By Ernest Duku Jallah
In March 2016, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appointed Massa Jallabah as a member of the Ombudsmen responsible for the functioning and enforcement of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials.
Mrs. Jallabah was qualified, had recorded many victories in the courtroom and retained a fairly independent position on issues. She altogether seemed like a perfect pick for the position, except that she was 34 and it was against the law for a 34-year-old to be member of the Ombudsmen Committee. The law didn’t care about her understanding of the issues, her potential or accomplishments — she was 34 and she didn’t have the rights to serve, period.
The legal requirements on age limit to serve elected or certain public offices is one issue which has consistently failed at generating sustained public debates, and there is a feeling of general acceptance on this presumption of the law—that young people with lower age grades are too immature to serve certain offices.
Young people like Massa are not hard to find—they are everywhere, they are not silent; they are pushing harder against the stereotypes, standing on the front lines of social progress, testing the limits of change, all the while being denied their constitutional rights to public service.
The Constitution grants all Liberians the right to pursue his/her individual dream but limits youth’s full access to this right. At 18, youths in Liberia can exercise the right to vote and lend opinions on discussions of politics, policy and governance but they can’t serve their constituency or county and they can’t be president. Over 65% of the nation’s population does not enjoy full political rights; they can vote but can’t be voted for.
With life expectancy increasing modestly, isn’t it more reasonable to rivet the concentration on an upper age limit for running for public office? People should not be young to run; people should be too old to run.
There is no established historical reason why the writers of the Constitution decided to set lower age limits to run for public office and there is hardly any logical reason why certain statutory regulations bar young people from serving their country in certain positions. There is, however, a social reason—the long-standing stereotypical opinion that young people are inexperienced, unqualified and simply incapable to serve higher office. Even with the fact that young people are becoming more qualified, they are educating themselves, building muscles around their experience and scorching strong leadership capabilities, this opinion is yet being sustained by the system.
It’s now easy to suggest that these opinions are being stubbornly retained because of an implicit fear for what might be the consequences when young people are granted access to full political rights.
My friend, Abraham Kieta, for example, is free to speak on issues, travel the world in defense of children’s rights but cannot represent his constituency because, according to the law, he is too young and inexperienced. He has proven his intellectual mettle but his rights are being circumscribed by an indefensible presumption that youths are too young to lead. It’s hard to find how our fundamental law, which should determine rightness and wrongness, can be right on this.
Leaders who are youth have shown what’s possible: Alexander the Great, at 18, established one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. Octavian Ceaser ruled the great Roman Empire at 20. Martin Luther King became leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA at the age of 25. Laura Dekker sailed around the world solo at age 14. Jordern Romero climbed Mt. Everest at age 13. Mark Zukerberg founded Facebook at age 19. And Ethan Sonneborn is running for governor in the U.S. State of Alaska at the age of 14.
History has, time and time again, proven that leadership is not only about age but temperament, mindset, exposure, and experiences of failure and success.
This generation, the Millennials and Gen X’ers, is packed with smart young people who have shown the capacity to provide new solutions to some of the old questions which have bogged our political and social systems. They are engaging and demanding a seat on the table but are being consistently denied by Boomers who are refusing to step aside and give youths the chance—Boomers who are always postponing the future.
Finland, Norway and Sweden are the only countries where members of Parliament represent at least 10%, and these are the countries where the education, health and social systems are the best, and there’s no question why these are the only countries where youths are estimated to be richer than their fathers.
Placing youths in responsible position might just be the clue to improving financing for crucial issues like education and youth development. It is a fact that constituencies are better represented by people from their ranks and that a lot of young people cling to protests because the laws prohibit them from taking an active part in discussions about the country.
True, some predetermination against youths are genuine; many young adults are unreliable and immature but so are many grown-ups. Youths are making crucial advancement in business, politics, arts and science. They are leading movements, serving in the offices of national leaders and making analyses which presuppose national policy, yet the system is promoting laws which suggest that they lack the acumen, commitment, maturity to legislate and govern—until they grow into adults.
To be honest, the argument in favor of relieving the limitations on who can serve public office are more appealing than not. The activism and honesty of young people have reflected action and activity which stand to imbue flavor to our politics. If young people were to be considered for all public positions, races will become more competitive, the standard for wining will go up and this will consequently lead to a new action on youth unemployment and education. Granting youths the right to stand for office doesn’t mean that youths would be elected, but it would most certainly expand the credentials for who can win and guarantee our rights for freedom of expression and extend the rights to a politically disadvantaged constituency.
For Democracy to work effectively, governments should be a constitution of every feature in the society—youth, physically challenged, women, men and children should be given the chance to sit alongside adults on the decision-making table. Youths, like every other disadvantaged group in society, should have a role in government which squares with their proportion of the population. Under 1 percent of the Legislature is under the age of 35%, despite the fact near one-third of all Liberian are youth.
It is a basic value of Democracy that voters be provided an unhindered chance to select candidates who they believe in. To separate the right to choose and the right to be chosen is an assault on democracy itself.
To bring an end to the systemic agitation against rights of youth, the country must alter a portion of its constitution, to allow young people run for office, introducing independent candidacy to the electoral process. When the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are not applied by society’s trust or distrusts of youths, our democracy will be better.
About the Author:
Ernest Duku Jallah is a youth and students’ activist, he studies economics and public administration at the University of Liberia. He can be reached at [email protected] or 0776969681