On Ageism, the Aged and Human Rights in Africa – Terinwa Adesipo

An elderly woman... Credit: REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun


I grew up in a milieu where the aged were regarded as the most venerable part of the society; respected for their experience, revered for their wisdom, adored for their priceless knowledge and if it were possible, they would have been protected from the cold hands of death, but sadly wishes are not horses. Having fully understood the invaluable imparts of the ageing and the aged in the society, I could not have helped but behold the substantiality in the dictum of Marcus Tullius Cicero; the Roman philosopher which opined that old age is the “crown of life, our play’s last act”. Concretely, nothing can be more truistic and revealing of what old age is than this; the autumn years of human existence. In the chronicle of human race, there is yet any society that has progress rapidly without the priceless contribution of this notable set of people; even in their various locality, they are aptly identified as a friend to the young, a guide to the youth, imparters to the adult, and a confidant to their fellow aged. These exemplary traits they exhibit sufficiently suggest that they must not just be respected and revered but protected and sheltered form any form of existential threat or attack.

 Based on a corroborated 2014 estimates by the Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, Japan is attributed to be the country with the most ageing population. This realism has earned them the appellation of a “super aging” society. Predictively and extendedly, the World Health organization has also observed that between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%, which numerically is expected to up from 900 million in 2015 to a staggering 2 billion by 2050. Evidently, this does not only connote that the population of the aged are greatly increasing; this further establishes the inescapable fact that they will also constitute a significant part of most societies by 2050. In Africa, the aged cannot be said to be a significant population when compared pounds for pounds with other territory and jurisdiction of the world, although this has greatly been indebted to the low life’s expectancy which is considered to be just 56 years premised on a 2010 statistics. Whilst it has been observed by the African Development Bank in 2011 that the population of the elderly in Africa is likely to soar into 4.5% of the continent’s population by 2030; a prediction that clearly mirrors a growing ageing population in Africa, current realism detestably vocalizes that there is no coherent plan in place to cater for this increasing elderly population on the continent.


Before threading into the realm of predictions and prognostications, it is fundamental to first take a deep examination of what is currently the status of the elderly in today’s Africa. In sheer reference to realism, the aged in Africa are at a great risk than in any other territory in the world. Comparatively, Africa fares rather abysmally in the treatment of its aged. From dangers of degrading treatment, to financial disability, to societal neglection and even torture, every identifying hallmark of human rights violation is manifested against the aged population on the Continent. In Nigeria, just like many other Africa countries, there is apparently no systematic policy or plan efficaciously created to cater for the aged; this evidently has birthed the manifestation of assorted issues of unfair treatment and discrimination of the elderly. Patently, one of such manifestation of this unfair treatment can be clearly espied in the aspects of a deficient pension scheme. In Africa, many adults of pensionable status are most times denied the benefit of their age long service to the country.

For a country like Nigeria, there has been certain circumstances where a particular public officer embezzled what was specifically meant to be a pension fund; the merited entitlement of the ageing and the aged. From all viewpoint of analysis, how logically justifiable is it that persons who have dedicated their entire life working, toiling and sweating all in a bid to insure the betterment and progress of their country; giving it all they’ve got while they were agile and active are either totally denied their entitlements or not fairly and fully remunerated when the time calls for it in their old age, unless in an attempt to be economical with the truth, this is nothing but inhumanity. In a somewhat barbaric manner, there exist diverse cases where the government has utterly refused to pay this category of persons their entitlements for months -if not years- while in certain circumstances, others who are even paid are partially paid. As far as humanity is concerned, this is nothing but vicious suffering for this category of persons that should be shielded, protected, loved and cared for by the society.

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Factually, there are evidently serious artificial problems heaped on the ageing and the aged population in Africa, for example the African Development Bank recorded that “the growing old in Africa face an uncertain future”, if this observation is anything to go by, then it needs no further justification that unfair treatment of the old manifest itself unshackled on the African continent. From an indisputable perspective, what is dubbed standard living for the aged is alien to most states on the continent. In many countries, the old are the greatest victim of harsh economic crisis and realities. In this regard, many despite being old and weak are constrained by this dog life to toil and sweat before they can keep their body and soul together. Disheartening as it is evident, the aged in Africa are the most unfairly treated when juxtaposed pounds for pounds with the ageing population of other continents. Notoriously, it is easy to sight an old woman hawking on the street or by the road side, all thanks to poverty of a reliable source of income, while many men who are in their ripe old age work in factories and industries where they are made to perform extremely arduous labour all in a bid to survive. From a progressively worse dimension, many market places in Africa are filled with many old women who even merely from a superficial observation lack the strength to carry out such extraordinarily difficult task, one which is apparently out of line and highly unbefitting for their age condition, but how can they ever dare to sit in the (un)comfortable zone of their abode when hunger and suffering are their co-occupiers.

