MOST people say politics is a dirty game, but the truth of the matter is that, for better or for worse, decisions made by politicians affect our lives. Their decisions could mean there is more money in our bank accounts, and it could also mean premature death for some of us if, for instance, they plunge our nation into a state of war! Because of the enormous powers wielded by politicians, not least the elected ones, it would be foolish not to be interested in the sanity and maturity of their members. It is precisely because of this that constitutionalists, even when they are not prepared to throw themselves in the mud with politicians, dissipate much energy in prescribing qualifications for the power elite at different levels of political governance.
Age prescription, in particular, is universal in most democratic nations with written constitutions. In the United States of America, for instance, there are varying minimum age requirements for the president (35), senator (30) and member of the House of Representatives (25). In spite of the generous minimum age prescribed for the president, the youngest elected President in the more than 200 years of America’s democracy was John F. Kennedy at the age of 43. And because it is taken for granted that those who aspire into high profile elective positions would be more likely than not to be educated, educational requirement is hardly included in the constitution.
There is a lot of premium on age in the Nigerian society. The “I am older than you” attitude knows no ethnic or religious boundary. It was therefore not surprising that when our constitutionalists copied the American Constitution, the imperative of age qualification was one the photocopying machine could not have blotted out without a public outcry! Because age is probably more important to us than the Americans, and because of the assumption or belief that we are late in maturing, it was also one aspect where our constitutionalists tried to teach the Americans the meaning of respect and deference. The Nigerian Constitution prescribes a minimum age of 40 for the president, 35 for senators, and 30 for members of the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives is that political arena where the American constitutionalists and political thinkers believe young men and women could exert their aggression as constituent emissaries by subjecting them to two-yearly elections. However, the members of a committee on the legislature in the Olusegun Obasanjo-sponsored National Political Reform Conference thought the bar could further be raised to 35. In a society where life expectancy is not particularly too great, theirs might have been one suggestion that went a bit too far and was rightly challenged.
Also competently challenged was the suggestion that federal legislators should be university graduates with the minimum of five years experience or even 10 years experience, depending on which legislative arm is being sought after. There is hardly any doubt that the art of lawmaking demands quality thinking and quality understanding and articulation of issues. In the USA, for instance, the House of Representatives is one forum where young professionals, particularly lawyers, come in to make names for themselves before embarking on their professions. However, the quality of mind and determination needed to represent a constituency cannot be confined to those with degrees.
The quality of education in Nigeria has deteriorated, and that is one worrying concern that should be urgently addressed. Most of our First Republic great debaters — the Anthony Enahoros, Adegoke Adelabus, and Maitama Sules — never went to university. They were beneficiaries of high quality education dispensed in the colonial era. Even in the Great Britain, where the educational system has a history dating back to over 1,000 years, there are today Members of Parliament who did not attend university because they had no need for university education. However, in most Western democratic nations, students who have chosen to be future politicians and ambassadors study, at university, subjects that would enhance the quality of their performances in the profession. For instance, subjects such as Law, History, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, feature in their most common choices.
And to talk of experience, what experience does one require in the legislative arena that excludes the apprenticeship we all serve in every call of life? The young men and women should be encouraged to bulldoze their ways into the Senate and House of Representatives and seek to become legislative dinosaurs or gurus by virtue of being constantly re-elected because of loyal services to their constituencies. In Britain, for instance, there are politicians who have been in the House of Commons for well over 25 years. Equally, in America, there are those who have become dinosaurs in the Senate having served for decades. A potential president, more often than not, gets recruited from the ranks of those who have excelled in the legislative or governmental arena.
For our young men and women itching to go into elective positions — not too young to run — my admonition is that they should demonstrate their good intentions, determination and readiness, by being vocal and committed voices in the fight against the ills that plague our nation. They should be seen as the young tigers in the fight against sectionalism, bigotry, and corruption, among other numerous societal ills. Their foray into elective politics should be a means to an end that is patriotic, and not one that is selfish. Of course, they need not be reminded that the youths of today are the oldies of tomorrow.
Source: The Punch