Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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What is driving Nigeria deeper into gerontocracy 13 Sep 2022

Age is a major issue in the Nigerian 2023 presidential election cycle. On the one hand, the average age of the three frontrunner candidates – Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, and Peter Obi – is 68.7 years. On the other hand, the youth are able to decide the outcome of the election if they pull the weight of their number, since they constitute about 65 percent of the electorate. Whereas the election will not be decided by just one factor, younger Nigerians who are no longer enamoured of the old-guard politicians have taken control of the Twitter platform for the campaign of Mr. Obi – the youngest of the three frontline presidential contenders.

A clamouring for youthful leaders during the 2019 election cycle was rewarded with the passage of the Not Too Young To Run bill. It also encouraged a few new-breed politicians and a cohort of upstart presidential aspirants to join the race. However, the agitation for a young president was ultimately defeated in that cycle by the re-election of a septuagenarian President Muhammadu Buhari.

Nigerian youth and the old-timer politicians have recently become social and political powerhouses contending against each other. The brutal crushing of the EndSARS protest in 2020 made the youth to break ranks with the government. The government seemingly returned the favour by banning Twitter for months in Nigeria. Going into the next general election, the candidacies of Messrs Tinubu and Abubakar represent the unwillingness of the old-guard to leave the stage for younger leaders.

But what exactly is driving Nigeria deeper into a gerontocracy? The relatively high minimum age for becoming president could be said to be responsible. Until 2018, a Nigerian president must be 40 years old or above. Only China and Singapore (45) and Italy (50) had higher age barriers for their topmost political leadership. Many countries, especially those practicing the more collegiate parliamentary system of government, including the UK and Australia, set 18 years as the qualifying age for their leader – the same age for eligibility for election into the parliament. Nigeria lowered the eligibility age for president to 35 years in 2018. But the impact of this will likely be in the longer term. Meanwhile, the youth will be less represented on the presidential ballot in 2023 than in 2019.

Setting a lower age for leadership – or not having age restriction at all, as many countries do – have both symbolic and practical implications. It indicates a higher level of inclusivity in leadership selection. Such countries tend to rely more on the systemic protection provided by their strong institutions and trust less on the steady hands that may be provided by the old age of an individual leader. Thus, it is in Europe where generally the democratic institutions are more matured that we see lower or no age barrier to political leadership.

The opposite is the case in Nigeria where there is more emphasis placed on the individual leader than a well-functioning, independent institutions of the State. Where this generates a conflict between the vested interest of the leader and an institution – as it is bound to happen – the latter is subjugated. The supremacy of the whims and caprices of the leader, rather than that of the law, therefore, drives institutional weakening and lack of development in the country.

For a power monger, the all-powerful office of the Nigerian president is worthy of a life-long ambition. Thus, even by self-declaration, Mr. Tinubu said he is running to fulfil his long-term ambition, and he deems himself to have waited for his “turn”.

However, the hierarchical structure of the Nigerian society is the root-cause of electing leaders that have gone past the prime of their productive years. Leadership is traditionally determined by age seniority in Africa. To become president in Nigeria, the politicians – and the electorate alike – believe one needs to have previously occupied a high political office. When the country was returning to democracy in 1999, the political establishment decided for the former military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo. Having also occupied the position, General Buhari for over a decade wanted to be an elected president. The other two Presidents in the Fourth Republic are Umaru Yar’Adua who came from a political dynasty, and Goodluck Jonathan – a former governor who served as vice president to President Yar’Adua. Dr. Jonathan took over when his boss died in office and went on to win the next presidential election in 2011.

After pursuing the presidency over many years, and because of the intrigues, political ordeals, and physical and financial tolls involved, the president could finally arrive in office old, tired, and sickly. As such, President Buhari has had to spend considerable lengths of time attending to his health since coming into office in 2015.

A significant step in lowering the age of future presidents of Nigeria is the reduction of the minimum age for president to 35 years. Recent electoral reform measures including electronic transmission of results can drastically eliminate rigging, and thereby level the playing field. All eyes are now on INEC to implement the reforms impartially. Competent Nigerians should embrace the inclusive and more open process by vying for future elections. Not limiting it to elections, though, we need to begin to foster a more egalitarian society where knowledge, ideas, and vision thrive. The future of Nigeria belongs to the youth, and they should be involved in shaping it through political leadership.