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What has age got to do with it?

By Dele Sobowale

“The old order changeth yielding place to the new

And God fulfills himself in many ways

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892.

It happens all the time in Nigeria. The needless debate on whether or not there should be a minimum or maximum age to contest for the presidency returns like a fake currency to the national agenda. President Buhari recently signed a bill liberalizing the age for contesting; but like all old people wedded to a failed past could not resist asking the youths wanting to vie for office to wait until after 2019. It was unnecessary advice which should be ignored. Giving advice has always been a dangerous thing; especially when it is tainted with naked self-interest which those being admonished can detect easily.

“Advice is no commandment in my view.” Geoffrey Chaucer, 1342-1400

I am in total agreement with Chaucer who made that declaration as, in this case, it is tainted with obvious self-interest masquerading as national interest. Buhari is already a declared candidate for the office in the 2019 elections. That was a decision freely made. He has no business advising others getting set to contest against him, old or young, to wait until after 2019. More on that later.

The young people who are the targets of the counsel should ignore the admonition because neither global nor our own national historical experience support the notion that old leaders are better than young ones. In every nation and at different times young and old people have led their people wisely or badly. Let charity begin at home on this.

Since 1999, Nigeria has had four leaders – two old and two relatively young. Two had terrible education in the military and two went beyond B.Sc in their university education. None will ever be remembered by posterity as great leaders. At no point, including now, in the nineteen years since General Abubakar handed over to Obasanjo can Nigerians ever say “That was our finest hour” (Winston Churchill, 1874-1965). Instead like a nation inhabited solely by drunkards and somnambulists, we have been staggering and lurching from one crisis to another – virtually all of which had been created by the leaders we have had.

But, the same Nigerian history would record that Gowon was under thirty years old when he started to rule. There was no Boko Haram; no professional kidnappers and ransom takers; certainly no killer herdsmen (let alone having their atrocities applauded by a Federal Minister). Crude oil never sold for more than five (5) dollars until Gowon left office. Yet the landmarks are still there for all to see in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere. Murtala Mohammed was less than forty when he ruled for less than a year. But, in that short span of time he left such footprints on the sands of our time as would require another article to list them seriatim. The price of crude oil never topped ten (10) dollars  during his tenure of office.

Our real palaver and steady decline started when the “Methuselah” politicians and “militicians” took over – starting with Obasanjo in 1976. It was during that regime that the first huge national loan of $2.8 billion was taken which became the subject of controversy and lyrics by late Fela Anikulapo Kuti (aka Abami Eda). When the young were in charge, Nigeria lived within its resources and we took no loans whose disbursements were deliberately shrouded in mystery by Heads of State.

Obasanjo was replaced by civilian President Shehu Shagari, 1979-1983, who at that time was the oldest Head of State in Nigeria. He was shoved off the seat by Buhari and co-conspirators; but not before adding significantly to our debt burden – with very little to show for it.

Two facts should be of interest at this point. First, the price of crude rose to more than $30 during Shagari’s administration; yet the Federal and State governments took on more debt than anybody could have imagined when Gowon and Murtala were in charge.  When Buhari took over, he was about 42; Babangida who replaced him in 1985 was also under 45; Abacha who came in 1993 was the first one approaching 50.

When we analyse the achievements and disasters they each visited on us such that Nigeria which was ahead of Malaysia and South Korea in Gross Domestic Product, GDP, in 1975, is now so far behind both, one is bound to ask: what has age got to do with it?

By contrast, Lee Kuan Yew who took Singapore from Third World to First World status in one generation was not 45 when he led his country. As you are reading this article, a young man, not quite 50, would have sat with President Trump, almost 80, talking as an “equal” to a man regarded as the most powerful leader in the world. Kim of North Korea did not get there on age; he led his country to develop nuclear power which makes other nations tremble – including the US. Like him or not, he had a vision and it is paying off.

About the same time, the G-7 countries – that is the largest seven economies in the Western world — would have met for their annual get together to discuss world trade and economy. Two of the leaders – Trudeau of Canada and Macon of France are young enough to be Buhari’s first grandson. When world leaders assemble anywhere, more attention would be paid to what they say than what the Nigerian president utters. The reason is not hard to discover. They represent success; while somebody is a symbol of the failure which Africa had become under Banda, Kaunda, Arap Moi, Mugabe, Obasanjo and Buhari. Even in the analogue age, these were anachronisms. In the digital age they should be in museums. It is possible none of them can operate his own computer without assistance from an aide. Who needs that?

“They were intelligent but not wise.” David Halberstam

That said; a word of caution is needed; lest the young think this is a blanket endorsement of their quest for power. Intelligence without wisdom creates as many disasters as old experience. US President John Kennedy, 1917-1963, the youngest American President, at 43, surrounded himself with bright young men, especially from Harvard University, USA and for a while, they dazzled the American public with their erudition and hubris. They eventually led the USA into the disastrous Vietnam War – which the country lost. In the best seller, THE BRIGHTEST AND THE BEST, the author demonstrated how the intelligent young men disregarded the advice of experienced old men. As Tennyson had told us: “Knowledge comes; but wisdom lingers.”

Shortly after Obasanjo took charge in 1999, a group of Nigeria’s “brightest and best” gathered frequently at Professor Pat Utomi’s feat in what was called PATITO’s GANG. They then formed a group calling for the transfer of power to those under 50. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair of US and UK were the leaders of their countries at the time and they were frequently cited as examples of who the Nigerian leader should be. That was before they waged war in Iraq. The ruins of Iraq testify to what can happen to force without wisdom. “Brute force without wisdom falls under its own weight.” (Horace, 65-8BC).

Meanwhile, several members of the gang, who were full of wonderful ideas about how to govern Nigeria better and how to greatly improve governance have gone into various Nigerian governments since 1999. They are now over 50. Oddly enough, the first set joined Obasanjo, despite his advanced age when he announced “Food is ready” as members of his Media Campaign Team in 2003. Others took office with Yar’Adua and a remnant took their plates to Jonathan’s Aso Rock cafeteria. I need not mention their names even though the list is in my archive. The point is this. Erudite and intelligent people are great to have in government. A blend of youth and experience might work better. And, it is not a matter of tolerating the old men. They should be well-integrated into the government. Vietnam and Iraq disasters can be averted if the young leaders wanting to vie for leadership remember that decisions taken have consequences. History sometimes tells us what some of those consequences might be before we start.

They should go ahead NOW more than ever but tread cautiously.


“A man who cherishes great ideas, but has performed only small acts.”—Johann Schiller, 1759-1787.

That was how German philosopher described the leader of his country in one of his essays. It might also describe Nigeria’s current leadership. For three years, the government had ignored the annual publication of people granted National Honours. To be honest, the exercise had become a bloody joke with the names of absolute miscreants appearing on it. One expected government to announce whether it was scrapping it altogether.

Then out of the blues names were announced of three people granted the two top honours posthumously. As expected, it has generated a lot of hot dispute instead of loud yawns because Nigeria is still a nation of 198 millions “mostly fools.” (Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881). Idle NASS members joined the national tomfoolery. Nobody asked the obvious question: “What will Abiola and Fawehinmi do with these awards?”


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