Emmanuel Macron has become France’s youngest ever president following the official handover by François Hollande. Since the victory of the 39-year-old centrist whose campaign took France by storm, there has naturally been some reaction among Nigeria’s very young population, referencing Macron’s age in relation to their own realities.
This is not unexpected. Despite the provisions of the constitution, at 39 most politically active Nigerians can at best aspire to be hand luggage carrying Assistants to politicians and social media aides, acting like thugs online to burnish the narrative around their principals. They appear only useful during the campaigns where they are either used to run ‘situation rooms’ or on the field as political thugs to manipulate results but not deemed fit to handle sensitive positions where they can bring their intellect to bear in influencing the policy direction of government.
It is a situation where 39-year-olds cannot even be Youth Leaders of their political parties. When you consider that Macron has already been France’s Economy minister two years ago, you will see the sense in the outcry among young Nigerians and the merits of the “Not too young to run’ campaign.
Personally I align myself to calls for younger people in government but with a caveat which I will explain shortly. There is no doubt that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking (and the same people) who created them. We have been held back by years of recycled politicians, yesterday’s men who have refused to retire, who have planted themselves with deep tap roots in the system because they have the resources to sustain their influence in Nigeria’s rent-seeking polity and buy their way through elections. And like chameleons, they have mastered the act of remaking themselves to suit the current circumstance. They’ve dumped military Khaki’s for agbadas and swear to be converts of democracy. The PDP lost power and they trooped in their numbers to the APC, singing tunes of Change…just anything to remain relevant and keep young people out.
You would wonder why a population tilted heavily in favour of young people has not taken a clear stand to birth a new order, just like we’ve seen in France. The politicians have been able to (and continue to) exploit the most basic necessity of life — food — to remain in charge. Young people are happy to take the handout and crumbs, to be seen somewhere in the photo ops of the politician, they are content with feeling among, or being driven in the long convoys of the old man, in the hope that perhaps, if they show enough loyalty (even if this goes against the principles they loudly espoused as private citizens) they will someday be found worthy of a seat at the table, to commence their own ‘chopping’. One hopes we get to change this mindset and that ongoing advocacy is able to change the system to make it more favourable for young people to run.
But it is not enough to allow young people into office though. This is the caveat I talked about earlier. The fact is that when it comes to leadership age doesn’t matter – competency does. Our own history is full of examples of leaders who have succeeded and failed at every age, a good number of them young people.
Most of our post-independence leaders, military and civilian (most of who continue to hold the reins today), got on the podium first as youngsters. In recent times we have also had a few democratically elected youngsters whose performance does not in any way solidify the argument in favour of young people.
It is thus clear that just as corruption and incompetence do not have any age limits, the passion, character, commitment, discernment, and talent to be a good leader certainly also does not depend on a person’s date of birth. The real issue is competence and it is important we hold this dear in all conversations around leadership, especially as the 2019 drums begin to roll out. It is not enough to be young. You must also be competent. If somebody exhibited a certain level competence and success, nobody looks at your age.
While experience counts, energy matters and certainly, as we have seen over and over in our recent history, health also does feature strongly on the checklist for our next set of leaders. Some more salient issues are education and exposure. I am still not certain why being a graduate is seen as the minimum qualification for holding regular jobs but we leave the more sensitive issue of leading this nation to persons who have as much as attempted the secondary school certificate. That doesn’t appear very smart to me.
The whole conversation around Emmanuel Macron is one I hope will inspire changes in Nigeria and bring about a paradigm shift in the composition of our leadership. I hope that young people will sit up and take back their country from those who are currently running it down. This is a conversation that has to be had. But even more, we must interrogate more closely, the competence and moral character of the people we vote for and send to take decisions on our behalf at all levels of government.