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Age and leadership

Wed, 26 Mar 2014 Source: Kennedy, Arthur

Irmo, South Carolina,

25th March, 2014

There is no correlation between age and the quality of leadership.

Recently, since the NPP’s Nana Akufo Addo, who will be 70 in a few months announced his intention to contest the flag-bearership, there has been debate about whether he is too old to contest. He is not.

Indeed, before Nana Addo’s announcement brought this issue to the fore, two events, one local and one international should have focused our attention on the issue.

First, President Mills died suddenly, a few weeks after jogging on the tarmac at the Kotoka International Airport to underline his fitness after a health check in the USA. Later on, it was revealed that he had been urged by his wife and others to resign and to focus on his health. That advice, of course, was rebutted by others. To be fair, illness is not a respecter of age and a younger President could also have died in office.

Second, Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope to resign in 700 years, on grounds of age and infirmity. The Pope told Cardinals that in order to govern, “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the Ministry entrusted to me.” According to reports, the Pope had been disturbed by his Predecessor hanging on to the papacy in the face of the glaring deterioration in his health and strength. The timeless example of Pope Benedict is that when leaders cannot discharge effectively the functions of their office, they owe it to their institutions and followers to step aside. This was exactly what Mandela was doing when he declined to go for a Second term that he could have had for the asking.

History shows that there have been both exceptional old leaders and exceptional young leaders. William Pitt the Younger became British Prime Minister in 1793 at the age of 24 and was a very successful Prime Minister. He was instrumental in the fight against slavery and may have saved Europe during his long Prime Ministership, despite his short life. In our own history, Nkrumah was Prime Minister at 47 and was easily our best leader, despite his mistakes.

On the other hand, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer did not come to the Chancellorship till he turned 72 and was still Chancellor in his mid-eighties. Despite his age, he was an epochal Chancellor and was justly celebrated with a funeral for the ages when he died in 1967. Deng Xiaoping ascended to supreme leadership of China in 1978, at the ripe age of 74 and may be justly celebrated as perhaps, China’s and one of the world’s greatest leaders. In the US Ronald Reagan was the oldest person to take office at 69 but was undoubtedly one of the best Presidents in US history.

Those arguing for older candidates undermine their case when they invoke the likes of Mugabe as a reason why people should still pursue office in old age. When Mugabe is the example you cite for pursuing power, those you seek to lead are in trouble.

To return to our leadership, I believe the issue is not age—it is the trinity of fitness, electability and competence. Indeed we must all yearn for an older leader, sure in judgment, mature and rounded in temperament, a father to all and a uniter, unafraid to take on corruption, in or outside his party and his government, committed to fighting poverty and being the voice and protector of the weak, able to inspire respect in the councils of the world and committed to the larger purposes of his country. Such a leader, even if in his nineties, will be a blessing to us.

Regardless of age, a person must be in good health, physically and mentally. Except in the case of a hidden cancer, most people know if they are healthy and fit. To a limited extent, observers can also discern whether or not a person is healthy and fit. After hugging ex-President Mills in Cape Coast some months before his death, I told some close friends I thought the President was terminally ill. My prayer is that all those who aspire to office would be honest with the country about their health and their fitness, regardless of their age. The processes of campaigning and governing require a lot of endurance. Our roads are bad—the accommodations are poor—the food is not always the best. Therefore, those who seek such offices and those who urge them on, must be sure that they do so in the knowledge that they are fit for the rigors of politics and governance.

The second is electability. A person’s competence does not matter unless he is electable. A party that does not care about electability is not serious about winning power. That, of course, is an issue for every party to decide.

The final issue is competence, regardless of age. Anthony Karbo was right that a competent old man is better than an incompetent young man. A nation that elects leaders without weighing competence deserves the bad governments it gets.

Let us move forward—together.

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur