Grandfather For President: Why Age Limits Should Not Be Required for African Politicians (Part 2)

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November 2, 2011 By Sitinga Kachipande

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Questions about age limits seem simply to mask bigger questions of term limits and governance – we are arguing about the wrong issues and this deflects from more prominent ones. What we should be talking about is matters of enforcing constitutions, what a particular Presidents vision for the country is and most importantly, how they are going to execute it. Those should be the determinant factors in whether someone is electable, not age. We must not forget that as new countries in post independence Africa, many of the young leaders that came to power are the ones that became dictators – their failed visions for their respective countries weren’t largely determined by age, but by personalities. Presidents like Robert Mugabe are still in power in part, due to making mockeries of their constitutions. If our concern is creating an environment that enables dictators to run beyond the term limits, then this is the issue we should target by ensuring that our constitutions are not just fairy tales or show pieces. Mugabe has had term limits altered in the constitution in order to facilitate multiple terms. Now the debates in Zimbabwe centering on his age include trying to prove his age rather then addressing the constitutional amendments. He may not have had a chance to run again had he not had term limits changed regardless of what his real age is. Age is, and should be a non-issue. It’s simply a distraction from debating the real issue – manipulation or disregard of constitutional limits.

In post-Banda Malawi, an attempt to allow a third term for the first democratically elected President, Bakili Muluzi was effectively halted by the Malawi parliament and courts at the time it was brought to the forefront. This set precedence for the next President, Bingu wa Mutharika, who has indicated that he too plans on stepping down as well. Mutharika’s age was an issue during the election time, but whilst he was subsidizing agriculture for Malawian farmers during his first term, nobody cared about his age. Incidentally, Mutharika was re-elected and is now serving his second term at age 77. Term limits should be rigid and adhered to weather the serving president is considered good or bad so that the constitution becomes the supreme law and not individuals. If a Presidents term is particularity successful, this should not be seen as an opportunity to extend the term limit. If during a term limit a President’s governance is not what was expected then the constitution should provide for a process that will facilitate change as well.  If a person is 70 years old and still has the energy, acumen, and zeal to improve the conditions of their people, they should still be able to run for President. The real issue for Africa that we should continue to debate on is the person’s record and ability to govern not their age. As noted in “Grandfather For President: Why Age Limits Should Not Be Required for African Politicians Part 1″, we should not practice ageism unnecessarily, and perhaps at the detriment of finding another Mandela within our midst.

Additionally, for Africa, the issue of Presidential age has a further reaching cultural significance. In western cultures, the relationship between the young and old differs from African cultures; from a young age, African children are taught to respect and listen to elders in a profound way. Whether these elders are related or strangers, an elder holds a certain positive achieved and ascribed status in most African societies. This is reflected differently in various African cultural norms (ie some societies are traditionally organized by age-sets) and dictates how younger Africans behave towards the elderly. As an example, it would determine the greeting, handshake, body posture, gaze, conversation or other interaction that one would have with the elderly. In the U.S, the nomination of Republican candidate John McCain (particularly after Dick Chaney’s tenure as Vice-President) was a highly problematic for the republican campaign. In part, this is a reflection of a problem of ageism towards baby boomers in a graying America and general cultural attitude towards the value and mental acumen of elderly in that country.  I wondered to what extent decisions to include this information by western (or African) journalists and the continuing debates about age in African politics was a reflection of attitudes towards age in the global North.  For African countries, the arguments surrounding legislating age restrictions for ageing presidential candidates are more centered on preventing brutal dictatorships or poor governance. In African societies were the wisdom and guidance of elders is respected, tackling issues of age and politics proves problematic when it comes to dealing with long serving bad leaders who’s constituency no longer thinks is wise. Although it seems that setting an age limit for presidential candidates is a simple solution, for most African countries, this solution has far reaching dynamics. We need to focus our energy on term limits which would prevent presidential candidates from running and winning indefinitely. It deflects upsets social codes of behavior, deflects attention from setting term limits, and keeps us from debating other issue of governance which should be central. If a President builds schools in your villages, does it really matter what age they were when they built it? Similarly, can that President still not build schools outside of office?

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