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Monday, November 28, 2022

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Buhari is a Strident Caution Against Electing Another Senescent Aspirant as President

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The advanced age and chronic illness of the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, have quite possibly helped to imperil his presidency and most likely caused wider malaise in the country. Nigeria must avoid the mistake of electing another aged and feeble leader in the coming presidential election. It should also seek a long-term constitutional remedy to avoid the problem of incipient gerontocracy.

By Chudi Okoye

Our president has gone AWOL again! He ducked out on October 31st, we have been told, for yet another ‘medical check-up’ in the United Kingdom. It seems the president needed another foreign trip to recover from his last foreign trip – you know, the one he made just a few days earlier to attend the World Bio Summit in South Korea. That’s the summit where, by the way, the president made nary a splutter, despite the utter size of his entourage and the heavy toll on our treasury. No doubt the president was exhausted from all that hard work he put in doing next to nothing in Seoul. Hence the well-deserved escape to London. This man is like a dilapidated jalopy in need of constant repair: a raddled old man running an addled presidency in a saddled country.

It’s either the president rushed abroad to recover from his last foreign trip, or he’s simply taken a temporary flight from the plethora of domestic problems plaguing the country he supposedly governs.

Several corners of our country are currently flushed, traumatized by tides of uncontrolled flooding caused by previous negligence. Many have lost their lives; many their livelihood and property. There’s reported terror in the nation’s capital, acknowledged by scampering foreign missions and even some government security agencies. There is widespread concern about an impending currency redesign proposed by the Central Bank, with certain hidden interests appearing to resist the plan. The country’s currency has taken a serious plunge, yet again, partly as a result. The oil sector, the federal government’s revenue mainstay, is in utter chaos, so there’s a revenue crunch. We are thus borrowing more to fund government spending, and yet more to service our burgeoning debts, ending up in an inescapable debt trap. The nation faces a fiscal cliff; the economy is tottering and seems almost out of control; there’s unmitigated misery all over the land.

What better time, then, for the leader of our country to go on the lam, to go seeking refuge in a foreign land!

It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic, if our leader’s foreign flights weren’t such a stain on the nation and a mighty strain on our treasury. We are lavishing the nation’s vanishing resources on a tarnished president, on a man with absolutely no ability or intent to continue governing our beleaguered country. Unlike the self-correcting parliamentary system in the UK where a leader who was out of her depth simply departed, what do we do with an aged president who runs out of steam mid-stream but doesn’t have the decency or integrity to quit?

Muhammadu Buhari is a screaming argument against the election of another aged and ailing president to pilot the affairs of our troubled polity. He embodies, in quite every sense, the disturbing pathology of ageing, including chronic debilitation. We have in him a man with little spark running a presidency with little sparkle. He is a strident alarm warning us against ignoring the risks of dotage in the coming election, as we seem currently, and curiously, to be doing.

Age and Governance
This is not merely a matter of age; nor is it about one being ageist. A scan around the world shows a current roster of national leaders with a wide range of age distribution. There are young’uns like Sanna Marin of Finland, Gabriel Boric of Chile and Dritan Abazović of Montenegro, who are all in their 30s. There are also the likes of Serdar Berdimuhamedow in Turkmenistan, Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Rishi Sunak in the UK and Irakli Garibashvili in Georgia, a pack that’s smack in their 40s. But then we also have others like Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil (who just won an election as president 12 years after his last term), and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel (former PM who is now plotting a comeback), all in their 70s.

Africa too has its share of presidential graybeards. There’s for example Mr Paul Biya, now nudging 90, who has been president of Cameroon since 1982 (before that prime minister from 1975) and is currently the oldest serving leader of a state. Alpha Condé of Guinea was a little older than 83 as he wrapped up his presidency in September 2021. Alassane Ouattara, now headed for his 12th year as President of Ivory Coast, clocked 80 in January this year. Nana Akufo-Addo, the Ghanaian president, is 78. He is only a few months older than Yoweri Museveni, current president of Uganda who helped to topple Idi Amin (1971–79) and later Milton Obote (1980–85) but has remained president for over 36 years – since January 1986!

There were many other sit-tight vegetatives in African history before this lot. Who can forget the late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, once a revolutionary who remained in office as president for 30 years (before that as prime minster for seven years) until he was tossed out in 2017, aged 93. He died in Singapore barely two years after leaving office.

There’s indeed a wide dispersion in the ages of state leaders around the world. But before anyone tries to justify our local gerontocracy on grounds that other nations also have leaders who are getting on, let’s consider the issue of fitness, mental and physical, not just age. Can anyone, for instance, look at Israel’s Netanyahu (73) and really say that Bola Tinubu, flag-bearer of the All Progressives Congress (APC) who claims to be 70, is in a better shape for being supposedly younger? Or that Tinubu is as fit and rude in health as the Russian dude, Putin, who is supposed to have been born in the same year as he?

Or could one deign to compare Biden, an avid biker, with Buhari, a pallid lagger, even though the two are very close in age, separated only by weeks?

