The message is clear; young leaders at home and in the region must manage politics of transition
COMMENT | JOSEPH WERE | The death on September 08, 2022 of Queen Elizabeth II of England was a global event. It was a time of reflection. Many people focused on the transitions it presented because death is often seen as a period of transition presenting departure from life. There was also the transition from Queen Elizabeth to her son, King Charles III.
For me, a message President Yoweri Museveni published sparked reflection on the inevitability of transitions. The President narrated how he first learnt that there was a queen of England. It was in 1952. That means Museveni, who says he was born around 1944, could have been about eight years old. Elizabeth, who had just become Queen, was 25 years old. They were a generation apart.
Suddenly, I could see Museveni who likes calling young people `abazukulu’ (grandkids) become a muzukulu himself. It was a serendipitous moment. The queen died aged 96 years. Museveni is 78 years old. Can you imagine Museveni, as a muzukulu in reverence to the queen?
Let me attempt to make it easy. At the inauguration of Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, there were many heads of state and leaders of government. But President Museveni was picked to speak. Why?
Some will argue that it was because President Museveni and William Ruto click. Or that, in his characteristically long game play, Museveni picked the winning bull in the tussle between Ruto and Raila Odinga for the Kenya president – and that placed him in good stead. I will argue that it was simply African reverence of the older generation. Museveni was the mzee, the older generation.
Africans are not like the western world that speaks of about five generations; from the Silent Generation of the Queen (1945 and before), through the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and now Centennials. Or about a different generation every 20 to 30 years.
African talk plainly about “this generation, father and mother’s generation, grandparents generation, and great grandparents generation”. In other words, for Africans, every generation is marked by a transition.
The ascension to the throne of King Charles III marked a generational transition in the western-world sense; from the silent generation to a baby boomer. But it was not a transition in the African sense as it was from one Great grandparent to another.
President Ruto is 55 years old. He is a generation behind Museveni. It is the same with all the other leaders in the east African region. Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia is 46 years old, Évariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi 54, and Félix Antoine Tshisekedi of DR Congo is 59. Even Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania who is 60, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda who is 64, and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia who is 66 years old, are not of Museveni’s generation. I could imagine what they were thinking as President Museveni spoke; especially regarding generational transition in the African sense.
This is not an ageist argument. Certainly, a major result of the death Queen Elizabeth is the drop in the age for the oldest head of government. The Queen died aged 96 years and 140 days. Since her death, the oldest leader is President Paul Biya of Cameroon at 89 years. That is a seven year drop.
The drop means leaders who were previously considered not very old inch closer to the top spot. The 85-year old Pope Francis, the Sovereign of the Vatican City State, who previously was at number six, now enters the hall of top five.
Similarly, the recent election of President Ruto, has adjusted the age dynamic downward. The immediate past-president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, is 60 years. That is 18 years younger than Museveni. The arrival of William Ruto stretches the age difference to 23 years in comparison to Museveni.
Sitting in conference with William Ruto easily casts Museveni as advanced in age. This point becomes urgent if the other younger leaders in the region are in the room. What beliefs, values, and opinions do these younger leaders share with Museveni on the urgent issues of today; human rights, climate change, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, democracy, war, ageing, de-globalisation, poverty and more?
Museveni was born under colonialism, became a freedom fighter, then a liberator, and then, some would say, an oppressor. None of the younger leaders have metamorphosed as much. Their views of transitions are different.
William Ruto’s views on a political transition appear clear. He has two terms max up to 2032. What about Museveni? In 2032, Museveni will be 88 years old. That is eight years younger than when the queen died. And Museveni appears to be a “super-ager,” a subgroup of people that maintain their mental and physical functioning and tend to live longer than the average person their age. Their fitness belies their chronological age.
Museveni came to power when Daniel arap Moi was president of Kenya in 1986 and they did 16 years together. Moi was kicked out but Museveni ploughed through two other presidents of Kenya; Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenya; ten years each. William Ruto is Kenya president number four for Museveni after 36 years. Should we count Museveni out for Kenya president number five in 2032 or will there be a transition in Uganda?
There is a fundamental error in how the Uganda transition question is often answered. The assumption is that the decision is for Museveni and other elders in his position; at the cusp, to make. That is not correct. The question must be answered by the next generation. In other words, the young leaders in Uganda and the region must answer it. It is a question of beliefs, values, and opinions. These can never be the same across generations.
It is also a truth universally acknowledged that the powerful are living longer healthier lives courtesy of modern science and medicine. A limp is fixed with a hip replacement, declining sight is fixed with diet, laser treatment or surgery, hearing loss can be fixed with discrete devises installed in the canal, and wrinkles with injections, creams, and even surgery. Even dementia is managed.
Still, there comes a point when transition becomes inevitable. It has happened for the queen. It happened for President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia in 1987 as he was removed from office over ill-health. He was 84-years old and had been frail for years.
In many cases, the frail leadership leads to instability at home and abroad. You may call it political inter-jurisdictional spill-over, contagion or contamination.
President Habib Bourguiba’s frailty in Tunisia spread contagion to Muamar Gaddafi of Libya in 2011, Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in 2019. The message is clear. Young leaders at home and in the region must manage these transitions.
Joseph Were | email@example.com