Ageism In Eritrean Politics: A Stereotype Gone Berserk?

Why? When that three-letter word is uttered (or rather blurted out) by my daughter, I sometimes wish the word never existed (J).  Tell her it is time to go to bed, she wants to know why.  Explain that she needs to sleep because she will wake up early to go to school the next day, she will retort: “then why don’t you – dad – go to bed since you will be waking up even earlier to go to work!”? In frustration, I sometimes threaten her with a shoe or whatever object is close by but she – the devil that she is – somehow knows that I won’t throw that object or that shoe so she just stares at me like a jungle cat and often dares me to do it!

As children, I am sure many of us gave our families a painful migraine by impertinently asking “why” of everything.   As we grow older, we despair of having our questions answered and eventually stop asking them as it finally dawns upon us that some questions will remain unanswered.  Not everyone gives up this quest for answers however and some carry it to their grave and it is from the latter that history’s finest and greatest thinkers (philosophers, scientists, politicians) are culled from.   Some in this group made their mark at an early age; others toward the end of their lives but in almost every case what led to their greatness and what made them competent leaders in their respective fields is their relentless quest for answers/solutions and their equally resolute willingness to use their thinking faculties to the fullest.

Not their chronological age! Old age never prevented the truly outstanding from continuing to contribute, to create, and to produce solutions nor has it ever prevented ordinary folks like you and I from remaining productive and competent if we so choose. History is replete with stories of old people that continued to benefit humanity in their old age and it is this universal time-tested realization that account for the prevalence of cultures that venerate the old all over the world.  From Africa to Asia to the Americas and beyond, the old were/are looked upon as living reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom and are still considered the sagest and the most fit to lead their societies.   Until recently, this was also the case in Eritrea.

I wanted to share my views on this topic because Eritreans are already exhibiting tell-tale signs of a cultural shift away from this glorious tradition and into a society that dishonors and marginalizes its old (however defined).   And nowhere is this cultural corrosion more starkly evident than in the shrill voices coming from a tiny minority within the opposition that is blatantly and unabashedly calling for “the old” to step aside and for the “young” to take over. In honor of my daughter and many graying philosophers and thinkers of the past and present, I am asking WHY?  Why should age matter?

In the context of Eritrean politics, why do we want the older generation to step aside?  Is it because they did little or is it because we are extrapolating or generalizing from Isaias and his likes or the failures of ELF? Aren’t we being unfair to paint many of our elders (some of whom remained exemplary) with the same brush?   Can we really and truthfully postulate that all our elders have failed? Isn’t it truer rather that the leadership in both camps (one tyrannical; the other inefficient) did not live up to our expectations? Weren’t the bulk of those who are now over 50 innocent of any crimes committed in their names?  Must we lump them all indiscriminately as guilty and incapable of leading?  If the old are to be blamed for trying and failing, then what makes us think that the unproven young (products of our loins and bearers of our genetic stamp) will be any wiser or worthier?  Does modernity and youthfulness inoculate one from mistakes? Does it bestow wisdom?

Please understand that I am not advocating the opposite here.  In other words, I am neither discounting the valuable role the young could play or have played in history and in current affairs; nor am I suggesting that only the old should lead. No, not at all! I am denouncing rather all forms of exclusionary practices and hereby appealing to fellow compatriots to use a single consistent criterion for qualification: COMPETENCY (in its comprehensive sense*).

In an apparent effort to bar all ELF/EPLF veterans, some have proposed a maximum age of 50 years to be the qualifying age for candidacy.  If such an age-based criterion was to be formally implemented, Eritrea would be the first to do so! Many countries impose a minimum age (for e.g. it is 35 in US to run for presidency) but I know of no country that imposes a maximum age.  It is unheard of!  This is due to the universally held belief that experience and maturity are absolutely essential characteristics of a good leader.

