK, that number is just over 53, including the current Prime Minister who took over at 60.
President Xi Jinping of China is 64, Michel Temer of Brazil is 77, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia is 63 and the leader of perhaps the most innovative country in the last 30 years – Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE, is 69 years old and was 56 when he ascended the throne. So the claims that age is the primary culprit for Nigeria’s development struggles are faulty at best.
In his now famous “Special Press Statement,” former President Obasanjo in what has now become a perennial withdrawal of support, laid out a case for why he thought President Buhari should not seek re-election.
The statement was a stinging indictment of the presidents’ handling of the economy, the unending ethnic clashes between herdsmen and farmers, and allegations of nepotism among other things. But as with most people calling for Buhari not to seek re-election, the former President appeared to tie the performance or lack thereof to his age and ailment for which he sought treatment. He appealed to the president to “consider a deserved rest at this point in time and at this age”.
In a study of 12 modern US Presidents and the qualities that distinguished the successful from the others, Princeton University Professor Emeritus of Political Science and author Fred I. Greenstein, boiled it down the six factors: Effectiveness as a public communicator; ability to forge a cohesive team and get the most out of them; political skill in forging alliances between varying factions and garnering public support for policies; clear and consistent vision; cognitive style of processing information and making decisions; and most importantly, emotional intelligence. He warns, “Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes.”
A critical analysis of the president’s score on Greenstein’s test and an honest accounting of the state of the country he inherited will reveal why he has struggled and where the opportunities for growth lie.
The purpose of this article is not to dissuade young people from actively participating in their democracy or dismiss the effects of age on work. It is to properly diagnose the problem using our strongest asset – information and data, so that we’re on guard against those who might play into our inherent age bias, offering “youth” as a quick fix.
Instead, we must objectively rate candidates for high office not based on age, ethnicity, gender, religion or even ideology, but based on Greenstein’s criteria. There are 99 problems with the Buhari administration that warrant genuine criticism and calls for him not to seek or accept his party’s nomination for the 2019 elections, but age isn’t one.