The new ‘generation shift’ mantra

Since the election of Emmanuel Macron, 39, as the youngest President of France, several Nigerian writers have suddenly rediscovered an old mantra: ‘generation shift’. With Buhari’s official age at 74, these writers warn that Macron is an emphatic indication that the‘old order’ is crumbling fast, and that the ‘new generation’ is impatient to take over. It is of course sometimes difficult to know whether the excitement over Macron is because of the huge age gap between him and his wife (his wife, Brigitte, is 64 years old).

Nigerians love mantras --statements or slogans repeated frequently enough that they begin to sound like established facts or self-evident truths. For instance many people have been ‘forced’ to accept as self-evident the following mantras:“restructuring is the antidote to the current challenges in the country,”“thetrouble with Nigeria is squarely leadership” and “we need institutions not strong leaders”.

My aim here is to interrogate this new mantra:
One, the notion that the ‘old generation’ has dominated the politics and governance of this country is not correct. In fact if we compare the age at which Nigerian leaders come to office with those of their counterparts elsewhere, it becomes clear that we have produced younger leaders than them. This is the age at which these Nigerian leaders assumed office: Tafawa Balewa, the First and only Nigerian Prime (48); Nnamdi Azikiwe (ceremonial president at 56); Aguiyi Ironsi (42); Yakubu Gowon (32); Murtala Muhammed (37) Obasanjo (as Military Head of State, 39); Shehu Shagari (54), Buhari (Military Head of State, 42): Babangida (44); Shonekan ( 57); Abacha (50)Abdulsalam Abubakar (56); Obasanjo (as civilian President, 61); Umaru Musa Yaradua (60); Goodluck Jonathan (53) and Buhari (as civilian President, 72).

Now compare the ages of these Nigerian leaders with the ages of the youngest leaders from other advanced countries we normally like to look up. In the USA, the ages of the country’s five youngest Presidents when they took office were: Theodore Roosevelt (42 years, 10 months and 18 days); John F Kennedy (43 years, 7 months and 22 days old); Bill Clinton (46); Ulysses Grant (46 years and 10 months) and Barack Obama (47 years, 5 months and 16 days old).

In the UK, David Cameron became the youngest British Prime Minister in almost 200 years (since Lord Liverpool in 1812) at the age of 43. In Germany, Angela Merkel, became the youngest German chancellor at 51 in 2005. In France,the youngest person to become Prime Minister was Laurent Fabius,(at the age of 37 years, 332 days). Emmanuel Macron, at 39 years, 144 days) became the youngest French President and one of the youngest European leaders. Remarkably Gowon, Murtala Muhamed and Obasanjo were all younger than him than him when they took office. In the US no one under the age of 42 has ever ruled that country – meaning that Nigeria should be a model to them if ‘generation shift’ is indicative of anything of value.

When it comes to the age of parliamentarians, Nigerian parliamentarians are on average much younger than their counterparts elsewhere. In 2012 for instance the average age of European parliamentarians was 53 years while the current average age of the Members of the House of Representatives in the USA is 57 years, and 62 years for Senators. In Nigeria, the average age of our parliamentarians is not only much lower, both Joseph Wayas (Second Republic)and DimejiBankole (Fourth Republic) became Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively in their 30s.

Two, in politics, language could be used to frame discussion in a way that suggests an ethical divide between good and evil or between the good guys and the bad guys. In the politics of generation shift, language is also cleverly deployed to mask motives. For instance those who want to have a dig on Buhari can conveniently lap onto his age to argue that “Nigeria needs young leaders who are in tune with modern trends”. Quite often those pushing for generation shift fail to articulate any meaningful ideas exclusively possessed by the youthor recognize that the youths have in fact been historically dominant at all levels of governance in the country. Such people also often fail to define those they will classify as youths and those to be classified as ‘old generation’.

Three, the politics of generation shift is often based on a wrong notion of a linear progression from one generation to another. Frantz Fanon, in his over- quoted ‘message to the youths of Africa’, contributed to this misconception when he declared: “Every generation out of its relative obscurity discovers its mission, fulfils it or betrays it”. The truth is that every generation embodies something from the preceding generation, something it wishes to do differently from its forebears and also nostalgia for some values it wishes it could recapture from the previous generation. In this sense, Wole Soyinka was probably too hard on his generation when he declared in the early 1980s that his generation was a ‘wasted generation’ because despite their failures, theyrecorded tremendousachievements in a number of areas – in literature, the sciences and in consolidating the notion of Nigeria as a country on a journey to nationhood. Before and after Soyinka’s generation,the basis of the different nationalities that make up the country being together has been more sharply contested.

Four, purveyors of the new mantra of ‘generation shift’, mistakenly hold it up as a form of relay race between the old and the young, in which the old, out of exhaustion or impending exhaustion have to pass on the baton to the younger, and presumably more dynamic runners. In reality, ‘generation gap’ often denotes the dominant ideas and ways of doing things of an era, and subscribers to such new ways could be both the old and young even though certain age groups tend to be more closely allied with certain trends. A good example here is the networking websites Facebook, which initially was a fad for the young but has since been embraced also by the not so young. In this sense it may be necessary to make a distinction between ‘old young people’ (people who may be relatively old in age but continue to feel young in their minds and who constantly ally themselves with modern trends and progressive ideas) and ‘young old people’ (young people who are resistant to change). More importantly, if the President of a country is say 70 years old, while his cabinet, the civil service, bureaucracy and the private sector is dominated by young people, will the regime be said to be under an old guard or young people?

Five, the politics of generation shift is complicated by the fact that the notion of ‘generation’ remains contested. For instance while in the Bible a generation is roughly 40 years, for the ‘Facebook’ generation or generation of ‘digital natives’, the age could be anywhere from 17 years to 30. A ‘generation’ could even be as low as ten years if it is defined in terms of people who have similar cultural experiences and political beliefs.

Six, since young people appear to be taking responsibility at a much earlier age than their forebears, and most of our leaders came to office relatively young, it could be argued that youth is no longer the future but the present. This means that young people are on the spot, and share responsibilities for the problems of the current era.

Seven, there is no study that has found a correlation between age and performance in office by political leaders. For instance Ronald Reagan who became US President at 69 and Bill Clinton who became President at 46 are often regarded as among the greatest US Presidents. In the same vein George W Bush who became President at 55 is often ranked among the worst of the country’s Presidents just as Americans seem to be having a ‘buyer’s remorse’ over Donald Trump who became President at 70. In essence, it will seem that a more rational approach to the whole politics of generation shift will be to find the right balance between the experience and maturity that often come with age and the vigour and idealism that are usually associated with the youth. It will also be necessary to separate the ideas needed to take the country to the next level from those purveying such ideas. All over the world chronological age is not what it used to be – people not only live longer but also healthier. Retirement age is being increased all over the world in recognition of this and there are people in their 60s and 70s who look better and healthier than some in their 30s and 40s.

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Articles by Jideofor Adibe