Globally, if the suggested maximum age of 50 had been universally adapted as the age of candidacy, it would have colossal historical and contemporary ramifications. In US, only 9 out of the 44 presidents would have qualified.  About 80% (including Abraham Lincoln) would have been disqualified! Furthermore, all the currently competing declared US republican presidential candidates would be similarly disqualified!

And if you are thinking this is an anomaly or a peculiar US eccentricity, you would be wrong. Here are other examples: 60% of Canadian Prime Ministers since 1867 were 50 or over. Of UK Prime Ministers only 21 out of 53 were less than 50 years old.  75% of German Chancellors since Bismarck were 50 years or older.  In India, only 2 prime ministers were under the age of 57.  In New Zealand, about 55% were above 50. In Nigeria, the minimum age is 40 while in Italy, you have to be at least 50 to be eligible to run for presidency.  As we can see, many in the democratic world and their societies seem to favor older leaders while Eritreans (from whose tradition one would expect even more appreciation of wisdom that comes with age) are shamelessly promoting age-based discrimination.

I think an overlapping dual stereotype is at work here: one age based; the other era-based which together coalesce into flagrant ageism i.e. “prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age”. Ageism, like many others of its kind, is based on distortions or exaggerations of reality.  If we sometimes fail to recognize such stereotypes for what they are it is because they are often cloaked in nobler-sounding slogans.  European colonizers for example were not invading racist armies bent on destruction of indigenous cultures but benevolent forces on a mission to “civilize’ the savages.  The US was not aggressing against sovereign countries but “democratizing the region”. Waterboarding is not torture but a ‘war on terror” etc…  They are all meant to assuage our guilt feeling and garner support for our misdeeds or prejudices.

The height of absurdity to which such rationalizations can ascend to became evident in US’s recent request for its surveillance drone to be returned.  Can you imagine the nerve and the arrogance!  A country spies on yours, violates your territorial sovereignty and when you capture a symbol of its aggression (the drone), you are expected to smile and hand it back!  But such is the deadly force of stereotype and bigotry that over time, its hardened practitioners engage in them semi-unconsciously and even more atrociously expect others to buy into them.

Stereotypical assumptions or false characterizations of others thrive not because of any objective truth in them but simply because one can always find examples of extremists in almost every human group.  To validate your prejudice, all you have to do is count the bad apples in the group you want to malign.  Examples of such maneuvers are everywhere from the notion of blacks as stupid, violent, and inferior to the caricature of Muslims as terrorists and irrational.

The formula for blacks for example would be to disregard the millions of law-abiding, intelligent, productive blacks and to count only the murderers, the rapists, the drug dealers etc… and you can then guiltlessly nurture your bigotry, your profiling, and your discrimination.  To malign Muslims, use the same unfailing formula i.e.  gloss over the 99% of Muslims who are peaceful and law-abiding and focus instead on the 1% that aren’t and you can then justify your witch-hunts, your Guantanamo Bays, your Abu Ghuraiab torture chambers, and your overseas meddling. All bigotry-driven crimes against humanity begin in stereotypical thinking.   When will the US learn from its own checkered past and those of others in history?  It was Europeans’ parochial notion of Native Americans as “savages” that made their extermination less horrifying to them and it was the same type of thinking that buttressed and justified slavery for hundreds of years.  The Jewish case is another example of people who were caricatured first and then led to the gas chambers.

A vicious cycle of mutual demonization sets in sometimes when victims of such extreme provocations react by creating their own surreal stereotypical images of their victimizers. Whites became devils personified in Elijah Mohammed of the Nation of Islam’ mind for example while in Ayatollah Khomeini, the US was the great Satan.  The former, a descendant of slaves who could easily chronicle countless cases of injustices done to his kind could (with a little imagination) turn whites into walking devils in his mind.

