The Politics of ‘Generation Shift’

The idea of power shift to the younger generation has moved up the agenda of political discussion since former military President Ibrahim Babangida, 69, allegedly claimed that Nigerian youths are incapable of giving the country a qualitative leadership. Though the Mina General, who was trying to justify his desire to contest for the presidency next year despite his age claimed he was quoted out of context, the purported statement appears to have renewed the politics of generation shift, raising in the process, a number of very interesting issues:

One, in politics, language could be used to frame discussion in a way that suggests an ethical divide between good and evil or between the good guys and the bad guys. For instance accusing a regime of being in possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ conjures the image of an impending Armageddon, which then justifies any action to remove that regime in order to save humanity. In the politics of generation shift, language is also cleverly deployed to mask motives. For instance those who want to have a dig on Babangida can conveniently lap onto his age to deliver a few jabs by using innuendos to suggest that his age is synonymous with such expressions as ‘wasted generation’, ‘dead woods’, ‘recycled leaders’ or ‘old men who refuse to retire’. Of course Babangida’s supporters could counter by presenting his age as the equivalent of ‘experience’ or ‘maturity’ rather than old, and implying that the younger generation are not experienced enough for the high office he is aspiring for. In a very brilliant piece in the Daily Trust of August 26, 2010, Modibo Kawu contends that those arguing for the handover of power in a ‘generational shift’ manner have often failed to “put across any meaningful radical ideas in the interest of independent national progress or the struggle against underdevelopment. Lurking under the call is a suspicious craving to be at the helm in order to be in control of lucre!”

It is in fact part of the ironies of history that Babangida, who championed a so-called New Breed politics during his tortuous political transition programme when he banned and unbanned ‘old politicians’ seems to be now on the receiving end of the politics of generation shift.

Two, the politics of generation shift is often based on a wrong notion of a linear progression from one generation to another. Frantz Fanon, in his over- quoted ‘message to the youths of Africa’, contributed to this misconception when he declared: “Every generation out of its relative obscurity discovers its mission, fulfils it or betrays it”. The truth is that every generation embodies something from the preceding generation, something it wishes to do differently from its forebears and also nostalgia for some values it wishes it could recapture from the previous generation. In this sense, Wole Soyinka was probably too hard on his generation when he declared it a ‘wasted generation’ because despite its failures, it recorded achievements in a number of areas – in literature, the sciences and in consolidating the notion of Nigeria as a country on a journey to nationhood. Before that generation, the basis of the different nationalities that make up the country being together was more sharply contested.

Three, ‘generation shift’ is not a form of relay race between the old and the young, in which the old, out of exhaustion or impending exhaustion have to pass on the baton to the younger, and presumably more dynamic runners. In reality, ‘generation gap’ often denotes the dominant ideas and ways of doing things of an era, and subscribers to such new ways could be both the old and young even though certain age groups tend to be more closely allied with certain trends. A good example here is the networking websites like Facebook, which initially was a fad for the young but has since been embraced also by the not so young. In this sense it may be necessary to make a distinction between ‘old young people’ (people who may be relatively old in age but continue to feel young in their minds and who constantly ally themselves with modern trends and progressive ideas) and ‘young old people’ (young people who are resistant to change).

Four, the politics of generation shift is complicated by the fact that the notion of ‘generation’ remains contested. For instance while in the Bible a generation is roughly 40 years, in Generation X or Generation Y, it could be anywhere from 17 years to 30. A ‘generation’ could even be as low as ten years if it is defined in terms of people who have similar cultural experiences and political beliefs.

Five, the politics of generation shift could be a double edged sword for young people. Since young people appear to be taking responsibility at a much earlier age than their forebears, it could be argued that youth is no longer the future but that the future has indeed arrived for them. This means that young people are on the spot, and share responsibilities for the problems of the current era. Of course the formula for sharing blame between the young and old may not be clear-cut. If the President of a country is say 70 years old, while his cabinet, the civil service, bureaucracy and the private sector is dominated by young people, will the regime be said to be under an old guard or young people?

Six, the virtues ascribed to youth in the politics of generation shift may not always stand empirical tests. Babangida, Buhari, Gowon, Obasanjo (in his first coming) and Murtala ruled this country when they were relatively young. Similarly it is generally agreed that President Jonathon and Dimeji Bankole are young for the positions they occupy. Does the report card of these leaders and many of the young governors in the country justify the virtues ascribed to the youth in the politics of generation shift?

In sum, it will seem that a more rational approach to the politics of generation shift will be to find the right balance between the experience and maturity that often come with age and the vigour and idealism that are usually associated with the youth. It will also be necessary to separate the ideas needed to take the country to the next level from those purveying such ideas. All over the world chronological age is not what it used to be – people not only live longer but also healthier. Retirement age is being increased all over the world in recognition of this and there are people in their 60s and 70s who look better and healthier than some in their 30s and 40s.

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