The recent victory of Emmanuel Jean-Michel Macron as the new French president came with a flurry of interesting reactions on social media. While the French celebrated what some have called a political revolution, many on the African continent were more concerned about numbers, in particular the age of the young president, who is just 39 years-old.
While the age difference between Macron and his wife made headlines, the difference in age between the president-elect in comparison to the many leaders of various African countries elicited heated discussions on social media. The age factor has been particularly discussed in the context of how the youths of the continent tend to be side-lined in mainstream politics.
With the probable exception of South Africa, which boasts of young political leaders such as the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Floyd Shivambu, Julius Malema, and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Mmusi Maimane who are all under the age of 40, and leading vibrant political parties, a large portion of political parties in many African countries are dominated by older leaders, many of whom should have long retired from active politics.
Macron’s victory came at a time when two African leaders dominated the headlines; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with his controversial statement that he made during the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Durban, and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari’s recent medical trip back to London.
President Buhari has been out of the country for cumulatively more than a month, seeking treatment for ear infection. Mugabe recently turned 93 and Buhari turned 74 last December, and questions continue to be asked why these two continue to insist on leading their respective countries despite health challenges. Across the continent, most leaders are in their 70s, and the political players in their 40s and 50s occupy leaderships positions in the youth wing of the various political parties.
In Zimbabwe, Absolom Sikhosana, was at the helm of Zanu-PF Youth League when he was well in his 60s, decades past the age limit of the league. Sikhosana presided as secretary for youth affairs for 15 years, leading Zanu-PF’s Youth League whose age limit is 35 years.
Can Africa draw lessons from Macron’s ascendancy?
Does Macron’s victory have any lessons for a continent that repetitively elects old leaders into power, many of whom continue to cling on to power? It is interesting to note that African countries are not inherently averse to young leaders as some would argue. The continent has had over 10 revolutionary leaders who were below the age of 40 during the 1960s and 70s, and these leaders were assassinated in cahoots with the West and Europeans?
The political system in most African countries doesn’t give an opportunity for young leaders to ascend to the highest positions. Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been in charge of the country since 1982 fending off potential threats that are within his age group. Those below 39 years of age have no probable shot at leadership in the country. Uganda’s case still has us thinking of a president who hates being referred to as a ‘pair of buttocks,’ and harshly reacts to criticism. Only a few young people on the continent have ascended to the presidency, in 2001 when Joseph Kabila became the Head of State of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of 29. Kabila ironically has been trying to hold on to power despite serving his mandated terms.
The new generation of Africans might be desperate for a ‘Macron,’ a young leader that pushes the economy forward, respects human rights and brings development but even such leaders that showed potential have metamorphosed to monsters. A young leader might not be the only solution to the leadership ailment most countries on the continent are facing, and many factors need to considered not just age.