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Opinions of Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Columnist: Adjei, Bismark

An over-70 year old president is high-risk

Age is not just a number: an over-70 year old president is high-risk

Growing up I held a view that certain persons like Presidents were superhuman and therefore were insulated to natural death while in office. Death of Presidents was hence non-existent in the world of my own.

Contrary to the view I held, the presidential mortality rate in Africa since 2008 has risen to almost 15% which is slightly higher than the infant mortality rate of Sierra Leone, the second highest in the world. What this means is that, a baby in Sierra Leone today has more chance of surviving its first five years than an African president during his/her tenure in office. This revelation is stunning!

Perhaps this weird presidential mortality rate may have something to do with age. Let me be quick to state that this is not a propaganda piece but meant to instigate and provoke discussion on this very important matter. The average age of African heads of state is 62.5 years while this is supposed to be the pension age in Ghana and almost all African countries. However in sharp contrast, the average age of presidents in the developed world like Europe and America is 55 years at the time of their inauguration.

Being a President is a stressful job! I can only imagine how fast and furiously the stress hormones of Jerry Rawlings, John Agyekum Kufuor, late Prof. Atta Mills flew while they led this country. Same is to be said of young John Dramani Mahama who in just two or so years have had stress drawn all over him. Surely, their natural oxidation, glycation and telomere shortening are on overdrive, leading their faces and bodies toward old age faster than an average everyday person. Check Mahama’s grey hair and that of Barack Obama and you would understand how tedious the task is.

Permit me to quote a colleague Risk Manager, Mr. Bernard Ohemeng Baah in his article “Age is not just a number: an over-60 president is a high risk venture”. He stated that “When Prof. Mills was campaigning for the presidency in year 2008, I remarked to a friend of mine, an Actuarial Master, that I didn’t feel good about the Prof’s age and look. I was only speaking as a Risk Management Professional and a Life Insurer. If anyone aged 60 years and above proposed to any Life Company in Ghana for a high value term policy, I’d bet on my priceless pink sheet that it SHALL be declined. I was not shocked that the good Prof. passed even though I do not know the exact contents of his post-mortem. May God bless his gentle soul. It is customarily imprudent to talk about the departed, save favorably, so I will leave us to make our individual conclusions.

Should the age of a president matter to Ghanaians at all?

Yes it should! In fact, Section 1 of the Presidential Elections Law, PNDCL 285 of 1992 prescribes the minimum qualifying age for the presidency of Ghana.

Section 1 - Qualification for Election as President

“A person is not qualified to be a candidate for the office of President of Ghana unless-

(b) He has attained the age of forty years.”

This, ipso facto, makes age an issue in who can be a president of Ghana. Some opine that there could be people better qualified before age 40, evidenced in part by the number of geniuses building and driving fantastic corporate enterprises in Ghana and beyond before their 40th birthday. What could be the wisdom behind the constitutional provision? And why does the constitution stop-short of prescribing a ‘maximum entry age’ for the presidency? Can anyone of any age, say 80 years, be elected as president? What are the issues involved in having a person ‘too old’ as president? And what at all is too old?

Phew! Does anyone realize that Alhaji Aliu Mahama (May Allah bless his soul) could have been the flagbearer of the NPP in the 2012 elections? Had he won the flagbearership race against Nana Addo in 2008 and lost the presidency to Prof. Mills, he would have been given a “2nd Chance”, or even a “3rd Chance” as is done in Ghana. Well, too hypothetical for my liking.

Let me say that I agree with those of you who say that “green leaves fall, just as dried ones do”. You are not wrong. Accidents, poor lifestyles, and it is even believed that “witches and wizards” do contribute to the statistics of young people who die. It is true that there is untimely death, but fact also is that every ‘thing’ that has life is supposed to age, decay and die at some point. Predictability is the key word, and there is some sound basis to all of this.

Age is surely a factor in Africa’s high presidential mortality rate, probably the main factor. It is a truism that the longer you live, the more chances you have to die. Life is really just one long countdown to death; you do not know when it is coming, but day-in-day-out it death always getting closer.

One thing America and the developed world does, which the undeveloped fails at, is the respect for science, and the application of statistics and research information to their planning and processes.

