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Opinions of Thursday, 11 February 2010

Columnist: Abobo, Williams

Revising The Gerontocratic Myths In African Political Leadership;

A Platform For Youth Revolutionarism.

In view of the controversy that this article generated when it was published in Ohio University, I have decided to add an introductory paragraph to the original article to explain a few, potentially controversial, aspects of my article. What must be clearly understood in this article is that I am not advocating that the youth should throw away the tradition of respect to the elderly. Neither has it ever been my intention to incite the youth to take over political power through whatever means simply because they form part of the youth. The operating expression in this article is meritocracy. By this, the youth should be able to challenge the political authority with convincing alternatives. I am convinced that this may be a very difficult thing for a youth to do because of the cultural metaphor that the elderly class in Africa represents. If the youth, often thought of as the future of the world, is to effectively play the role that it is expected to play in the society, they must be prepared to tell an erring adult, in the best manners as the situation may permit, that he/she is doing the wrong thing. It will not serve any good purpose for a youth to keep mute over the ills of the elderly simply because the youth is trying to keep a culture which does not allow a young person to correct, challenge or reprimand an older person.

Having given a background to the article above, I will proceed with the rest of the article. You will agree with me that in almost every African society, respect for the elderly seems to be an entrenched provision in the socio-behavioral code observed by that particular society. So before Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments enjoining the Israelites to respect their parents and by extension, the elderly, in order to have long life, Africans already knew of respect for the elderly. Respect for the elderly is so strong in Africa that it sometimes seem as though Africa is practicing gerontolatry—the worship of the elderly. It has been promoted by a set of dogma and mythologies; completely inimical to youth involvement in leadership at all levels of the African social strata.

A recurring myth in the philosophy of gerontocracy is that the older one is, the wiser he/she becomes. Most painting I have seen of God, He is portrayed with completely hair and beard. I can only guess that the intension is to give Him the wise, peaceful and calm looks associated with the elderly class. On the other hand, Satan is depicted as a youth overflowing with destructive powers. Ironically, when these same painters paint a person like King Solomon or Noah in the bible, they also have grey beard and hair. Meanwhile Satan according to the belief of most religions lived long before Solomon and Noah; and is still living. So who is supposed to be painted with grey hair and beard? Applying simple logical reasoning, I should think that Satan must also have grey beard and hair. The question that I ask myself when I see such paintings is: is it not possible to have a destructive, diabolical thinking and hopelessly ineffective elderly person? I think that there are examples of such people in every society. Yes, the expectation is that the older one is, the wiser he/she must be. But it will be unrealistic for anyone to assign a positive truth value to any proposition which seeks to establish a direct link between age and wisdom. The point about gerontocracy is that age increases every year so once a leader is selected because of his age and associated wisdom, he/she is inclined to rule for life. The assumption is that he/she becomes wiser and more experienced every year which makes him the best person to rule. Omar Bongo of Gabon was one of the African leaders in this group. Mugabe of Zimbabwe has also fought courageously to keep himself in power. Museveni of Uganda, another gerontocrat has remained in power since 1986. The list may be too long for me to exhaust.

Another recurring myth in the philosophy of gerontocracy is the fallacy that the judgment of the elderly is always right. It is considered disrespectful for a youth to challenge the judgment of an elderly person. As a youth, the society expects you to be “religiously obedient” to everyone older than you are regardless of the fact the judgments of the elderly may be out of favor relative to the peculiar challenges of the following generation. Therefore when the older generation forces its interests on the younger generation, the latter will be compelled to abandon its interests, leave its peculiar challenges unattended to and follow an established pattern of life prescribed by the former. I doubt if any society can ever grow in such a situation. In many African countries political leaders make choices on who they will like to succeed them. Often, supporters of political leaders accept the succession choice thus made by their leaders leading to, what I prefer to describe as a neo-dynastic political system. In Nigeria, the choice of the outgoing president Obasanjo appointed his preferred successor and everything humanly possible was made to make his choice stand. Soon after the death of Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, worshippers of the gerontocratic cult quickly predicted what the leader would have done if he knew he was going to die soon. The events in Togo suggested that Gnassingbe had bequest (or better to say willed) the country to his son. Faure Eyadema is an imposition from an older generation on the following generation(s). I am unable to figure out how a country can progress when such actions are made to prevail. A similar situation took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following the death of Laurent Kabila. How do such actions fit into the often trumpeted idea that the youth hold the key to the future? Is it impossible for a youth to become a leader of a country based on his/her proven merits but not his/her close ties to an exiting administration?

I have come to the conclusion, that for Africa to grow, one crucial thing to do is to revise, demystify and ease the obsession with age when it comes to electing people into political leadership. Merit based rule is what is needed--one that allows people to become leaders based on their overriding merits rather than how old they may be. Under merit based rule, the youth, interested in political leadership will have the opportunity of bringing into political administration, new ideas, creativity, exuberance and an unstoppable hope to succeed. This is what I call youth revolution. Competent and self confident youth will be able to challenge the neo-dynastic political leaders into justifying their stay in office on merit or relinquish power if they lack merit. Under my idea of youth revolutionarism, gerontocrats will not be assumed to be wise; they must demonstrate it. Neither will their judgments be assumed to be right; they must prove it. That is the only way the youth will be emboldened to venture into political leadership knowing that it is competence which matters but not old age.