By Owei Lakemfa
ALMOST all foundations floated by First Ladies are political gimmickry. They die as soon as their spouses leave office. But the staying power of the Leadership Empowerment And Resource Network, LEARN, its deepening commitment to the youths and assisting to solve the myriad of challenges we face as a people, attests to the selflessness and commitment of its founder, Dame Abimbola Emmanuella Fashola, former First Lady of Lagos State.
It was on the LEARN platform I addressed some youths in Lagos on June 27 on the new Not Too Young To Run bill signed on May 31. It seeks a constitutional amendment reducing the eligibility age for the Presidency from 40 to 35 years and for the State Houses of Assembly and House of Representatives from 30 to 25. It indeed seems to portend a youthful push since the older generation has doubtlessly failed our country.
However, the reality is that the issue of not being too young to run for public office is not new. In fact, those who took over the reins of power from the colonialists were young. At independence in 1960, the oldest was the Governor-General, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was 56 after having been Premier of the Eastern Region at 50. Chief Obafemi Awolowo had been Premier of the Western Region at 45, before moving to the centre as leader of Opposition. The Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Akintola was 50. So also was the Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who had actually been Premier since he was 44. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa was 48 having been a Minister since he was 40.
There were several examples of young people running the country in the pre-independence period. For instance, Chief Matthew Mbu became a parliamentarian at 23, Labour Minister at 25 and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom at 26.
Yet, that First Republic collapsed allegedly under the weight of incompetence and corruption. The Head of State that took over, General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, was 42, General Yakubu Gowon who replaced him and ruled for nine years, was a bachelor who became Head of State at 32! General Murtala Mohammed who succeeded him was 37 and his successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was 39.
This kind of campaign was a gambit by the Babangida regime which disqualified those it termed ‘Old Breed’ politicians in favour of the ‘New Breed’. The ‘New Breed’ became the ‘New Greed’ and are today, the Old Brigade politicians who the Not Too Young To Run campaigners want to replace.
Also, under the Obasanjo administration, there were the Under 50 and Under 40 groups which wanted to replace the old politicians. Today, the Under 50 politicians are the old brigade, the Not Too Young To Run campaigners want to edge out of power.In a sense, it is cyclic, or to put it more bluntly, a vicious circle of repeating the same worn out ideas and programmes but hoping to achieve different results.
The concept of Not Too Young To Run, sounds good. But it is only the sound, not that it is a profound idea. It is something that makes one feel good, not necessarily that it is good. It is like what Bishop Matthew Kukah used to call the “I feel alright” churches; churches that mushroomed across the country giving the false feeling that we had become quite religious. If you are not too young to run, you should also not be too young to run away from our inelegant past; from the prevailing ideas and system of governance that has led us into a cul-de-sac. A governance system that has seen our country degenerate while countries like China and Singapore we grew together, are progressing and reinventing themselves. The Not Too Young To Run philosophy, is a reactionary one; a philosophy of backwardness rather than a progressive one. What we need and should strive for, are leaders with ideas and sound programmes that can propel our country towards liberating our people from abject poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness and dependency. Every day, we see fellow Nigerians begging on television and the newspapers for contributions to enable them carry out medical procedures to save their lives. We see millions of our fellow citizens carrying begging bowls, but rather than change the system and ensure our people are adequately catered for, we collapse into the obscurantist philosophy of philanthropism.
Our pre-colonial culture taught us that society is one and the old and young have complementary roles. Culturally, we know the concept of the old and the young, however, not as differentials but as complementary entities in the ceaseless flow of life with both as a confluence, flowing into the same waters. Ile-Ife is the cradle of the Yorubas, and they taught us that it is the conceived wisdom of the young and the old that created Ile-Ife.
So, it is not biceps that move a nation, it is ideas; it is brains a country needs to develop, not the brawn of the youth or their masculinity. It is not the look of a leader or his age that matters, but the age of his ideas. We should not take the shadow for substance or assume the form for the content. The cover of a book is not its content. It is not the youthfulness of a leader that matters, but his leadership qualities, ideas and programmes.
If I ask what signing the Not Too Young To Run bill cost President Muhammadu Buhari, I will say nothing but his signature. Politically, assenting to the bill gave him the image of a pro-youth leader. The new law does not in any way threaten his aspirations for re-election. He is aware that the youths pose no threat to his grip on the ruling party. Nor does the opposition PDP feel threatened. It would be illusory for the Not Too Young To Run youths to live under the illusion that former President Olusegun Obasanjo would run around the country setting up his Third Force, just to hand over the party to them. Such youths would need to build their own political platform and party to contest for power.
We face immediate challenges such as stopping the massacres in the country and bringing the perpetrators to book, actualising Chapter Two of the constitution which states that the economy should not be left in the hands of a few and that Nigerians have a right to education. We also must have the right to food, shelter and healthcare. Rather than sing ‘Not Too Young To Run’ rhymes, the youths can involve themselves in the struggles to actualise these basic ideals. We cannot be too young or too old to struggle for a better Nigeria.