Why the #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign in Nigeria is Faulty

A few weeks ago, I received a picture of some world leaders with the caption: “Somebody somewhere in Africa will now say we are too young to run… #NotTooYoungToRun.” In the picture were the President of France (39), the President of Luxembourg (44), the President of Belgium (41), and the Prime Minister of Canada (44). The emphasis was, of course, on their age.

Above: The picture I received (though with a mistake on the title of the Canadian Prime Minister).

Though the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign has been around in Nigeria for a while, it was given great impetus when a 39 year old Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election in France. 

The campaign is not bad per se, but it misses the point. Indeed, for too long the leadership of Nigeria has remained in the hands of the same set of people to disastrous effect. Even when it has become obvious that they have run out of ideas and have nothing more to offer, they still do not want to relinquish their grip on power. They’d rather die in power than retire. The same people who squandered Nigeria over three decades ago are still the same people squandering Nigeria today. So, any campaign to get them out of the way is a good one. Besides, old people do not have a monopoly on leadership capabilities. Anybody who can contribute to the progress of Nigeria should be able to run for office irrespective of age.

However, the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign as currently constituted is faulty. It is trying to replace one extreme with another extreme: the extreme that says old age confers one with leadership sagacity with another extreme that says youth confers one with leadership capacity. Both extremes are not correct. At best, the campaign will only change the group ruining Nigeria.

A keen study of Nigeria’s leadership woes over the years would reveal that we don’t have an “age” problem per se; rather, we have a “quality” problem. The problem is not that we have too many old people ruling Nigeria, but that the quality of our leadership—the quality of the decisions of our leaders—has been abysmal. So while trying to open the door of leadership to everyone irrespective of age, we should not lose sight of the more important issue of improving the quality of our leadership. A younger leader does not automatically translate into a better one.

The clamour for younger leaders is understandable. We look at the old people ruling us—who have always being in power—and the state of Nigeria, we look at those young guys in that picture and the state of their countries, then we make the connection that their countries are better because they have younger leaders. And so we conclude that if we had younger leaders, Nigeria would be better. But that is where we miss it. Those countries—and the developed world in general—are not where they are because they have younger leaders; rather, it’s because they have a higher quality of leaders. In those countries people are groomed for leadership. They are not thrust into leadership positions unprepared. Their leadership skills are honed in and by institutions created for that purpose. They have built a system that lets people develop the relevant leadership skills from a young age, so that when they find themselves in leadership positions, they are prepared or almost prepared.

But that is not the situation in Nigeria. Here nobody is groomed for leadership; nobody is even taught leadership skills. It is not emphasised in our education system. Rather, people are just selected and thrust into leadership positions with the hope that they will get it as they go along. And then we get disappointed when they don’t get it. 

The leadership of Nigeria since the country transited back to democracy in 1999 illustrates this pattern perfectly. OBJ was reportedly selected by the military to pacify the Yorubas due to the death, in prison, of Abiola who was adjudged to have won the annulled June 12 presidential elections of 1993. So OBJ became president. In 2007, OBJ selected Umaru Yar’Adua who did not habour any presidential ambition allegedly as payback to his late brother who was OBJ’s colleague in the military. Yar’Adua became president. He however died 3 years into his term, and his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, whose political career was a perfect reflection of his name, became president. He was a deputy governor whose boss, the governor, was arrested on money laundry charges in the UK. The governor jumped bail (infamously dressed as a woman), returned to Nigeria, was impeached and Jonathan became governor. Jonathan was later selected by OBJ, who was playing God in Abuja, to be Yar’Adua’s vice president in 2007. In 2010 Jonathan became president after Yar’Adua’s death. In 2011, he contested and won, support by OBJ who said it would be nice for someone from a minority tribe to be president. In 2015, Mohammadu Buhari won the presidential election due to the unpopularity of the Jonathan government.

It is important to point out that among all these men, none was groomed for leadership, none actively prepared for it, and none became president on the basis of their superior leadership qualities. Even Buhari who contested 4 times for the presidency, from all indications, was not prepared too. What were paramount were their tribes, religion, and political party. Hence, it is not a surprise that we are where we are today.

For us to get better leadership, we must change the way we choose our leaders. We must build a system that emphasizes leadership capability. Our education system should be redesigned to develop leadership skills in students from when they are young. We need institutions and programmes that promote the development of leadership skills.

Do I think Nigeria would do well with a crop of young leaders? Of course! Nigeria has some very sound young men and women with much needed leadership qualities. But, we should not deceive ourselves by thinking that the stupidity of the decisions of our present leaders is due to their old age. It is not. Most of them started ruling Nigeria in their youth. If they had made better decisions then, this country would not be in this mess right now. So, although the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign is good, it is faulty because it focuses only on the age of leaders while neglecting the more important issue of quality. Without a system that promotes leadership development and continuous improvement, we’d only move from a situation where old, exhausted pensioners make disastrous decisions on our behalf, to a situation where silly young brats make disastrous decisions on our behalf. Let’s stop gambling!

Image credit: ahandbeyond.com


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