By Rafiq Raji, PhD
After ex-football star George Weah’s victory in the recent Liberian presidential run-off poll, similarly young aspirants in other African countries have become expectant that they might also be able to pull a similar feat. Trust Nigerians to lead the bandwagon. It is interesting that a man in his early fifties is considered young in the African sense, of course. But considering the many leaders in their seventies and eighties that Africans have had to endure thus far, Mr Weah is an exemplar. And a worthy one. But his accession bears many lessons. There is a consistency in the route to power for young non-establishment figures it seems. Curiously, it does not matter whether the country’s democracy is young or matured. Take France’s Emmanuel Macron; one of the increasingly youthful leaders beginning to take over the world stage. Unlike his other similarly youthful Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, whose father was once prime minister and was already quite known as early as when he was still being held by the hand, Mr Macron had to found his own political party, secure votes and then win his place. Turns out if Mr Weah wanted to be president, he would have no choice but to form his own political party as well. But unlike Mr Macron, he was not so lucky. He did not win the first time, losing to outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After another failed attempt, this time as a vice-presidential candidate, he settled for the Senate to perhaps sulk or as they say, lick his wounds. He used the time well. Clearly the wiser, he chose the ex-wife of former warlord Charles Taylor as a running mate. The move paid off. Former warlords, now influential in the country – as is often the case after a prolonged civil war – rallied round him. It did help, though, that he had a boring and uncharismatic rival this time around for the post. Vice-president Joseph Boakai, with the appropriate epithet “Sleepy Joe” did not just sit by and allow Mr Weah a free pass, though. He made sure to give him some grief. Thankfully, he gracefully conceded defeat after the results showed an overwhelming Weah win.
Is there an opportunity then for a Nigerian case, say? Unlike Liberia, or France for that matter, Nigeria is a more complex country. Ethinic and religious divisions are deeper and wider. And there is the added disadvantage that Nigeria is still largely an ageist society. Incidentally, there is likely not a better place where this is writ large than in how Nigerian political parties are run. In Nigeria, if a young person rises to a position of power, it either occurs by accident (An Act of God) or because the person is the child of a very important person. A meritocratic political system, whereby a young person ascends to an exalted position, is non-existent. Another avenue is via the House of Representatives, where younger politicians tend to gravitate towards. A speaker, if young, could leverage on his national exposure and recognition to aspire to higher office. Unfortunately or incidentally, this tends to be no more than vying for the position of state governor. That is not entirely a bad thing. As governors have become highly influential as a collective, they now determine who becomes president of the Republic. Penultimately, they chose one of their own. President Muhammadu Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, a former governor, may not be the ideal case, though. By a stroke of good fortune, Mr Jonathan was nominated for the vice-presidency at the age of 50; while an incumbent state governor. Three years later, he became president. The prospects of another so “young” becoming a Nigerian president are not so bright, however: it would be unnatural for his kind of luck to be abundant.
Raise your flag
Point is, it is difficult for a young person to succeed in Nigerian politics or that of other major African countries. Our culture, ways and history do not lend themselves to making it likely that a young person would join a political party, and on his own merits, secure a presidential nomination, and win. If it is going to ever happen, however, it seems it would have to be like Mr Weah’s.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/nottooyoungtorun-lessons-weahs-trimph/