Almost 60% of Africa's population is under the age of 25. In Uganda, more than 75% of the population is under the age of 30. This might be construed as an opportunity for the country to tap into a youthful, energetic, productive, innovative and creative workforce. However, this might also present a dilemma for the nation if the quality of life of young people, measured on the scale of the Human Development Index (HDI) is marginally low. HDI is a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: (1) a long and healthy life, (2) access to knowledge and (3) a decent standard of living.
As I pen this article, I travel back through history to the days that led to the formation on the Pan African Movement such as the events leading to the landmark Manchester Conference of 1945 where among others African youths were not only involved in the struggle to liberate the continent but passionately bargained for the independence of their home countries. I ponder if this blood still flows in the veins of the Africans to date! I would not hastily respond in affirmation nor otherwise because some few remnants have stood the test of time. This can be attributed vividly to the contribution young people made defying and conquering exploitative power structures in Gabon, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Egypt and Madagascar, bringing on board a new breed of leadership on the continent.
At the centre of all these revolutions, stands a dual normative factor pointing to youth and violence making them accomplices and conflict merchants. I wonder why this is the case in most of the struggles. Could this have a relationship with the generational categories such as child upbringing whereby youth and adulthood are imbedded within living things as part of the struggle for influence and authority? So then, if this is the case, with 75% of the population being youthful, this struggle becomes inevitable in all circles of society but most importantly the political circle. The religious institutions are already witnessing this with majority of the clerics being ordained in their youthful age slowly wiping out the elderly clergy in the church and other religious institutions. This somehow points out the structural competition and replacement.
But for this article I will address myself to two factors as to why youth and violence are interlocked and how we can avert the negative consequences of such an interlock on the continent. Since the introduction of the multiparty dispensation in Uganda, it has become impossible for an election to pass without scores of violence. These cases have been increasing right from the party primaries to general elections and if you ask me who the key actors are, your guess is as right as mine because over 50% of the voters fall in the youth bracket and can easily be swayed into acts of violence.
In spite of the electoral violence, the Government and policy actors have remained silent on the actions that could avert such violence. I will not dwell so much in the past but will pick a few points in the past that will give the basis for my argument for electoral violence. As we were headed for the 2011 general elections, heavy military deployment was all over the country, a sign that the state was preparing for war not as a preventive measure but in this case, I will call it as a pre-emptive one. Indeed, immediately after the elections, the walk to work campaigns started as part of defiance force of which majority of the followers were youth. In 2016, there was deployment of over five million crime preventers armed with sticks and dressed in police attire to be a reserve force to other security agencies. During the 2016 elections, violence broke out in most parts of the country with the biggest cases between supporters of different candidates especially NRM supporters that conflicted with those that belonged to The Democratic Alliance (TDA) candidate and other candidates. At regional level, the Rwenzori region witnessed post-election violence in Kasese and Bundibugyo which led to the loss of lives, displacement of people and destruction of property. Therefore, be it at national or regional level, the key actors in any form of violence have remained the youth.
I now turn to what really causes the youth to engage in such conflicts; I take a closer look at the structural conditions that shape youth experience and provide incentives for violent choices. Several policy makers have blamed the youth as troublesome and that Government should be careful of them but forget the circumstances pushing them towards the margins of society which are not considered in the cycle and these will continue to rise if not given attention. Just like the township youths in the hey days of apartheid in South Africa, Rarray boys in the ghettos of Freetown – Sierra Leon and just like the ghetto unemployed youth in Uganda among others. This situation positions the model of the Ugandan electoral violence under what Murphy calls the revolutionary and clientelism models of urban youth violence. With the nature of competitive democracy in Uganda ‘winner takes it all’ young people see electoral violence as the last resort to making their voice heard and creating their space within the political arena to overcome political and economic marginalization. Young women and men are using their creativity and agency to create their own spaces for action in which they try to subvert authority, bypass the encumbrances created by the state, and fashion new ways of functioning and maneuvering on their own especially when the candidate they supported didn’t make it through the vote. In the recent past, the coming of Bobi Wine on the national political stage through his music has presented art as a channel for the youth to attain political offices which is a typically youth dominated arena. In other places the youth have also formed clubs where they have created a dependency relationship where adults use the youth as a tool to pursue their political agenda. For instance, in some places of the country adults with political ambitions thrive on camps that are spear headed by unemployed youth who are promised a lot of benefits when they campaign. These have often times used brutal means to attack opponents. In extreme cases, youth camps have been built on the basis of ethnicity, religion or slogans which they viciously use to assassinate each other’s characters and therefore, such patron client relationship is key in driving the youth into electoral violence.
Furthermore, with the rise of social media platforms, the youth now have access to new and very effective ways of political participation. On the one hand, these platforms have been used by politicians to launch social media campaigns with hope of reaching a larger amount of people (especially youth, who are the main active users of social media). In the recently concluded general elections, several camps launched social media campaign teams/coordinators to counter opponents and also publicized their individual agendas. Whereas, social media has the capabilities to diffuse enormous amounts of information in real time, with little to no limits on how many people they can reach, this makes it very easy to mobilize large groups of young people, which can cause and spread plans of electoral violence very rapidly, since it is very difficult to detect. All the options of creating private online groups facilitate the possibilities for young groups to organize these acts of electoral violence, without the risk of being discovered. Social media has also been used to spread propaganda with the aim of inciting resistance and violence.
Article 29 (d) of the Ugandan Constitution clearly states the ‘freedom to assemble and to demonstrate with others peacefully and unarmed’. This is an important aspect of every constitution, since it offers a regulated platform for the government to monitor people as they express their dissatisfaction about certain subjects. Even so, the government keeps on violating constitutional rights like this. The Public Order Management Act of 2013 is a good example of this, explicitly limiting the rights of the people to come together and protest in a peaceful way, and justifying forceful police actions to prevent and suppress events like this. This leaves no legal effective methods for civilians to have their voice heard by the political leaders, which enhances distrust in politicians as well as in political institutions. This distrust can cause desperate feelings among the people like they have nothing to lose, which can result in acts of violence because it is seen as the only option they are left with. For electoral violence among the youth to be stopped, civic education among young people alone may not be enough. It will require a shift in their mental faculties to stop using them as political playballs and listen to what they have to say. This will eventually lead them to rebuilding trust again in the current political dispensation and to start supporting the state in the ways they should. But for this to happen, they need to be able to make use of their constitutional rights and have the platforms to do so. Lastly but not the least, there is need for inspiration and mentorship among the youth on loyalty to country than to party, individual or even ethnicity inclinations.
Tags: Peace building, Civic education, Constitutional rights, Youth Voice, Youth participation, Minority Rights Group