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How old is too old in Nigerian politics?

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Nigeria’s political landscape for years has been dominated by an ageing population of politicians some of who have served since Nigeria’s military regime. For example, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s past president (1999 to 2003) and President Buhari had served as military administrators.

According to a 2022 publication by Researchgate, since independence, Nigerian rule has remained in the hands of the elites that recycle themselves in power and this has led to the impression that the nation’s political sphere is the preserve of a select view, who are typically male, above retirement age, and have the ability to wield wealth for influence.

Currently, of the three prominent candidates in the upcoming presidential election, two candidates are arguably approaching their late seventies, with several reports surfacing about one candidate’s ill health. This is further concerning given the reports of President Buhari’s numerous visits abroad for medical checkups. As such, there is the question of how old is too old in Nigerian politics.
Setting a retirement age for politicians continues to be a subject of discussion and comprises two major schools of thought. Some argue that advanced age can lead to declining physical and mental abilities, while others believe that the experience and expertise gained over a long career are necessary assets for success in the upper echelons of political leadership.

Before 2018, the Constitution and electoral laws stipulated that a person had to attain the age of 30 years to be eligible to run for any political office. The framers of the Constitution recognized the importance of setting a minimum age requirement for the nation’s leaders, to guarantee that they would possess a level of maturity and have the prior political experience necessary for success in these positions. However, no maximum age requirement was set. Would a maximum age limit ensure that those running for political offices in Nigeria have a healthy balance of the savvy of age and the zest of youth?

Speaking to Businessday, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria noted that exploring the option of introducing a maximum age for which people can contest in elections may not be a bad idea but it is not only a question of age, as we must also examine the level of integrity in Nigerian politics. We can set an age cap but people can still falsify their age.

He added, “The enforcement of the laws and the institutions involved are too weak to deal with this. Usually, the school certificate or the pedigree of a person should give him or her away. Also, we have to understand that people are also making their choices in elections, and putting a limit such as age may not allow them to exercise their rights as they want.”

Also speaking, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria said, “setting a maximum age is not really the issue. Every adult citizen should have the right to vote and be voted for. People should be allowed to vote for their choice. The qualifier should be that such persons have the mental and physical capacity to take on the demands of any elective office for which they are running. This means that the focus should be more on health than on the age of a person.”

Would a maximum age limit ensure that those running for political offices in Nigeria have a healthy balance of the savvy of age and the zest of youth?

Globally, there is no established maximum age limit for running for elected office. Some reasons for this include the desire to maintain continuity in leadership, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that individual voters should have the ultimate say in who they elect. Additionally, implementing a retirement age could be seen as discriminatory and could potentially limit the ability of qualified individuals to run for office.
The laws of many countries only specify a minimum age requirement for political officeholders to ensure they are physically and mentally capable of performing their duties.

In the United States of America, there is no federal maximum age limit for running for the presidency. The Constitution requires that the president be at least 35 years old. In France, presidential candidates must be at least 18 years old, while candidates for the National Assembly must be at least 23 years old.
In the United Kingdom, a person must be at least 18 years old to run for Parliament. There is no retirement age for members of the House of Lords except that bishops retire from their seats on reaching the age of seventy and cease to be members of the House. However, there is a House of Lords (Retirement Age) Bill 2022 before the UK House of Commons which seeks to bring the retirement age to 75 years and reduce the number of members of the House of Lords. It must be noted, however, that membership of the House is by appointment, heredity or official function not by election.

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In Canada, members of the Senate which is the upper house of Canada’s parliament are appointed and hold their seats until age 75.
A political analyst who spoke to BusinessDay says that for the sake of the zest or energy required for elective offices, putting a cap on the age for contesting elections may be instructive. Age plays an important role when it comes to carrying out various physical and mental exercises, especially one that involves leadership. He added that “In the judiciary, which is an arm of government, judges are meant to retire at seventy years, but there is no retirement age for persons in the other arms of government – the executive and the legislature.”

Further speaking, he added, “However, one cannot take away the volume of financial capacity which a person must have to contest elections in Nigeria. But, if we redirect our political landscape to include more youths and fewer elderly persons, there will not be over-reliance on money and could put an end to things like vote-buying and reduce the exorbitant costs of nomination forms. This could be a step in the right direction.”

The Not Too Young to Run Act, 2018 came into force to encourage youth participation in politics. One of its achievements was lowering the age of entry. The Act reduced the age limits for presidential aspirants to 35 years (from 40years) and governorship candidates to 30 years (from 35 years) The minimum age for the House of Senate remains the same at 35years while candidates interested in running for House of Representatives elections, instead of 30 years, may run when they are 25years old. So far the laws allow for young people to be part of politics, it is for the electorate to decide whether they want an agile youth or an elderly person.

According to a 2019 article by Foreign Policy – “No Continent for Old Men”, Africa has the world’s youngest population and its oldest leaders. And while the historic election of young people such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, elected chancellor in 2017 at the age of 31, or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, 37 when he became president, make headlines elsewhere, the absence of young leaders on a continent where the average age is 19 is indicative of lack of succession planning in Nigeria’s politics.
The impact of the Not Too Young to Run Act was immediate in the 2019 elections, starting with a significant rise in the number of youthful candidates.

Ten of the 72 presidential candidates were between the ages of 35 and 40, and 1,515 young individuals under 35, which accounted for 23% of all candidates, ran for seats in the House of Representatives. Of these young candidates, 266 (17.5%) directly benefited from the Not Too Young to Run Act. This was reflected in the election results, where the number of federal representatives under 35 years old rose from 3 (0.8%) before the 2019 elections to 13 (3.7%) and the number of state legislators under 35 increased from 6% to 9%. Despite these impacts, the Not Too Young to Run Act only cracked open the door for increased youth participation in governance and decision-making.

Nigeria’s political landscape shows that elders hold the most significant positions of power, and their influence is often based on age and experience, rather than merit or competency. This system has led to limitations in political succession and the influence of money and patronage in the country’s politics. Setting a retirement age could encourage us to create a political culture that sees persons with both youth and political savvy in governance with older statesmen and stateswomen in advisory capacities, making the political ecosystem both agile and inclusive.