Khomeini, whose country was a victim of US interference for decades including the toppling of its democratic Government in the 50’s and its subsequent support for the oppressive regime of the Shah (a brutal dictator) could likewise find ample “reasons” for his harsh denunciations. Both went to the other extreme of course but the point of all the above examples is to illustrate the great lengths to which humans are capable of going to justify their crimes of bigotry.

Not surprisingly, age-based discrimination also relies on a similar formula.  Disregard the innumerable productive, wise, capable, and experienced elders and focus instead on the confused, the faltering, or the Alzheimer’s stricken elders.  You can then feel free to belittle them to your heart’s content.  No one is disputing by the way that our physical abilities decline with age but there is very little concrete evidence that cognitive competency necessarily declines with age. In fact, Psychologists believe that “wisdom and creativity often continue to the very end of life” provided we continue to use our physical and mental faculties.

“The secret of genius” wrote Aldous Huxley “is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”  It was said of Benjamin Franklin that at the age of 82, he possessed “an activity of mind equal to a youth of 25 years of age.”

For many, old age is a new frontier that opens newer dimensions and a deeper understanding of the human condition. The “Elders”, a global partnership that seeks to draw on the “collective influence and experience” of the old was founded by Mandela in 2007 based on this very belief.  Barring severe physical and mental ailments, we become wiser and more skilled as we grow old.  “When Physical eyesight declines” wrote Plato “spiritual insight increases”.  Agatha Christie who continued to write thrilling detective novels well into her eighties believed “we bloom” as we grow.  Her assertion was backed by recent studies that showed that the average age of Nobel-winning physicists was 50.3. Zillions of other examples could be given but why should Eritreans need such external validations to know that old age is not synonymous to stupidity or incompetence when they can find many examples in their own experience?

When I was reunited with my late father in 1991 who was then about 95 years old, I expected to find a fumbling, mumbling old man with child-like brain who forgot almost everything he knew but the only weakness I discerned in him was in his limbs which then required a walker.  Mentally, he was as sharp as ever and wiser than I could ever hope to be!

This is not the selective recollection of a loving, dotting son towards his departed father by the way.  I am sure you, dear reader, can corroborate this in your own life experience if you would only reflect back to the many cool and wise elders you have known in your family or in the neighborhood you grew up. Superior we may be in handling a laptop and other modern gadgets but in terms of raw wisdom and common sense, our elders were/remain the super heroes.

Age weakens the physique I readily grant and in severe cases that should be enough to disqualify one but a younger person with debilitating physical or mental disability would be similarly disqualified.  Again we come back to competence and ability to do the job as the ultimate yardstick.  Any other criterion is false and deprives or reduces our nation’s pool of talent. Besides, the consequences of exclusionary/discriminatory practices are dire for both the victims themselves (the elderly) and for the nation at large; the former because they are being stripped of their basic human right and the latter because the country is being deprived of a potential source of wisdom and insight.  All we have to do to get a foretaste of the consequences of such a cultural shift towards disrespect for elders, is to visit the many nursing homes that house the elderly in western societies and contrast it with Eritrean culture (prior to Isaias’s bestial regime that is) and you will see what a dreadful prospect that would be!

If you are young and harbor such stereotypes about your elders, you may want to remember you are working against your own future self-interest because you will one day be old and wrinkled (believe it or not!) and it would be a hellish existence if all you envision in the distant horizon is a dreary empty future where you are treated with disdain or disrespect.

Instead, we all should look forward to old age with dignity and courage anticipating honor and love from our families, friends, and our society not with fear. Speaking for myself, I hope to continue functioning well into my 90’s InshAllah. I will even dare to dream of finally throwing that shoe at my daughter.  And if you are wondering how old I am as you read this, please keep wondering because I swear I will never tell you except to say that I know many people who are much older than I and quite as many who are younger than me.  Go figure!

Welcome back conferees and thank you.  Happy holidays!

*by comprehensive, I mean competence that includes such obvious basic prerequisites as sanity and minimum age (to establish adulthood.) 

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