Why Uganda’s youth seek their own new political direction
By Omar Kalinge-Nnyago
In July 2010, I received invitation from the Inter Party Cooperation’s National Youth Executive Committee for their celebration of the UN Youth day on 12th August. They also sent a draft of what they called the IPC Youth Agenda, a solid, well thought six page document outlining their concerns for the future of the country and their position in it. They refused to dwell on history, they focused on the future. At one point they referred to their document as the IPC Youth Manifesto for 2011.
The tone of the IPC Youth Agenda betrayed a kind of desperation and immense anxiety. They felt that the current leadership in Uganda had not given them a fair deal. They decried, yes, but more importantly, suggested solutions to unemployment, poor quality of education, the inadequate access to health facilities, nepotism, and the abuse of human rights by security agents, in their determined effort to limit freedom of assembly and expression. They sounded angry but determined to cause regime change in 2011, through the ballot. The document related their commitment and desire for a peaceful democratic change to the need for a new Independent Electoral Commission. They argued that a free and fair election was only possible under an Electoral Commission acceptable to all. It was not clear how they intended to cause a new EC to be put in place.
The September 2009 riots in Kampala had revealed a disturbing reality, that the Ugandan youth have become quite radicalized over the years. The profile of the stone throwing, tyre burning youth on the streets of Kampala and the suburbs was easy to sketch. The majority were under 25, not very educated and most likely not gainfully employed. The riots provided them a chance to be heard and perhaps to be taken ‘seriously’, for the first time in their lives. They were not much different from the disgruntled youth of Kibera or Mathare slums, whose dangerous role in the Kenya December 2007 riots was well documented.
The government seemed surprised that this was happening. It shouldn’t have been. Rampant unemployment, uncontrolled drug and substance abuse, cheap and widely available alcohol without restriction and a pseudo youth empowerment policy could not have produced a different result. If, God forbid, the type of youth that ravaged Kampala on those three fateful days had been joined by their equally desperate and disgruntled university students and the thousands of unemployed graduates roaming the streets, we would be seeing another face at State house today.
There is this unfortunate NRM reinforced view that the youth are a vulnerable group that should depend on affirmative action and on the patronage of the ruling party. They have created the false impression that having youth members in Parliament was the ultimate youth empowerment. NRM has exploited the youth by making them their voting machines in parliament. They are just one of those pro-government voting blocks along with the 10 UPDF Members of Parliament, District Women MPs, Workers MPs and the disabled MPs. This shameful role that the youth have been made to play will have far reaching consequences.
This is probably because the last 23 years of the NRM regime have ensured that youth are de-intellectualised, a calculated move to create a generation of youth who cannot think critically nor advance intelligent arguments on crucial matters affecting them and their country. So, the "typical Ugandan youth" cannot agitate for employment opportunities, better education or health care because s/he has been told: “don’t worry, be happy!” - what with the movie channels that never stop, what with the hundreds of radios that do little more than play music 24 hours a day, and in the interlude, blast advertisements of the next local artistes’ music shows or the next foreign music star coming to town, as the vernacular radios invite young and the old to get solutions to unemployment, disease from witch doctors. This tragic combination of youth trivialization, de-intellectualisation and popularization of superstition must be reversed.
It is now November 2011. The youth’s quest for change has not diminished. They failed to change the regime through the 2011 vote, which was stolen from them. My concern is that their desire for regime change is not matched with their confidence with the election managers and the electoral processes. They are increasingly drawn to other non-electoral methods of democratic change, and this is where the Walk to Work phenomenon comes in. Some of them thought that they would achieve a minimum agenda of reduced commodity prices and youth employment, through legal demonstrations. Now, most have been disappointed that walking on their own feet has been criminalised. Walking to work is treason in Uganda. They now ask: “was it worth choosing the non- violent path in the first place?” Uganda’s peace and security will be determined by the answer the security agencies have for these restless youth, 83% of whom are unemployed. The Police has perfected the art of turning any peaceful demonstration into a first class riot, by brutally attacking demonstrators first. Of course a riotous situation attracts a lot of funding, which is stolen by corrupt security officials for the security agencies. But should it be business for security agencies in exchange for peace and stability?
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