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For the youth to make good leaders, character development is necessary

National Youth Service displayed their Skills during their pass-out parade in Gilgil, Nakuru county on June 10, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Youthfulness is a positive attribute. But the positivity feeds on virtues. But many young people choose the school of vice.  With a heavy vice feed, what was essentially good becomes stunted.  A youthful population in a country is not good by itself but is as good as what the systems feed them with.

Solomon’s son - a young heir - had a great opportunity to rewrite history. The people gathered together and told them “the Israel they want” by appealing to him, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”  In young Rehoboam people saw hope. To them the end of an oppressive era had come. They perceived him as new as one to put the painful past behind them. His youth represented a person philosophically distant from his father.  They knocked on the youth door to open a chapter of freedom.  

The elders articulated to Rehoboam the winning formula: “If today, you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”  The seniors asked from the young an emancipating leadership. For Solomon, output came before people.  The elders were asking for switch in the formula and prayed for the centrality of the people. Often, youth comes with a raw sense of ambition and needs to be rescued from self-centredness. The elders were hopeful that Rehoboam had read the Proverbs of his father. Proverbs are themselves a virtue school. Only wisdom can teach one the need to not only to serve  people but to make serving people an ambition.

For Solomon’s heir, the conversation was not whether he would have power – power was already assured. The question was how to execute the assured power. The elders were offering a leadership formula: service begets loyalty. As they offered their wisdom, the elders had one sorry assumption: that Rehoboam disliked the oppressive style of his father. Little did they know that he was an advanced version of his father.  This is not far from our contemporary assumptions. We may hope for a new spirit in young leaders only to find that they are superior versions of the old older. When we think they would have distaste for old ways we may find they are obsessed admirers of the former order.

Young does not necessary mean detachment from the past. This is was the vision of the young people:  “Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.  My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’’ That Rehoboam rejected the elders’ counsel and chose the way of his contemporaries points to the possibility that young could also mean new level of vice.

Young people have complained a lot about not accessing particular levels of leadership due lack of experience. But even more than experience is character.  Some of the young people have been mentored thoroughly by looters. Young as they are, they have taken after the best in corruption. Before attaching hope to young people, it is critical to dig up under whose tutorage they have sat. To expect freedom from young graduates of the school of vice is hope squandered.

Upcoming elections

Young people have signed up in large numbers for political leadership at different levels in the upcoming elections. This is highly commendable. But some of those we are seeing on bill boards smiling and beaming with energy are ‘A’ students of corruption.  Such a lot if elected have capacity to give voters a rough five-year ride not because of juvenileness but because they are vice masters. Some have a vision not of sealing Kenya’s holes but deepening the existing one and even excavating new ones.  

A young population represents hope. A middle aged population represents productivity. A senior population represents a heritage. Metaphorically, each of this ages craves for youthfulness because each needs energy to achieve and sustain its peak. In this regard, youthfulness is a population’s preservative. Statistically, youth form the gist of the population. It is, therefore, just right for this statistical superiority to reflect in the positions of leadership both in terms of holding positions and agendas.

For a long time, despite efforts to mainstream young people in political leadership, older people have remained the holders of senior political offices. The corporate world, driven by a philosophy of profitability, is more open and is increasingly realising the productivity of young people and stamping confidence by promoting them to very senior portfolios. As long they prove their profit-friendliness, age is not a significant barrier to position. Politics, being more power centered, struggles in entrusting young people with power. Interestingly, despite their reluctance to trust real young people with power, they claim the spirit of youth and even brand themselves as “young turks.”

Many young people are often strategic fronts sponsored by older people to voice their agendas. While some may say this is intergenerational collaboration, the vice school puts old words in new mouths, old thinking in fresh minds, which manifests in young politicians singing old songs with no emerging narratives of their own.

Some youth champions have used the narrative of age as their base. “Where are young people in the equation?” they ask. This is a question of visibility.  “The voice of young people needs to be heard.” This is a perspective of advocacy. Rarely do you hear “The leadership of young people needs to be felt.” Such is a perspective of capacity.   It is critical that young people be given significant opportunities in leadership. But youthfulness cannot be the singular qualifier. Youthfulness must be accompanied by character. Truth be told - youthfulness without character is a disaster.