It was Aaliyah, the American R&B artiste, who sang Age ain’t Nothin’ but a Number. Veteran entertainment writer Amos Ngaira says the song was seen as a response to allegations that she had been involved in an illicit relationship with superstar R Kelly, her mentor. Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in August 2001, made her debut recording with Kelly when she was 12.
Though used in a considerably different context, the singer’s words perhaps best express the sentiments Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been trying to articulate for the past two weeks.
In the face of a campaign to elect younger politicians to high office in the next election, Mr Odinga has stressed that the most important consideration in the choice of leaders is their ideas, not their age.
“There are young people who are very old in their thoughts, and there are old people who are very young in ideas. I am yet to meet a person who has campaigned to be elected a leader just because he or she is young,” he told the Sunday Nation.
The noisy politics of age and leadership constitutes the newest political battleground. The battle cry for “generational change” is led by Eldoret North MP William Ruto, 44, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 49, and Saboti MP Eugene Wamalwa, believed to be in his mid-40s.
The campaign has sparked a war of words between this group, the 66-year-old Mr Odinga, his allies, councils of elders and youth groups with some critics saying their reaction is an indication the group feels threatened by the pool of “younger” presidential aspirants.
“This self-serving campaign is aimed at cutting off some presidential candidates from the contest because they are strong,” reckons assistant minister Bifwoli Wakoli, who has declared his intention to run for the top seat.
The offensive has also re-ignited debate in the political arena on the value of experience. It has elicited comparisons between the track records of older leaders like former president Nelson Mandela (South Africa), presidents Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Yoweri Museveni (Uganda); versus that of younger heads of state like Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Joseph Kabila (DRC), Barack Obama (US) and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Others calling for younger leaders are assistant ministers Kazungu Kambi, Aden Duale and MPs Mithika Linturi, Elijah Langat, Gidion Mbuvi, Joshua Kutuny and Cyrus Jirongo. And their ire is aimed at Mr Odinga.
At a political rally last week, a group of MPs in the Ruto camp described Mr Odinga as “an old Turk” and asked him to make way for younger politicians.
Mr Ruto further said that politicians over 50 years old have a slim chance of winning the presidency in 2012. “I cannot say with certainty who Kenya’s next president will be, but I can assure you that person will be below 50 years,” he said.
And later Mr Kutuny hinted at the political strategy behind Mr Ruto’s comment when he declared that the 2012 presidential race would be between Mr Kenyatta, 49, and Mr Ruto, 44. This could mean that at 57 Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka would be out of the game.
“Old men shall dream, and young men will live the dream,” said Mr Wamalwa, another presidential aspirant whose campaign theme revolves around what he calls generational change and transformational leadership.
Mr Duale notes that the youth constitute the majority of the country’s voters and stressed that the drive to hand over power to a younger leader was a “global trend”, citing the examples of President Obama and Mr Cameron.
But those opposed to the idea, including ODM deputy leader Musalia Mudavadi, assistant ministers Kilemi Mwiria and Mr Bifwoli, and members of the youth movement, argue that leadership qualities are not limited to a specific age bracket.
Mr Wakoli has warned against the argument that younger politicians are clean and more progressive. “Is it age or the brain which should be entrusted to run this country? Both the old and the young have the capacity to be criminals,” he said.
Mr Wakoli claimed he was “tricked” into attending a ‘‘generational change’’ rally in Webuye at the weekend and pointed out that former President Mandela stabilised South Africa at an old age while Kamlesh Pattni masterminded the Goldenberg scandal at 28.
Dr Mwiria asked that young politicians claiming the right to leadership be interrogated, saying that youth with bad ideas were dangerous.
“We must know what principles they stand for, what company they keep, what their history in the reform process is and who socialised them into politics,” he said.
According to the PNU politician, the individuals must demonstrate they can fight corruption, tribalism and that they support the spirit of the new Constitution.
Ngunjiri Wambugu of the Change Associates Trust and Emmanuel Denis of the National Youth Convention see the drive as a plot by a clique of politicians to seduce the youth vote with the aim of perpetuating impunity.
“The old men rebranding themselves as youth don’t represent change. They are a part of the old order,” Mr Denis said.
Mr Wambugu says 75 per cent of Kenya’s population is made up of people either in school, looking for their first jobs, getting into their first serious social relationship or planning to settle down.
“They are primarily looking for an environment that allows them to plan long term. There is no indication that the crop of politicians trying to woo them can provide it.”
Others see the generational change campaign as an attempt to regroup members of Kanu.
“They want to recreate the kleptocracy that was Kanu. A majority of them were the architects of the YK92, which not only campaigned for the re-election of an octogenarian, but also messed up the economy,” said Kimilili MP Simiyu Eseli.
But Mr Wamalwa says the youth campaigners are only highlighting the need to create space for new players with new ideas to make their contribution to move the country forward. He says the independence generation of founding President Jomo Kenya, Jaramogi Odinga, Pio Gama Pinto, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Tom Mboya delivered the First Republic.
The second group of Young Turks including Mr Odinga, ministers Kiraitu Murungi and James Orengo, lawyers Gitobu Imanyara, Paul Muite and Martha Karua, and Bishop Timothy Njoya worked hard for the establishment of the Second Republic that culminated in the passing of the new Constitution.
Done their part
Mr Wamalwa suggests that with the birth of the Second Republic, the Odinga group had done their part. “The moral and institutional rebirth in the new Constitution should be driven by a different generation,” he argued.
His ally Tony Gachoka added that history had shown that freedom fighters like Mr Mugabe and Mr Museveni “were not necessarily good for their countries”.
Mutito MP Kiema Kilonzo acknowledged that a considerable number of younger politicians have “disgraceful” records. “Those with questionable character who don’t fit the bill for leadership should not be given an opportunity,” he said.
He urged politicians like President Kibaki, Mr Odinga, Mr William ole Ntimama and Mr John Michuki to retire from active politics and take up advisory roles, adding that young leaders were best placed to fight negative ethnicity because they were “de-tribalised”.