Age-old dilemma

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 March, 2009, 12:00am

Madagascar's coup that the military swears isn't a coup has led to the world's second-youngest leader taking office. Andry Rajoelina is just 34 and has declared himself 59-year-old president Marc Ravalomanana's replacement. The one-time DJ has had a meteoric rise through the political ranks, thanks to his energetic leadership of the opposition and pop-star image. The media and advertising entrepreneur is now in charge of an island of 20 million people.

Good luck to him. Madagascar is among the world's poorest nations, with 70 per cent of its population living on less than US$1 a day. There are doubtless those who contend he is too young for the job; the reaction of a number of my colleagues was exactly that. Age does not account for abilities, though, and he may well prove to be his country's saviour.

Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck heads the list of youngest leaders - he is 29. But of the top 10, only Russia's president, 43-year-old Dmitry Medvedev, can make any claims to head one of the world's significant countries. Even then, it is his prime minister and predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who is really in charge. When it comes to power, leadership and youth, though, it is US President Barack Obama whom we most think of now.

The election that put Mr Obama, 47, in the White House was in part about age. He is among America's youngest-ever presidents. His rival, John McCain, 72, would have been the oldest-elected American leader had he won. His lack of technological savvy was a factor in his loss. The question raised then, as with Mr Rajoelina, is: should age determine eligibility for high office?

Madagascar's constitution says so: it makes no mention of an upper age limit, but states its president has to be at least 40, a matter that the new leader still has to contend with. This is in sync with numerous other nations, which would seem to equate youth with inexperience. Afghanistan and Algeria also require their presidents to be at least 40, while 35 is necessary in the US, Austria and Mexico, among others. Colombia accepts a 30-year-old president, while France's constitution dictates 23.

These regulations ignore the fact that ability, maturity and wisdom come to us at different times - or, for some people, never. Leadership knows no bounds. Alexander the Great had conquered much of the known ancient world by the time of his death a month short of his 33rd birthday. The founder and chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is just 23 and, according to Forbes magazine, is already worth US$1.5 billion. Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was only 27 when he led the coup that swept him to power in 1969. History is littered with such examples.

Such is also the case with great leaders who held their positions well into their 70s: among them are Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Golda Meir and Konrad Adenauer. Yet, as Senator McCain proved, there are as many people worried about too-old leadership as too young. Many of the world's biggest companies think this way. Four of the five firms in the Standard & Poor's 500 force their directors to retire, usually at 70 or 72. Their thinking is that older people are less productive and not as physically and mentally rigorous as their younger counterparts. There is ample medical research along these lines.

With elections in India starting next month, the discussion is turning in this direction. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 76 and recovering from heart surgery. His main rival, Lal Krishna Advani, is 81. If Mr Singh decides he is not fit enough to stand for office again, the president of his Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, may do so - even though she turned down the offer in 2004. There is talk that she could opt to put forward her 38-year-old son, Rahul - a move that in some quarters would spark debate that he is too young to govern the diverse nation of 1.15 billion people.

All such discussion is flawed. Leadership is not about age, but ability. Some people are more capable of leading than others. How well equipped they are to take on the job is not so much their number of years on this planet as their physical and mental state.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post