One of the lesser-known stories from the Kenyan elections is the unprecedented parliamentary victory of 23-year old, John Paul Miriti. The Mount Kenya University student ran as an independent and won the Igembe South parliamentary seat to become the youngest member of the Kenyan Parliament. His victory is a testament to rising youth movements across Africa. In Nigeria, there is always noise about youth participation or the lack thereof in politics. The #NotTooYoungtoRun bill is perhaps the most fruitful one yet. But is youth leadership really the answer to bad governance? Are old politicians truly the problem?
A hasty look at Africa’s leaders may give credence to the claim that an ageing political class is the reason for its seemingly slow development. A large number of its presidents and head of states are septuagenarians. South Africa’s Zuma is 75, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe is 93 and Nigeria’s president, Muhammad Buhari is 74. It is easy, therefore, without proper investigation, to conclude that old politicians equate bad leadership and are responsible for Africa’s woes. However, the correlation between old age and incompetent leadership does not necessarily indicate causation. Correlation is not causation.
Nigeria suffers from a lack of youth representation but it is not the reason for Nigeria’s sufferings. The Nigerian story is one of historically incompetent leadership, many of whom were young when they took office. In fact, the majority of its military leaders took office at a relatively youthful age. The failure to diversify the economy, the volatile education system, poor health care and inadequate electricity are the fault of bad leadership, not old age. Moreover, the current political landscape is so eroded by Godfatherism that it may be difficult for the newer generation of leaders, however young, not to perpetuate it. Besides, all three arms of government are corrupt to the point where the checks and balances are often futile, and loyalties are bought across all aisles.
One hesitates to compare Nigeria with its western counterparts like Germany who despite being led by 63-year-old Angela Merkel, is a relatively thriving state. But there is something to be said about how these nations function in spite of old leadership. America’s president, Donald Trump, despite his propensity for controversy, is a 71-year-old man. Britain’s Theresa May is 60, and Japan’s Shinzo Abe is 62. The difference between these countries and Nigeria is that the Nigerian system is dysfunctional. An 80-year-old, if healthy and competent, can preside over the affairs of the United States without burning down the house. Besides, France’s Emmanuel Macron’s youth has not helped uphold his popularity. And many problematic factions in Nigeria are led by youth, from Arewa Youth to Nnamdi Kanu and his agitations.
This is not to say that Nigeria should keep electing old people. No. It is a call to separate youth governance from good leadership, lest we fall into a trap. Lest we find ourselves voting in people for their youth instead of their competence. Else we restart the cycle of incompetent leadership. It is also a reminder to address the cultural and educational barriers to entering politics that young Nigeria’s experience.
It is true that for a nation with a large population of young people, there is a dearth of youth participation in Nigerian politics. The government does not reflect the population. However, as much as possible, we must separate the lack of youth representation from the causes of Nigeria’s problems. That way, both issues will be addressed differently and more effectively.