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Why Yahaya Bello does not represent the youth

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A persistent but entirely illogical and factually inaccurate response to my column on former Kogi State governor Yahaya Bello revolves around the notion that his terrible, thuggish, thieving record as a governor somehow delegitimizes youth participation in government and undermines the “Not Too Young to Run” bill.

First of all, Yahaya Bello became a governor at 41 in 2016. There’s no country in the world where 41 is regarded as “youth.” He is a full-grown adult.

The UN defines youth as people between the ages of 15 and 24. In the United States, it’s between 15 and 24 years. In the European Union and the United Kingdom, it encompasses individuals aged 15 to 25.

The Commonwealth limits it to the ages of 15 through 29. But the African Youth Charter, which has perhaps the most elastic definitional compass of youth in the world, defines it as “any individual between 15-35 years of age.”

The Nigerian National Youth Policy obviously derives inspirational strength for its conception of youth from the African Youth Charter because it also officially refers to people between the ages of 18 and 35 as belonging to the “youth.”

This is all a giant irony, of course. Nigeria, which has an average life expectancy of 55 years, regards 35 years as “youth” (which means, on average, Nigerians spend only 20 years as “adults”) while industrialized societies with higher average life expectancies (it’s 77 for the United States and 81 for the European Union) have a lower age threshold for youth.

It’s even worse in the general Nigerian population, which regards a 48-year-old man (who has already lived more than half of his life) as a “youth” and uses his indiscretions, ineptitude, infantilism, and larceny as justifications to shut out young people from governance.

Yahaha Bello didn’t need the “Not Too Young to Run” legislation to be a governor. The minimum age required to be a governor in the 1999 constitution—before the “Not Too Young to Run” bill was signed into law on May 31, 2018—was and still is 35. The bill did not change the age requirement for governorship positions.

That was why we had many people who were elected governors in their 30s in 1999. For example, Ibrahim Saminu Turaki was elected governor of Jigawa State at the age of 36. Donald Duke was 38 years old when he was elected governor of Cross River State in 1999. Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia was 39. Ahmad Sani Yerima of Zamfara was 39. Enugu State’s Chimaroke Nnamani was 39.

With a few exceptions, the rest of the governors in 1999 were in their 40s (Delta State’s James Ibori was exactly 40), which is consistent with Yahaya Bello’s age. Why didn’t critics of youth participation in government invoke the failures of much younger governors than Bello at the incipience of the Fourth Republic to delegitimize “youth” participation in government?

The obsession with the youth of people in government in Nigeria is particularly strange because we have had Yakubu Gowon, a then 31-year-old unmarried man, as Head of State. Olusegun Obasanjo was 38 when he first became the head of state. Muhammadu Buhari and Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi were 41. IBB was 44.

In fact, most of the early leaders we venerate today were elected/appointed into their positions when they were in the same age group as Yahaya Bello. For example, Sir Ahmadu Bello assumed office as the Premier of the Northern Region on October 1, 1954, at the age of 44.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo became the Premier of the Western Region in 1952 at the age of 44. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was 47/48 when he became the Prime Minister of Nigeria in 1960. Murtala Muhammed was only 36 when he became the Head of State of Nigeria on July 29, 1975.

The examples are legion, but the point is that there is nothing unusual about someone of Yahaya Bello’s age being a governor. That’s why I find the focus on his age both ignorant and ahistorical.

Of course, more than anything, all that this points to is that people who got into government in their 30s and 40s two or three decades ago are still in power or hanging around the corridors of power, which leaves only a little space for new entrants from that age bracket.

So, the few people in their 30s and 40s who make it to the circles of political power in contemporary Nigeria come across as novel, as marvels of young people in government, and as generational curiosities whose missteps are exteriorized to all people within their age range who are outside the orbit of power and who might want to get into it.

That’s unfair. Just like the incompetence, callousness, and venality of older politicians shouldn’t be used against all older people, Yahaya Bello’s villainy and corruption should not be used against people in his age bracket— or younger.

This attitude implies that had Yahaya Bello been a geriatric fuddy-duddy, and not a 48-year-old man, he would not have been the debauched, profligate thug that he is, which is absolute flapdoodle.

After all, Abdullahi “Gandollar” Ganduje was 69 years old in 2018 when he was secretly filmed stuffing wads of dollars into the morally stained pockets of his babban riga while grinning sheepishly from ear to ear like a clown. His advanced age didn’t insulate him from moral putrefaction.

Age has no effect on integrity and probity. It is defeatist and evinces low self-worth for young people to beat themselves up because a 48-year-old man who became a governor at 41 turned out to be a rotten, incurable crook who pillaged his state without the slightest tinge of compunction and then installed a slavish, empty-headed puppet as his successor.

It’s mostly young people—in the peculiar way Nigerians understand young people—who are saying Yahaya Bello’s spectacular incompetence and depravity symbolize the failure of “youth” in governance and that the older generation is justified in its reluctance to share power with young people.

In other words, if a few “youths” in government mess up, all youth should take the blame for it, accept that the failure of one of them is the failure of all of them, and then step back for the older order to continue to misrule exclusively.

Notice that no one, certainly no older person I know of, says older people shouldn’t be allowed to govern because they’ve been messing up all these years. Only the “youth” are delegitimized on account of their age when they mess up. That is reverse ageism, that is, the idea that only old age, not youth or knowledge, should confer authority or respect on people.

We are more than our ages. We embody a totality of multiple influences. The fact that Yahaya Bello was a grasping, primitive bandit in government doesn’t mean every 41-year-old who becomes a governor will be like him. That’s ridiculously reductionist.

In any case, youth or old age are not permanent states. They are in perpetual flux. It is yesterday’s youth that become today’s older people.

Nigeria is one of the world’s youngest countries with a median age of 16. Yet, when we look at the corridors of power, the vibrancy of youth is conspicuously absent. This gap between our young population and their representation in governance is not just a gap in numbers, but a gap in fresh ideas, innovation, and the spirit of our nation.

Yahaya Bello did not fail because he was young. He failed because he never prepared to succeed, and that wasn’t a function of his “youth.” Donald Duke was the second youngest governor in 1999, and he is credited with making tremendous marks in governing Cross River State.

Yes, age and experience have their place. But so does youth. An Igbo proverb, after all, says “If a child washes his hands, he could eat with Kings.”

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