Sunday Times

Where’s the youthful fire that could energise our country?


Back when newspaper companies had deep enough pockets to send reporters to cover elections in other countries, my employers assigned me to Lagos to report on a watershed Nigerian election.

The year was 2007 and Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been president of the federal republic since 1999, was coming to the end of his second and final term.

Although by then the populous West African country was assumed to be a stable democracy — having broken with the terrible history of military rule after the death of Gen Sani Abacha in 1998 — there was much apprehensi­on as to whether Nigeria could deliver a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to the next.

Since gaining independen­ce from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had never experience­d such a transition and so — even though the same party was expected to win — the fact that one civilian president was to hand over power to another was regarded as epoch-making.

As is often the case in developing countries, Obasanjo’s then ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, wasn’t the most popular in the commercial capital, Lagos. To go by what people in Lagos were saying, you would be forgiven for thinking that the party was headed for the opposition benches at national level.

The most popular politician­s in that city seemed to be those from the opposition party, which happened to run the Lagos state. Most popular among them, at least based on what one could glean from newspaper articles and current affairs programmes on television, was one Chief Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu. An accountant, Tinubu had entered politics in 1992, running for a senate seat for

Lagos West, but soon found himself becoming a street activist for democracy when Abacha became the military head of state and dissolved the legislatur­e.

When civilian rule was reinstitut­ed in 1999, he won the race to become governor of Lagos state — a position he held for two successive four-year terms. Although he was not in the running for presidency in 2007, he seemed the most popular critic of the PDP and the one person who could take on the ruling party at national level and win.

When I and a number of other foreign journalist­s who were trying to understand Nigerian politics asked local colleagues why he wasn’t in the running, they said he had passed his sell-by date and that Nigeria would be better served by a younger generation taking up positions of authority and power.

Some 17 years later, at 72, Tinubu is now president of the federal republic. It is still early days for his administra­tion, which took office in May last year, so the jury is still out on its performanc­e.

But one wonders if Nigeria would have been better served if he had run for office two decades ago when he was younger and had more energy. When voters chose him for the presidency in the last election, ahead of a number of younger candidates, were they trying to solve contempora­ry problems with a 2007 solution?

There has been much debate here at home about politician­s who remain in office, or try to get into office, even though they are way beyond retirement age by private sector standards. With elections coming up in a few months, there is a push — especially among the young lions in the governing ANC — for MPs and ministers in their 70s and late 60s to make way for fresh blood.

Opposition parties seeking to woo voters away from the ANC have taken to pointing to the ages of some of its politician­s — especially those who have been MPs since 1994 — as part of the reason the country is not progressin­g as it should.

Yet everything else suggests that we simply can’t do without our elders. A survey last year on the popularity of South African politician­s put former president Thabo Mbeki, an 81-year-old who left office in 2008, as the most popular, followed by the incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa, who is 71. Younger politician­s such as Julius Malema, Mmusi Maimane, John Steenhuise­n and newcomers such as Songezo Zibi did not even come close.

What does that tell us about these politician­s and about us, the voters?

No wonder another 81-year-old former president, albeit widely regarded as having been a failure in office, has the energy to criss-cross his own and neighbouri­ng villages canvassing for votes in the belief that his new political enterprise can garner a two-thirds majority at the polls.

In response to his apparent threat, the governing party is said to be turning to his age-mate, and predecesso­r, for help.

But, as you can see with the Nigerian example, we are not alone. Even the world’s “greatest democracy” is going to the polls later this year with a depressing choice between an 81-year-old Joe Biden and a not-so-young Donald Trump who, by most accounts, was a disaster in his previous incarnatio­n as the US president.

Is the world running out of new ideas and younger leaders?

The US may have an excuse, it is a tired and ageing empire whose world dominance is coming to an end. What’s ours?

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