Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, (South Africa, 1994 - 1999) assumed office at the age of 76 - he was among the oldest; he also stands out as a model African leader. The focus on age as a factor in Africa's development crisis is a distraction from the serious leadership challenges African countries face - a patient misdiagnosed is unlikely to receive an effective treatment.
n impressive number of Africans have engaged in deliberations about Africa's leadership challenges, demanding that those in positions of power be held accountable. This is heartening and may well be a pivotal moment if we can walk the talk. In a recent panel discussion by former African Presidents in Rwanda, Mo Ibrahim remarked that despite Africa's high youthful population, most of whom are below the age of 25, aging leaders in a wheel chair barely able to lift their hands try to cling on to power. One such leader does not require any stretch of the imagination to figure out.
Mo Ibrahim's antipathy toward aging leaders in power has considerable support in the continent. However, the age of political leaders viewed either from a generational perspective or as a major factor in Africa's leadership crisis is not only polarizing, but also weak. Though the average age of the panel of former leaders was about 65, advanced age as a factor in Africa's leadership crisis faces serious challenges under scrutiny. A quick review of the ages of leaders from 19 African countries since independence indicates an average age of 43, at the time a majority of them came to power. More than half of Africa's early leaders were under the age of 50. Milton Obote, (Uganda, 1962 - 1971 & 1980 - 1985), was 37 years old when he came to power; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, (Nigeria, 1960 - 1966) 48; Muammar Gaddafi, (Libya, 1960 - 2011), 27; Julius Nyerere, Tangayinka/Tanzania, 1961 - 1964 & 1964 - 1985, 39; Mobutu Sese Seko, (Zaire, 1965 - 1997), 35; Léopold Sédar Senghor, (Senegal, 1960 - 80), 54; Kwame Nkrumah, (Ghana, 1957 - 1966), 48; Yakubu Gowon, (Nigeria, 1966 - 1975), 32; Mengistu Haile Miriam, (Ethiopia, 1987-1991), 50; Samuel Doe (Liberia, 1980 - 1990), 29; Thomas Sankara, (Burkina Faso, 1983 - 1987), 34; Daniel arap Moi, (Kenya, 1978 - 2002), 54; Meles Zenawi Asres, (Ethiopia, 1991-1995), 36; Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan (Nigeria, 2010 - 2015), 53; Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (Uganda, 1986 to the present), 42, and Guillaume Soro, (Ivory Coast, 2007 - 2012), 35.
When Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo (1976 - 1979 & 1999 - 2007) first came to power he was 39 years old. The current President Muhammadu Buhari (1983 - 1985 & 2015 to the present) was 41 years old as Nigeria's Head of State. This list of African leaders shows a mix of ages that hardly falls within the definition of "old." Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, (South Africa, 1994 - 1999) assumed office at the age of 76 - he was among the oldest; he also stands out as a model African leader. Thus there is little or no support for the perception that aging leaders is a major factor in Africa's leadership and development crisis.
Africans who led their countries to independence came to power bursting with hope for a better future for their citizens. But the task of reforming poor, undeveloped, inefficient governments and civil codes to stir their nations to a prosperous future seemed too challenging for most of them -with only a few exceptions. Instead of actualizing the visions of their founding fathers, successive African leaders-most of whom were thrust into positions of power through military coups, subverted the democratic process, squandered the opportunities they were given for societal transformation, and betrayed the hopes and aspirations of their people. More than 50 years after independence, the leadership landscape in Africa is overshadowed by leaders who chose the path of dictatorship, human rights abuse, corruption, and gross mismanagement of resources. This leadership crisis has deepened Africa's failure to progress in step with nations that have embraced modernity.
Contrary to the view that aging leaders is a factor in Africa's leadership crisis, one could point to the relatively young age of early African leaders - most were young, naïve or inexperienced. They barely understood the governance structures they inherited, and lacked the administrative capacity to sustain let alone improve them. As we advance ideas about effective leadership in Africa, an important distinction must be made between the age of a leader and poor leadership skills. There is still the implicit assumption that elected heads of government can magically transform their nations through the exercise of authority. Without dedicated leaders and citizens who hold leaders accountable, it is hard to build functional governments that can ensure good education, infrastructure development, personal and national security, and a higher quality of life for all citizens. The focus on age as a factor in Africa's development crisis is a distraction from the serious leadership challenges African countries face - a patient misdiagnosed is unlikely to receive an effective treatment.
As long as bad leaders go unchallenged, coercive forms of leadership will persist and stifle Africa's progress. The urgent leadership challenge is to foster good governance by developing strong democratic structures that can withstand the pressures of regressive forces, nepotism, and corruption.
As democracy once again takes root and authoritarian rule give way to democratically elected leaders in most African countries, Africans must demand accountable leadership, sound economic policies and a break from the proprietary leadership practices of the past. We must demand leaders who inspire citizens to overcome past failures, driven by pride and confidence in the resilience of their people; leaders who seek ways to give expression to the collective hopes of their citizens for the future and take steps to fulfill those hopes. Hope without works, as history has taught us, will not solve Africa's development crisis.