by Dainty Jughead
The concept of age is a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to leadership. Indeed, for years, I have been grappling with the question that plagues many young, powerful and articulate African leaders ‘What is the right age to become a political leader in Africa?’
Most traditional African societies had distinct social and political structures that were based on significant stages of life. African people be it men or women underwent different rites of passages as the years passed by. From childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood, to warrior hood and finally to ‘elder hood.’ At each stage of life, people were entrusted and expected to perform certain responsibilities and a rites of passage involved acquisition of wisdom, power, knowledge and decision making capabilities.
The whole process of molding a person into a leader rendered one a sacred imprint in the history of the society with an individual’s soul exposed to spiritual, cultural, social and political ideologies. Despite societal variation, and especially in tribal- traditional societies, young men and women in their thirties and early forties could be entrusted with power to govern the society. Rites of passages were at the nucleus of every socio-cultural, spiritual and political dynamism; obstinately expressed and accepted, and persistent throughout society. The old respectfully gave way to the young to lead, to protect and govern the next generation of the society.
In current African social and political system, leaders are redefining the meaning and business of becoming old (by old, I refer to any person above the age of sixty years). As Africans are grappling with democracies across the continent, leadership and politics have become intertwined and has been espoused as an act of cunningness and outmaneuvering. Social and political leadership has shifted gear and become a playing field for those who selfishly pursuit power and control of resources. Young people eager for social and political leaderships at all levels of administration depart with traumatic experiences. Most of them go through a series of emotional turmoil, from shock to anger to disbelief and eventually acceptance….that political leadership is held by old leaders who suffer from a famine of bold and novel ideas.
As he celebrated his 89th birthday recently, former South African president Nelson Mandela launched “the Elders”, a group of leaders who have a combined 638 years of collective experience to deal with world issues. This included former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (76 years) who is the chairman of the “Elders”, former US president Jimmy Carter (83 years), former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan (69 years), Indian social activist Ela Bhatt (74 years), former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (67 years), former Irish president Mary Robinson (63 years), Bangladeshi economist and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus (67), former Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing (77 years) and the Burma pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (62 years). It is with melancholy, as I reflect on the population age structure of Eastern African countries (Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi). Collectively, the population age distribution is 44.6% (0-14 years), 53.3% (15-60 years) and 2.1% (over 61 years). Nelson Mandela’s “Elders” all fall under the 2.1% category and there are entrusted to find solutions for the rest of the 97.9% of the people. How is a 65 year old diplomat expected to shape the life of a 12, 25 or even a 35 year old, when we take into consideration the rapidly technologically developing world? It is not only impractical, but laughable.
The “Elders” are supposed to draw on their immense skills and collective wisdom and find solutions for HIV/AIDS, climate change and conflicts, problems that not only haunts the continent of Africa and but sends cold shivers down the spine of its inhabitants. I read through these names with sadness. This “Elders” who have held key leadership position and during their reign did not solve the problems of Africa are expected to find global solutions. The question then is; can we use the above “Elders” to nurture and develop liberal young leadership that should take control and govern Africa? To many young people of Africa, the above “Elders” do not contain bold new thinking on the most crucial ingredient that is required to transform the face of Africa: young age, energy, visionary leadership quality and the best strategies to sustain such leadership.
Currently most African countries have or are undergoing a second reign of liberation. The first liberation was the fight for freedom from the colonial rule and credit is bestowed on such leaders Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrick Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasir and Sekou Toure, to name but a few . Some seating presidents fought during this first liberation. The second liberation is happening as new but elderly presidents take the political reign. Unfortunately, this second liberation is more painful than the first, because many young potential leaders are sidelined and thought of as immature and incapable of ruling a country. Instead of building on first presidential liberators started, current leaders are busy waging internal wars, propelled by vengeance they are busy blocking politics of reason from maturing.
African leaders are advocating for a continental body referred to as United States for Africa. Indeed, it is a noble idea to dissolve the social, political and economic boundaries that have encapsulated the African people who were divided in the 19th century when Europeans partitioned Africa. However, a continental body might not solve Africa’s leadership woes. What do we need to do to move forward and encourage young leaders like President Kabila of DRC? It is time for young leaders to step into the political limelight and change the thinking of old leaders and the way they regard politics.
First, the young are told that politics is dirty and should be left to the elderly. The upshot of this direction of thinking is that we continue to harbor distrust. And t will only get worse as long as we treat political leadership as a game of astuteness. Young leaders have superior skills in effective communication, valuable compassion, collaboration and partnerships and conflict resolution. Second, old African leaders do not have respect for the political institutions they allege to belong to. We need to draw upon young leaders whose thinking go beyond tribal, country, regional but embrace continental boundaries. We have to pull on these young men and women, who will transform Africa from the continent scale. We need such young minds to tread on corridors of power, in front of or alongside the Mandela “Elders” and other political giants. It is only by including the above two suggestions, that we might encourage young and bright Africans to stay in the continent.
Indeed, we should not be perplexed and shocked at the extent at which young African leaders are escaping the confines of old politicians and hoping to find recognition outside the continent of Africa. For some, it might be the lure of better education and promising financial opportunities. But for most young people, it is the desire for recognition, the desire to lead