Age and good leadership: any link?

Ageing, a journey into the second childhood, is one critical, life event.

“The process can be challenging,” says one of the country’s psychologists.

“It makes a person more prone to pain, more aware to cold, and you become not as mobile as a 40-year-old.”

And it is not just the physical deterioration evidenced by problems of mobility.

“There is cognitive deterioration as well. This affects how we think and also our systems of critical judgement,” says the psychologist.

Perhaps this explains why companies and governments set a retirement age.

In Malawi, the maximum retirement age is 65.

Beyond that, there are some professions which, apart from national retirement regulations, have their retirement age well entrenched in the Constitution.

Section 119 (6) prescribes 65 as the retirement age for High Court and Supreme Court judges in the country.

But why judges, of all other professions?

“The spirit of the section was to make sure that judges secure their tenure. The understanding was that the Executive should not intervene in the judges’ tenure,” says Dr. Mwiza Nkhata, a law lecturer at Chancellor College.

He continues: “Currently, there is already a raging debate if the age was perked too high or too low. There are recommendations of raising it, at least, to 70.”

But beyond the debate, one thing which stands out is that at a particular age, judges, as workers who make critical decisions on behalf of the people, are supposed to quit.

Notwithstanding the ‘securing of tenure’ argument, surely, the question of aging, too, plays a central role. To mean, there must be a strong link between ageing on one hand and making critical judgements and providing leadership on the other.

Just imagine: Is there a company which would feel comfortable employing an 85-year-old over a 34-year-old in a critical leadership position? This only happens in politics.

In Malawi, it is legal for an 85-year-old to contest for the presidency, but illegal for a 34-year-old to do the same. In fact, this is not just Malawi’s situation. The story is the same across Africa.

What one derives from this is that politics is a game of the aged. Even if you compare average ages of most African leaders with those of the developed countries, you would note interesting parallels.

Look around.

Begin in Africa. Abdulai Wade of Senegal, 85; Egypt deposed Hosni Mubarak, 82; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 86; Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia, age 74; Zambia’s Michael Sata, 75; Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, 81; Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 75; Jacob Zuma, 68; and Bingu wa Mutharika, 78.

Now look at the developed world.

Barack Obama, 50; UK’s David Cameron, 46; Dimitri Medvedev (Russia), 45; Canada’s Stephen Harper, 51; Julia Gillard (Australia), age 49; Nicolas Sarkozy (France), 55; Luis Zapatero of Spain, 49; Jose Socrates (Portugal), 53; Angela Merkel of Germany, 56; and Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, 62.

It is tricky at best to link age to leadership and performance of the “first” world and the “third”, as there are a number of variables involved.

However, age has consistently defined governance in Africa. Arguably, the worth of such a definition has been on how culture views the question of age in Africa.

Africans generally ascribe more status and a higher “pecking” to its older citizens. Its wisdom blunts that as people age; they tend to become naturally experienced and wise.

In addition, they tend to have a better understanding of the “workings” of the world and seem more capable of drawing on life experience in making more effective decisions and providing better leadership.

Is it, therefore, such a surprise that the average age of her leaders tend to be significantly higher than the West? This, too, is an issue.

But an important issue is to question whether ages of our African leaders negatively affect their performances or not. Is there a link between age and good governance?

“It’s quite a broad question,” say Joseph Chunga, political science lecturer at Chancellor College.

He adds: “One can establish that by, at least, following one particular leader, by looking at how that person governed when they were younger and again, how they governed when age caught up with them. Equally important is to look at the rough data to explore how young leaders perform compared to the aged ones.”

Chunga further argues that what must be paramount in the debate is to explore how good governance interplays between extremes of age.

“If you look at the world today, it has become so dynamic, as such; it calls for quite a dynamic leader to govern a country. What should determine governance is not necessarily age, rather, the culture of the particular age group,” he says.

It is almost without expression that values of democracy are the ones defining the current age group. And this is an age group that values systems, not personalities.

“The problem with old guys is that they still cherish old values that militate against modern ones. They still want to be feared, not be held accountable, to play a fatherly figure in the country. They want to practice democracy based on personalities,” continues Chunga.

Even worse, advances Chunga, one thing gerontocracies—rule of old people—have succeeded is to marginalise young people from the political decision making, creating the myth that youths are not ready for governance.

But is there assurance that youthful leaders can make a difference?

Across the country, the emergence of the likes of the fired United Democratic Front (UDF) MP Atupele Muluzi, former secretary general of Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Chris Daza, and Blantyre South MP Henry Phoya have intensified debates of whether Malawi needs a youthful leader at the State House.

There is bad news, though.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is still reeling in political conflict years under a youthful leader, Joseph Kabila. Swaziland’s leader King Mswati still swims in the extravagant provisions of the monarchy in a nation ravaged by disease and poverty.

Despite these sporadic cases, the best part of post-colonial Africa has mostly reeled under forces of gerontocracy. And this is what has mostly defined the continent’s continued retrogression.

“Equally perplexing about aged leaders is people’s failure to hold them accountable after office. Most of them come out of office, wobbling down with age, and sometimes even trapped with health issues. The public fails to hold such people accountable of their years in office,” Chunga says.

He also said there are some aged leaders who, for fear of being held accountable, use every means to hold on to the office until they die.

“While others, tend to manipulate laws to lengthen their stay or influence a particular friend or relation to succeed them. The issue is about their personal security after looting national wealth,” he says.

So what is the way out?

Michael Jana, Chancellor College political science lecturer currently pursuing his doctoral studies in South Africa, takes quite a relaxed and optimistic view.

“Africa will gradually move towards youthful leaders at some point.  This, of course, will be slow as the older politicians are still considered mature and experienced, and people tend to take them seriously unlike youthful leaders,” he says.

He adds: “But as the democratic political culture gets entrenched through many ways, age won’t mean anything as long as the will of the people is respected.”

But Chunga takes a radical view.

“I think it is high time we revisited the question of retirement age in politics. We need to begin to review political leadership as a job, not a career. I have serious reservations with the capacity of somebody beyond the age 70 to still make critical decisions for the public,” he says.

Of course, the justification that a youthful president can make a difference is still sketchy. Certainly, electing a youthful person into the presidency can also have its own risks.

This is a situation that Africa has to ponder as the world increasingly moves to become a global village.

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