In fanning the flames, healthcare and medical aid is almost inaccessible –if ever accessible- for the aged in Africa, whilst the dearth of medical care is one issue; the exorbitant rate at which healthcare treatment is given to the aged –and non-ageing- population is another. With this unfortunate reality, it needs no further observation that a large percentage of the aged on the continent are unable to afford the charges that come with medical treatment. To this end, many are on innumerable times constrained to resort to tress and herbs for medical succor when poorly ill or indisposed. Although this is no attempt to trivialize the effectiveness of herbs, but how possible is it to treat a disease they have no correct diagnosis of? In this age of civilization, this is nothing but a cruel treatment of the old. But from a deep observation, it becomes indisputably patent that the lack of affordable and accessible healthcare constrained this group of persons to the exploration of this somewhat sterile option. As further observed by the Africa Development Bank “the healthcare problem is critical because of the long term chronic conditions associated with growing old, such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders and dementia”. Due to unaffordable health care, a large number of this aged who could have been saved from the cold hands of death has lost the battle to the Grim reaper – even in times when all that is needed to save some is a little penny that they just could not afford.

Equally worsening is the realism that this unfair treatment of the ageing and aged population are materializing and waxing strongly at a time when those who could have aided in palliating these sufferings are unarmed with the necessary wherewithal to carry out such duty. Apparently, manifold populations of the aged in today’s Africa do not have access to sufficient not to say adequately nourished foods but this was not always the case. Once upon a time, there were those who depended on children and relatives to survive, but it seems as though those good days are gradually passing by. In recent times, this has negatively changed. In this era, many aged who could have been cared for by their offspring or relatives have been deserted, this is highly indebted to the harsh economic crisis sometimes occasioned by the menace of unemployment. On most occasions some of this old men and women who are constrained by this merciless circumstance glaring them in the face have to resort to begging, and sometimes at the mercy of hunger and various ailments. Whilst hunger is really a tragedy for any man, it becomes utterly tragic to be ravaged by one at old age. From a deep observation of today’s Africa society, a large percentage of the aged have no regular income. This is nothing but greatly saddening. While on one hand, they struggle to cope in a country defined by failing and struggling health care system, on the other hand, they are denied any form of medical care or even social protection schemes when they are even in dire need of one and now they have no formally assured source of income to even pay for the ridiculously exorbitant ones which are available. On this note, these old men and women are crushed into living with many unpleasant realities which are unbefitting for their condition. From lack of affordable or special healthcare system, to lack of financial support, inaccessibility to healthy foods and even inadequate remuneration for the pensionable category, almost every form of tribulation known to human history is what they have to deal with at an old age. In sheer truth, Africa is really a trying –if not perilous- continent for the aged. In this equation, it might well be said with enough justification that Africa is the most ageist continent in the world.

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Premised on earlier establishment with specific regards to the unfair treatment of the ageing and the aged in Africa, the real McCoy question should be “are the rights of the aged really guaranteed or recognized on the African continent”? In sheer truth, the answer to this is in the negative. Or how can a country claim to guarantee the rights of the aged when these categories of persons are brazenly tortured by diverse harsh realities of existence? Of course, a right that caters for some while neglecting the other cannot be baptized a right in the real sense, it is a façade. While there are generally sacred human rights especially socio-economic which ought to guarantee the protection and provision of these basic amenities of life for the people in the society, the Africa circumstance tells a differently distasteful story.

In my view, every right that ensures the smooth living and existence of man is essential and fundamental, hence, they should not just be recognized, they must necessarily be armed with justiciability and enforceability. Whilst some are quick to plead as a defense the third world status, which is sometimes inseparably coupled with the non-financial buoyancy of almost all African states to justify the unfair treatment of the ageing as well as the aged population. From a sound perspective, this is nothing but incoherent justification. Factually, any attempt to unfairly treat or deny this class of people the basic things that are suitable and necessary to their condition in life is purely inhuman and cannot be morally and –ought not to be- legally justified. The treatment given to not just the ageing population but every category of persons that makes up the society says a lot about such a government. Rights should not just be created and recognized in the constitution or any other instrument of the law, it must just like justice, be seen to be manifested.