Herbert L. Abrams, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine agrees that some great leaders have functioned well beyond the age of 70. He however contends that the presidency is a position that is uniquely and awesomely demanding, extending well beyond thoughtful, meditative policy decisions. It includes many large and pressing operational components, interacting with the White House staff, the cabinet, the Congress, the media, the public, the international community and many elements within the political party system. It is a stressful, power-packed, exhausting job, requiring stamina and energy during long days, weeks and months. It may involve rapid responses to emergencies and crises, with decisions based on a level of accelerated information retrieval and processing that elderly presidents may lack.


Now let me introduce you to some not so technical terms.

Life Expectancy, let’s take it simply, as the average number of years a person within a particular population can expect to live, ceteris paribus. Life expectancy is population specific and is affected by geographical, economic and social factors. So if the average life expectancy for a country, Bongoland, is 53 years, then a man aged 48 years could reasonably expect to live another 5 years. Of course he could live till 90 years, or he could die at 49 as well. Predictability, again, is the key word.

For whatever it is worth, do note that women tend to have a bit better life expectancy than men in the same population.

Mortality is the state of being mortal. Mortality is about morbidity or the susceptibility to dying at some point. Mortality Rate is a measure of the likelihood of dying at a certain age within a particular population. There are specialists (Actuaries) who use all manner of complex calculations and observations to compute these rates. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the pattern has been that Mortality rates are high for infants, then they improve drastically beyond infancy, rising again gradually as a person advances in age, becoming very high again beyond a certain age. Insurance companies and indeed, many planning institutions greatly utilize mortality statistics. The mortality experience within a population over time forms the foundation of Life Expectancy for that population. Ghana’s Life Expectancy was set at 53 years, but has recently reviewed to 63.8 years. As noted earlier, the male statistic is a bit lower, and is estimated at about 59.8 years.

It is safe to state from the foregoing that the average Ghanaian can expect to live for 63.8 years.

If even insurance companies will protect their profits against over-sixties, why would a country take the gamble? The financial outlay involved in giving a sitting president a befitting farewell, the possible disruptions to our governance, and the emotional effect such departures as experienced last year have on all of us as citizens make it absolutely necessary to understand them very well and make use of the lessons, if any.

The issue of an upper limit for the presidency has arisen in the United States of America a couple of times and opinions have varied greatly.

A view held by one school of thought is that some people do outlive the predicted life expectancy so mortality alone may not be good enough basis to set an upper age limit for the presidency. Evidence could be found of people who have functioned well beyond even 80 years.

James Reston, a New York Times journalist of the last century however put forward the view that "It is not responsible in this violent age to pick candidates for the presidency from men in their 60s,"

Professor Abrams opined in an article titled, the president’s age should concern Americans, that “When we choose presidents 65 or older, we must grapple with the possibility that they may be unable to fulfill the 208-week-long contractual obligation implicit in their candidacy”. His was informed by the researched susceptibility of the elderly to heart disease, stroke, cancer, infection, hip fractures, the complications of major surgery and dementia. He also noted that the many drugs that the elderly use have significant side effects and may produce cognitive changes. He shares the view that (after 70 years) “this is the period when the elderly need their afternoon nap and the absent-minded become more so”.

Professor Leonard Steinhorn of American University in Washington said of John McCain in the run-up to the 2008 USA elections, that he is "getting on the upper end of the comfort zone for Americans, who wonder whether he's going to have the vigor and the health as president." A poll by Associate Press and Yahoo News revealed that 20% of Americans thought of McCain as being “too old”. It is relevant to note in all of these that the Life Expectancy of USA is 78 years, about 15 years more than the life expectancy of our dear Ghana.

The point about the “Senior Citizens” having some experience than younger ones don’t have does not even come in. Why do we then retire all Civil Servants at 60 years despite their “EXPERIENCE”? Isn’t the Presidency supposed to be at the apex of the Civil Service? Or it is a case of different sets of rules for the masses and their rulers? Note that I have not made any case to suggest that being less than 60 years is automatic assurance that a person would do well as president. Far from that!

The unexamined life, it’s said, is not worth living. In my opinion, if a country loses a sitting president at age 68, and an ex-vice president at age 66, and we are told that both died of stroke (relying on the media), we need to re-examine as a country whether we made too much demands of our elderly citizens, noting especially the activities leading up to the two unfortunate incidents”. Whatever the reason, it’s a disturbing phenomenon. Sudden deaths create power vacuums, and power vacuums can cause huge instability.

To borrow from Golda Meir “Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you're aboard there's nothing you can do.”

Let the discussion begin.


Bismark Adjei PRM, BSc(Hons)