With over half of Uganda’s population under the age of 30, young voters hold the key to the February 2011 national elections. But will they succeed in changing the status quo?
President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, at 66 years old, has led the pack in his party’s attempts to identify with young people. In the past year, he proposed that the retirement age be lowered by 10 years to free up thousands of jobs for young Ugandans, provided millions of dollars from the presidential coffers for “teaching patriotism” in secondary schools and produced a hit rap song. The youth vote in Uganda is substantial, with about 7.4 million young people eligible to vote in 2011 elections.
Unlike Museveni, or any of the six opponents contesting the presidency in February 2011, one candidate who has not had to pull off any antics to appeal to youthful voters is Norbert Mao. At 43, Mao is Uganda’s youngest candidate. A gifted orator, Mao maintains a Facebook page with more than 10,000 members to “stay in touch with supporters who cannot make it to political rallies”. Elected to parliament at the age of 28, Mao is the first Ugandan born after the country gained independence from Britain in 1962 either to lead a political party or to vie for the presidency.
But besides Mao, there is a dearth of politicians younger than 45 who in Uganda’s five leading political parties have cultivated national profiles solid enough for them to be considered the country’s next leaders.
Mao thinks young Ugandans are selling themselves short by settling for the basics. “A lot of young people don’t want to join politics because they have narrowed down their requirements to personal needs: the ‘one, two, three, four trap’. Every young person who finishes school dreams of having one wife, two children, a three-bed-room house and a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Once you have those four things, you say you are okay,” he says. But, as Mao acknowledges, apathy towards politics is not entirely of the young generation’s own making. It is, he says, down to the nature of politics practised before and after the Museveni-led rebel group, the National Resistance Army, seized power in 1986.
Uganda’s early politics was characterised by military coups that saw power change hands eight times in the first 24 years after independence, with nearly a decade under the dictatorial regime of Idi Amin. However, while many of the political groups were reorganising and mobilising in exile, they continued to nurture young leaders.
When President Museveni took over, his government banned political parties, accusing them of being divisive and sectarian. In their place, Museveni advocated a no-party system of government in which every Ugandan belonged to the National Resistance Movement (NRM), an all-embracing system of governance. Without the backing of political parties, anyone who wanted to vie for office could do so based on ‘individual merit’.
This favoured the NRM leadership since it could easily isolate any politician with divergent views. Preservation of power took the place of the original NRM ideals that had excited Ugandans when Museveni came to power. It was not a conducive environment in which to join politics, unless you toed the movement’s line.
That phase in Uganda’s history, according to Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a senior lecturer at Makerere University, marked the beginning of the “deconstruction of politics and depoliticisation of society”, which he says continued unabated until 2005, when a referendum paved the way for political parties to once again mobilise their bases and freely canvass for support.
Ndebesa argues that Museveni’s party took advantage of the two decades when other parties were barred to entrench itself in rural areas as there were no alternative ideas to challenge it. This has led to the emergence of a young population that is not politically conscious. Ndebesa says this explains why there is little serious discussion of issues during campaigns.
“Politics has been reduced to entertainment, that is what I mean by deconstructing politics,” he says. “Politics in Uganda is no longer about resource allocation or getting a political direction. It seems we are groping in a political fog only for entertainment, and whoever entertains is the one people are going to listen to. Therefore, there is hardly any political growth. Rather, in some aspects, we are retrogressing.”
NRM structures, like those of other parties, are resistant to change. During party elections in September, nearly all senior party leaders retained their positions. Some of the young legislators in the NRM, like Felix Okot Ogong (who challenged Museveni for the position of NRM chairman in 2005 and was dropped in a cabinet reshuffle), Chris Baryomunsi, Theodore Ssekikubo and Henry Banyenzaki, are often labelled as rebels for their outspoken views and are sidelined from major decision making.
Mao says such developments are indicative of a lack of internal democracy in institutions that should ideally provide avenues for the youth to exploit their potential. “Internal democracy is critical to building a strong youth wing because youth generally prefer open spaces,” he tells The Africa Report. “It takes enlightened leadership to create a system which allows cross-pollination between the young and old generations.”
Most political parties in Uganda have youth wings and there is a seat in parliament reserved for a youth representative from each of the country’s four regions. However, Omar Kalinge-Nnyago, a researcher who works for the oppositionist Inter-Party Cooperation coalition, believes such positions are only provided to retain the support of young voters but not to advance their political interest and ambitions. “To stand for office in a multiparty democracy, the youth, as with any other candidate, must get the endorsement of their parties. They have to win in a primary. This is an uphill task, as most political parties have incumbent MPs of advanced age – and also aspirants of similar advanced age,” says Kalinge-Nnyago.
For Mao, the Museveni-led government may shoulder most of the blame for refusing to provide avenues for political expression, but the older political parties have also contributed to the dearth of young voices in politics. “We have no excuse for the current squabbles,” he says. “To me, we can blame the NRM for 75% of the problems we have in the parties because they blocked the system. But we are responsible for 25% of the problems in the parties on account of the failure to articulate issues, the failure to invite new people, and ring-fencing a party by claiming that it is a party of one ethnic group or team.”
Both Mao and Ndebesa warn that a youth crisis could occur in Uganda if the parties do not put in place systems for the renewal of their leaderships. “The youth should come up with their own force, have a political agenda and coalesce with different parties and not individuals,” says Ndebesa.
“It is possible to bring the youth together if they rally around an ideal like that of political inclusiveness: that all Ugandans should be brought to the political table.”