I came across a short article on Voice of America announcing that President Biya of Cameroon had been reelected for a 6th term, that he was in power for 29 years – and that he was 78 years old. I found it quite interesting that his age seemed to be of great significance in an article that was only allocated 10 lines. This was not the first time that I had seen a president or presidential candidate’s age feature as a prominent factor in an article about African presidents or presidential candidates. BBC Have Your Say had it as a featured topic a few weeks prior to this, in a segment entitled, “Should There be Presidential Age limits?” I wondered to what extent age was a feature or ‘problem’ in African governance. After all, when coupled with a dictatorship or serial re-elections (more than two terms), I can see how age can be viewed as a problematic enabling factor to poor governance. As noted in an earlier article, “African Fall – A Reawakening”, since 17 out of 48 countries in Africa have dictators but Africa is still branded as a ‘continent of dictators’ , the question arose on what’ leadership age’ in Africa looked like in order to determine if this was a real or hyper-imagined problem.
In an article by Professor of Sociology Obosu-Mensah that kept recurring in many websites I searched on this topic, he argues against the election of old Presidents in Africa, citing that age hinders their performance. He argues that older leaders fear change, live in the past and are susceptible to memory and health failure which are plausible arguments. What I found less plausible were the fuzzy statistics when providing a brief survey of the Age of African presidents. He provides the following information regarding the age of 10 African presidents:
“Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (86 years) Abdulai Wade of Senegal (83), Paul Biya of Cameroon (77), Bingu Wa Mutharika of Malawi (76), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (75), Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (74), Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (74), Rupiah Banda of Zambia (73), Jos Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola (69), and Jacob Zuma of South Africa (69). The average age of the ten African presidents listed above is 75.6 years”
In order to support his point though, he only selects 10 ‘random’ countries out of 48 countries in Africa and compares this to what he terms 10 of the ‘most developed’ countries in the west to prove his point to come up with an average age of 50.1. In his assessment, he seems to be comparing apples and oranges by selecting a few countries on the continent with known aged leaders to countries with known younger ones. Whilst his point is well taken in terms of the relationship between age, term limits, dictatorships and governance, a more accurate survey of the current age of Africa leadership is in order so that we are not simply reproducing a stereotype in order to highlight a point. So far, I haven’t seen any articles that conducted a complete survey but instead they simply seem to state that African presidents are old. Stereotyping Africa as a continent whose presidents are leaders of a club of ‘Countries for Old men’ may benefit the argument but they don’t do much to promote not data based on recent phenomena on the continent.Hypothetically speaking, I believe an argument for limits can still be made if the average age is below 65. In other words, we can still have the same debate even if only a handful of countries have old Presidents. Although I use this article as an example, other articles I read provided no proper breakdown of the ages of African leaders. In order for us to determine whether the debate on the age of African leaders we first need to take complete surveys of the ages of our leaders so that we don’t fall in to the trap of projecting an image of Africa that is based on old narratives like ‘Africa is full of old dictators’ if this is not the case. This will help us get to the real root of the problem rather then automatically attributing age to poor governance.
Africa has had leaders like Mandela that have served terms at an advanced age. He came to power at the age of 75 and was an effective President. Mandela’s presidency – which was necessary for South Africa, would not have been possible with age limits. More recently, Nobel Prize winner, Johnson- Sirleaf was re-elected at age 72. The questions surrounding her re-election should not be about her age, but rather her eligibility and ability to govern Liberia. There is a need to reposition our growing focus on age to a continued focus about term limits. The problem of leaders holding on to power or poor governance is real the continent. For some of the aforementioned leaders the problems centering around their age and their continued governance would be addressed by term limits instead of encouraging a culture of ageism. President Paul Biya should be judged on issues of constitution and governance not age. Cameroonians that do not support his re-election need to concern themselves with the conditions in Cameroon that made it possible for his re-election and target those issues as a way forward.