Back to basics, it is essential to note that their exist diverse international human rights instruments which identify some basic rights which ordinarily should be enjoyed by this special class of the society, notable amongst this instrument are the United Nations principle for Older Persons, UN Plan of Action on Ageing, UN Proclamation on Ageing, Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing and even one that can be considered indigenous which is AU Policy Framework and Plan of Action on Ageing. Although, one thing remains firm and indisputably common to them all, they are not legally binding frameworks. But I personally think any human rights instrument worth creating should be worth enforcing. Almost indisputably, most of today’s aged has spent their entire life developing their society; their toils, their sweat and for some, their blood has been what has transformed and developed many societies into what it is today. If nothing more, they should at least be taken care of in their autumn years. If considering the fact that their entire life has been dedicated to the growth of the community; then paying old debts to these persons for all they’ve done for the society via providing them with the necessities of life at old age should not be too much to do.

Pardon the earlier digression, but a deep examination of this diverse instrument on the rights of the ageing would unearth the pursuance of a common goal which is purely to ensure the standard living of the ageing and the aged including but not limited to such rights as access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, just to mention a few. Afterall, what is existence without all this wherewithals? They are apparently the basic amenities no one can live without, even the non-ageing population. Foundationally, providing the basic amenities for the people should not just be a privilege, it should be a right, recognized and sanctioned by law. The ground that the financial weakness of some states is the basis for non-provision of these basic amenities is not –and can never be- of a sound origin. Essentially, the ageing and the aged are very much a part of every society. To this end, they must be sheltered from the woes of discrimination and any form of unfair treatment. In my view, old age should not be a burden but a blessing, but how realizable is this when the aged are denied the necessities that is required to live life smoothly, happily and fulfilling?

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To get the continent out of the current morass which it is deeply entombed into, while also preparing for a future with a significant aged population, it becomes essential to foundationally put in place a coherent and effective plan for catering for the aged. Like I have innumerable stated, a right delayed is a right denied, when the aged are not made to enjoy a comfortable and adequate standard of living at this “last act” of their life, then when will the day come when they will; in their graves? Howbeit there exist various instruments identifying the right of the ageing and the aged; they lack the indispensable instrument of enforceability. To attain accelerated implementation of the fair and just treatment of the aged not just in Africa but in the entire universe, there must fundamentally exist a legally binding instrument with regards to same. If the many statistics earlier observed are anything to go by, then it is the apex time when an enforceable and binding international as well as municipal legal instrument on the right of the ageing and the aged is birthed and legally empowered. In reality, ageism or unfair treatment of the old is not only defining of the African continent; it is manifested all over the world. Whilst the rate at which this treatment is manifested in other territories might differ, their identifying hallmark remains unchangeable; one which is manifested in assorted forms such as discrimination, poverty, abuse that severely restrict their human rights among innumerable others. To conquer this injustice, there must essentially be in place an effective and functional panacea to combat these highly unpleasant as well as annihilating woes.

As clearly spelt out, discrimination and any form of unfair treatment against the old exigently require a functional and reactive panacea. Whilst declarations and Programmes for action are just there to encourage and implore the government to carry out this responsibility, I think the time is now ripe for an instrument that commands the manifestation and enforceability of this right. Implementing this many policies won’t be easy, but if human right, as it has been innumerably observed is really the soul and life of man, then a denial of it should be sanctioned, because this is nothing but a violation of human sanctity. In this connection, there must necessarily be birthed a legally binding Convention in the International sphere on the right of older persons; one that encompasses all the ideals and principles needed to effectively resolve this many ills that now threatens the existence of the aged in the world. In the municipal realm, there is also an exigent need for laws that commands the fair and just treatment of the Old.

Equally vital to ensuring a royal treatment for the aged in their “crown of life” should be the creation of facilities that makes old age interesting and captivating, because as It has been carefully and corroboratively observed, many of the ageing and aged population find the world uneventful and unappealing in their old age; in this era of their life, they become almost a stranger to a world where they have lived their entire life, this it has been observed is greatly indebted greatly to solitude as well as the insipid structure of society for the aged. In this light, such amenities such as community recreational center should be created and repleted with facilities that will adorn the world for the aged at no cost. Personally, i believe old age already has its many inherent challenges and maladies; the society should do everything possible not to add to it any synthetic tribulations.

Terinwa Adesipo is the Scribe, Students Advocates Association, Lagos State University, Nigeria.


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