The 40-year age limit for aspirants to the office of president in the nation’s constitution is once again on the front burner, following a suggestion by President Goodluck Jonathan that there should be no age limit for the office. Section 131 (b) of the constitution stipulates 40 years as the minimum age for the office of president, but the president, at an international youth summit organised by the Nigerian Professionals Forum at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, recently, held that the 40 years age limit is discriminatory against Nigerian youths, and should be expunged.
Citing the case of Nigeria’s former leader, General Yakubu Gowon, who became Head of State at the age of 32, Jonathan argued that Nigerian youths have the wherewithal to govern the country successfully if given the chance to do so. He, therefore, charged the youths to send a bill to the National Assembly for the amendment of the provision on age limit for the presidency.
He promised to support the amendment because the “Capacity for Change for a New Nigeria”, which was the theme of the conference, rests with Nigerian youths. The widespread interest in the qualifications for the office of president in Nigeria is understandable. This is, unquestionably, the highest political office in the land, and the qualifications for aspiration to it will go a long way in determining the quality of persons who will eventually attain the exalted office.
However, without prejudice to whatever good intentions the President may have, or whatever might have informed his support for an abolition of age limit for the presidency, we think the stipulation of an age limit in the constitution is in the interest of the country. There is no doubt that the creative energy and adventurous spirit of youths are qualities that could aid the good governance of the country, and move it faster in an increasingly globalised and technology-driven world, but we believe there must still be a limit, no matter how low it is, to preclude persons that may not have the necessary exposure and maturity from the office. Even though the office of president is tasking and energy-sapping, and there are a number of countries in which young persons have successfully held the reins of governance, Nigeria will do better to have a specific age limit for the office.
We are not unmindful, however, that the president may have made those remarks to motivate Nigerian youths who have largely been disenfranchised by the economic situation of the country. The soaring unemployment in the country is a huge albatross confronting the country’s young population. The education sector is in the doldrums, while public infrastructure is nothing to write home about. The situation of the power sector has become a sad story that has been experienced and handed down from one generation of Nigerians to the other. We can, therefore, understand the decision of the president to encourage the youths by assuring them of his support for any bid on their part to change the situation of the country for the better.
While we also support the need to give more opportunities for youths to play a role in improving the fortunes of the country, we do not think that role will begin by having teenagers occupying the highest office in the country, unless we are saying that experience and maturity do not count. If we want to be realistic, youths who are interested in the office of president ought to begin their political careers at the local government and state levels, where they can cut their political teeth, and develop their vision for the country.
This cannot be done at the helm of the country’s leadership in Aso Rock. If we want to reduce the age limit to 35, or even 30, so be it. But the outright removal of a limit cannot be in the best interest of the country. If we want to help Nigeria’s young population, let the government strengthen the educational system, create enabling environment for creation of jobs and fix the power sector to make it easier for business enterprises to thrive. Let the president build hope of a better future for Nigerian youths on the basis of realism. The government can also demonstrate its concern for our youths and their future by appointing more of them into offices where they can make a difference. It should eschew the penchant for recycling politicians that have dominated the nation’s political landscape without a change for the better in the last two or three decades, into the nation’s highest offices. Let this government really give the youths a chance to thrive and demonstrate what they have to offer the country, instead of this folorn hope of an opportunity to run for presidency, when many of them cannot even tell where their next meal will come from.
Although maturity and discipline cut across all ages, such attributes grow with age. Nevertheless, it must be stated that competence, ability to deliver and a strong commitment to democracy and rule of law, should be the most important qualities required in anyone who wants to lead the country. As Nigeria marches towards the general elections of 2015, it is in the nature of politics for politicians and, indeed, the government in power to court the votes of youths who make up a sizeable number of the voting population.
We appeal to the government to do this by opening up the economy and making it possible for the youths to make a decent living in the country. At present, the government seems more concerned about winning the next presidential election by recycling old politicians than addressing the manifold socio-economic problems hampering human development, especially of our youths. It is only when government addresses these multiple problems that Nigeria can truly get on the way to building a strong and prosperous nation.