Could one with a straight face compare the frenetic Trump with Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who is presumably his age mate?

No! There is old and there is old. Our ageing leaders tend to be frail and unfit, both physically and mentally.

This is not simply about age but rather what is predicted by old age. Medical experts tell us that ageing and ill-health are highly correlated. Humans typically experience cognitive and physical decline with advancing age, with many geriatric syndromes experienced simultaneously. This is particularly the case in our environment with our abysmal health care system, which explains Buhari’s frequent foreign medical trips. Although the exact condition of Buhari’s health has remained a state secret, he has spent so much time on official medical trips – as of mid-August 2021 he had spent over 200 days on seven trips to the UK – that it is clear the president must be in dire condition. Alarmingly, the candidates of the two major parties have also themselves undertaken a not-infrequent medical trip abroad – even before the campaign had got fully underway and before they’ve encountered the rigors of office.

Physical and mental challenges are a serious concern, particularly when we consider the ability of our political leaders to keep up with the speed and complexity of social change. But there’s also the issue of demography and democratic representation. A geriatric skew at the apex of power is incongruous with the hefty youth bulge in the Nigerian population, with about 70% aged below 30 and the median age standing at 18.1. The United States of America has a much older population than Nigeria, having a median age of 38.8, more than twice Nigeria’s; yet, even in that country, there are growing concerns about dotage in political leadership. Recent polls by CNN and the New York Times, for instance, found that neither Democratic nor Republican voters seem excited by a likely rematch of Biden and Trump in the presidential election of November 2024, with one by that date aged nearly 82 and the other over 78.

Can you blame the Americans? Age matters. It matters very much. It should matter in our upcoming election in 2023, and in our future constitutional design.

Term Limit and Age Limit
Nigerian constitutions have usually stipulated a lower age bound for elective offices (40 years currently for the presidency) but, as in several other countries, never an upper bound. They prescribe term limits but never an age ceiling. This was the reason some of Nigeria’s notable political grandees came out of retirement to contest the presidential election in the 2nd Republic. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were aged 75 and 70 respectively when they contested the 1979 presidential election; and they’d turned 79 and 74 when they returned for the 1983 contest. But of course, neither of them won. Buhari has somehow managed to succeed where those other septuagenarians failed, becoming the only head of government so far in our history to assume office in his 70s. Buhari was pushing 73 when he emerged as democratic president in May 2015, a clear 25 years older than the average inceptual age of all previous incumbents, military or civilian (see chart below). In fact, Buhari started his democratic tenure at an age older than Olusegun Obasanjo was when the latter ended his second term. Whereas Obasanjo – the next oldest in our pantheon of incumbents – ended his second term aged 70, Buhari is set to finish his second term pushing 81.

Nigeria: Head of Govt. vs Aspirant Ages

We are now witnessing a repeat in the current presidential election cycle. As we show in the chart above, where the average inceptual age of all incumbents before Buhari was 48, the average age of the top three candidates in the 2023 election would be 70!

It becomes quite glaring when we consider individual candidates. If Atiku Abubakar wins the 2023 election, he would assume office five months shy of his 77th birthday, and would be edging toward 81 as he wraps up his first term in 2027. If Atiku seeks re-election and wins, he would be almost 85 by the end of his second term! He would then become the oldest person ever to head the federal government of Nigeria, wresting that dubious distinction from Buhari.

The age issue is only slightly less gripping for Bola Tinubu. He’d be the second oldest ever to assume the office of president if he wins instead of Atiku, ranked behind Buhari. For his part, Peter Obi of the Labour Party would be 62 on assumption of office, the same age as Obasanjo had been when he became civilian president in 1999.

The key issue here is whether, in the coming election, we want a further tilt to senectitude, or whether we want a return to the central tendency of previous incumbent age. After the experience with Buhari, can Nigeria afford another ailing – almost cadaverous – president? Do we really expect an ailing presidential candidate, were he to win, to be able to effectively govern our equally ailing country?

This matter is not being discussed with the urgency it requires. It is not a major focus of political punditry, and it is not being litigated in the campaign field. The mountain of problems facing the country commends the imperative of an energetic presidency. As such, the age and health of the contestants should be a matter for critical scrutiny.

We should confront this issue in the current election cycle, but also, in the long run, seek a constitutional remedy. It is odd to have candidates running for public office who are well past the civil service retirement age. This is of course not peculiar to Nigeria. But there is no reason why we couldn’t blaze a trail for the world with a constitutional innovation that caps the upper age bound for elective offices. We could curb the tilt to gerontocracy with a combination of age limits and an innovative term limit. For instance, we could prescribe an upper bound of 74 for the presidency but also stipulate a one-term limit for anyone aged between 70 and 74. This should cascade to all levels of down-ballot offices as well.

Such innovation would be one way of freeing the country from creeping caducity, and ensure that political leadership has a level of vim and vigor befitting what is after all a youthful country.


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