Sunday, April 21, 2024

Nigeria’s gerontocracy problem

Even in America, where they have strong institutions, geriatric politicians come with their problems.

• March 30, 2024
Bola Tinubu, President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar
Bola Tinubu, President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar

The old men have come to stay. The men who run the affairs of this country, at the top, are men who have always been at the helm of affairs. They came into politics in their youth and have refused to leave and be productive in other endeavours, being a politician is now a lifelong endeavour for most of them. Our former president, General Muhammadu Buhari, was a perfect example of this. He was actively involved in national politics as a young soldier, which culminated in him masterminding a coup and becoming military Head of State from the 31st of December, 1983, to 27th August, 1985. By the time he became president of Nigeria in a democratic setting, he was well into his 70s and had been involved in almost every government and political cycle since the Nigerian Civil War. Whatever wealth of experience you would have expected from him as a president in his 70s was not to be seen or felt, as Buhari oversaw the worst decline on all fronts that Nigeria had ever experienced. Under his stewardship, Nigeria failed on every level. His age saw him going on long medical vacations, his age did not come with a blessing: it came with impediments.

Buhari handed over power to another 70 something year old president, who has been involved in National politics for over 30 years. Bola Tinubu was a Senator in 1992; he became governor of Nigeria’s biggest (economy) state in 1999. Tinubu, by virtue of his age, is another ‘not too fit health-wise’ president, who has again clearly shown in such a short time that old and frail men should be discouraged from holding positions of immense importance in Nigeria ever again. Tinubu appointed a Secretary to the Government of the Federation who is 70 years old. George Akume became governor of Benue State at 46, after 8 years as governor, he moved to the Senate from 2007 to 2019, and was a Minister from 2019 to 2023, and is now SGF. The government at the centre is filled with past governors, who have transformed into senators and ministers; the political lifecycle of a Nigerian politician. These men mostly get involved in politics as young men and cleave on to power until they drop dead or another “politician for life” displaces them. In Nigeria, once people get into political office, they maneuver to stay in office and stay relevant for as long as they can, they rarely ever look for a life or anticipate a life out of political office.

Even in America where they have strong institutions, geriatric politicians come with their problems. The two major candidates who will most likely be on the ballot during the US presidential election in 2024, Joe Biden at 81 and Donald J. Trump at 76, are post-retirement-aged men who will be battling to manage the affairs of the so-called “greatest country” in the world. Men who are barely fit to manage their affairs are battling to manage the affairs of a country as complex as the United States of America. This is because elderly Americans have entrenched themselves into the political structure in America and, in some cases, are being forced to give up power. For instance, Mitch McConnell, who is the US Senate Minority Leader at 82 and the longest serving Senate Leader in the history of the country, looked out of his mind and was barely coherent during a recent press briefing; he will be stepping down in November and won’t be seeking reelection for very obvious reasons. However, Nancy Pelosi, former US House Speaker, who at 83, is one year older than McConnell, is refusing to quit her seat and is seeking reelection back to her office. There was also the case of the trailblazer Diane Feinstein, who, until she died at 90, was a member of the US Senate; she continued to decline in health and could barely represent her people properly but refused to resign until her death in 2023. Considering the respective ages of these men and women in American politics, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, at 73, will still be considered young and vibrant, with more years ahead of him, the irony.

Back to Nigeria, like in the US and in so many other countries around the world where the elderly don’t see the detriments of their continued hold to power in their countries and are happily turning the political offices into convalescence homes, they refuse to let go and it is not because they love the people of that country too much. The majority of these people get into power in their youth, and they cling on, sometimes moving from one political office to the other and, at times, staying put at the same political office, turning democratic institutions into monarchial institutions where you are expected to stay in office from ascension till death. Even in some monarchial countries, sometimes the elderly step aside and let the young take over when they know they have become too old to perform their duties effectively; why can’t democratically elected leaders do the same?

The Oxford Dictionary describes gerontocracy as a state, society or group governed by old people, and this is undoubtedly the situation in Nigeria. Young Nigerians face a lot of barriers to entry when they want to run for political offices, barriers that today’s geriatric political class did not face but put in place to make sure they get extended stay in politics. The only spaces that young people mostly occupy were handed to them by their parents or benefactors, meaning the elderly are still in charge, an unfair pattern for a nation with a large, youthful population. Sometimes, these spaces are used as tokenism, to silence agitation for more representation by the youth, to give young people the illusion of representation even though those spaces come without real power because they are there to fill in a quota or do the bidding of the people who put them in there. There can be no serious development as a nation, if the youths of a country are being completely closed off of spaces where the highest decisions are being made. Nigerian youths need to continuously demand better and a change to gerontocracy, and then maybe one day we will be able to celebrate like the people of Senegal, who just elected a 44-year-old as their president after months of protests and civil unrest to ensure that their democratic rights were not distorted or tampered with. Maybe one day we will be like the Senegalese; until then…

Kelechi Belinda Udeogu has a PhD in development and political communication.

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