Youth in politics

Many will argue that Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the two foremost leaders in Guyanese history since Independence, have left an indelible mark on the political landscape of our country, and continue to affect the way we are governed. Normally considered in the context of maximum leaders, these two have left Guyana with a legacy of youth leadership that not many have seized upon.

Born in 1918, Cheddi Jagan was first elected Chief Minister in 1953, that is, at the tender age of 35 years, going on to become Premier of Guyana in 1961 when he would have been just 43 years old. Burnham too, born in 1923 became Prime Minister in 1964 (subsequent to his split with Cheddi Jagan in 1955) when he would have been just 41 years old.

Even Desmond Hoyte, born in 1929 who served in Burnham’s shadow for much of his political career, entered Parliament in 1968, that is, at the tender age of 39 years, and became Home Affairs Minister the next year (1969). Hoyte would accede to the presidency on the death of Burnham in August 1985 at the age of 56 years, losing to a resurgent, but 74-year-old Cheddi Jagan in 1992.

So, Guyana’s foremost leaders have shown by example that youth is no impediment to leadership, and one might have thought that this example would have been the defining characteristic of other leaders over the years, showing willingness to challenge the status quo, and in the process create a wealthy store of potential leaders for voters to choose from. However, this has not seemed to happen in a visible way.

It was only after Janet Jagan had a brief period as president beginning in 1997 at the age of 77 years and ending in 1999, that Guyana saw its youngest executive president with the elevation of Bharrat Jagdeo, born 1964, who replaced Mrs Jagan at just 35 years of age.

Since Jagdeo, we have had Donald Ramotar becoming President in 2011 at the age of 61 years, and now, President David Granger attaining the highest office in 2015 at the age of 70.

The question that must be asked, therefore, with the examples of youth leadership set in 1953-1961 by Cheddi Jagan, and in 1964 by Forbes Burnham, why is it that since then there seems to have been a dearth of young people demonstrating leadership potential to function at the highest levels of our government?

In the age of the internet, and with the domination of social media being both an enabler and rival of the formal media, it would seem that the stage has been set for youth leadership to sweep through all the countries of the world. However, young leaders, such as current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, aged nearly 44 on winning the election in 2015, are still the exception rather than the rule, and much older leaders such as Donald Trump – 70 years old when elected – are still the norm. Indeed, the USA, for long considered the bastion of democracy, usually elects leaders who are on average, 55 years and above to the presidency.

It should be noted that the point being made here is not necessarily to advocate for a young person to be president of Guyana, but the issue being considered is the seeming lack of youth ascending to leadership positions in politics and government and being able to hold their positions on the basis of their abilities and not merely on the basis of being ‘gifted’ such positions by the party hierarchy.

Young people of today who aspire to leadership positions should be able to bring fresh ideas to the table and not only be sycophantic yes men and women, toeing the line and becoming merely window dressing in the process. It should not be assumed that Jagan and Burnham achieved what they achieved without effort and without struggle. Indeed, they would have faced some formidable challenges based on the state of the world at the time, with Guyana being a British colony. Cheddi Jagan grow up in rural Guyana with parents who worked the cane fields, yet went on to qualify as a dentist, studying in the USA. And while Forbes Burnham grew up in the city, he excelled in his academic career, pursuing a law degree in London, England. Both Jagan and Burnham attended Queen’s College – Guyana’s premier secondary school.

Successive government administrations have laid claim to being focused on youth advancement and have initiated programmes aimed at youth development. However, these programmes might have several more years to run before their fruit can be recognised at the highest levels of politics and government. In the meantime, the appetite of the three major political parties for accommodating and facilitating young, independent minds in their midst, does not seem a particularly large one at this time. And although social media is usually awash with many dissenting viewpoints from young people challenging the status quo on various issues, this energy rarely seems to cross over from the virtual world into the real world in order to infuse conversations between the administration and the people with fresh perspectives from youth leaders.

As Guyana grows nearer to the dramatic change in the structure of our economy that ExxonMobil oil production will generate, the year 2018 is being seen as a key preparatory year for all stakeholders seeking to be strategically placed to benefit from the expected investment inflows and sales inflows from production in the years to come.

Whether we will witness the emergence of a competent cadre of young independent minded leaders willing to stand on principle, and who can take up the reins of leadership in a future filled with tremendous potential for good, or otherwise, remains to be seen.

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