On 14th January 2021, Uganda went to the polls to elect presidential and parliamentary leaders who have since been sworn into office. The elections were characterised by a highly energized youth movement representing a new generation of Ugandans demanding for increased political inclusion and highlighting alternative visions for the country’s future, bringing to the fore existing tensions and underlying social grievances. An overwhelming number of contestants and voters were youth, most of whom were engaging with politics for the first time.
The youth were seen to harness their power to influence the election outcome and in due course, some of them were misled by candidates and their agents alike, into engaging in acts of violence. Other youth chose peace, and successfully organized peace campaigns to spread messages of nonviolent electoral participation. Notable among these were the 1,500 youth peer-to-peer peace advocates who were trained by the Women’s Situation Room Uganda in 30 districts in Uganda to promote peace in their communities.
As the country moves forward, Ugandan youth will have to navigate the challenges of poverty and unemployment in an environment where the risk of post-election violence remains high. In order to contribute to deescalating these tensions and enable youth in Uganda to use the voice that they have claimed for themselves to ensure that their views are consistently represented in the policy debates that affect them the most, the WSR Uganda held a discussion on Twitter where a section of young people expressed their views as summarised in this article.
Participants owed the increased number of youths who voted to a paradigm shift among the demographic about their ability to influence the outcome of the elections which inspired them to challenge the status quo and continued clampdown on their rights and use their voice to speak out about matters of concern to them. Efforts to raise the awareness of young people in Uganda on issues of their participation in politics were made by both the government and civil society organisations way before the electoral cycle and as a result, many youths appreciated their role in governance matters.
Another factor, and perhaps the most crucial one, that saw polling stations across the country overflowing with young women and men was the fact that there was a general disconnect between them and their leaders, a disconnect that resulted in the youth believing that they were not adequately represented by their leaders. Because of the monetisation of politics and rising levels of unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some young people who engaged in the process in order to make ends meet. These fell prey to crafty politicians who wanted to win the elections by buying the votes of their constituents.
"…there is now a sense of inclusiveness that the youth feel. Spaces have been created for them to contribute to society’s needs. Voting is one way of ensuring that their voices are amplified in the choosing of Uganda’s leaders..."
Nonetheless, not all young people responded to the invitation to engage in governance during the election season as is the right of every Ugandan citizen. The youth highlighted a number of structural and technical barriers that hindered their effective participation as Uganda elected her leaders of the next five years. For young women, being young and female is the all-too-common barricade that stops them from critically engaging in political process. The 2021 general elections were no different as they left many of them fighting sexist norms and attitudes including patriarchy’s ugliest face: sexual harassment. According to Resty Nabaggala, even the policies which have been put in place to curb this have not achieved their goal.
While monetization of the elections worked for some young women and men, it turned out to be a disadvantage for their counterparts who were contesting for office. The elections proved to be costly for many who were struggling financially and with limited support from the government in terms of progressive policies, these ended up dropping out of their races. Another monster that reared its ugly head during the electoral cycle was the outright killing and kidnapping of numerous young people by unconfirmed actors because of their political views. Some of these are still reported to be missing to date! This coupled with police brutality, unfair arrests and political persecution over the colours of the clothes that they wore as well as threats and intimidation and violence in some cases, discouraged an even greater number of youths from taking part in this year’s electoral process.
"…Politics has become a commercial thing. This is the legacy established by our former leaders. Youth now believe that they can get easy and quick money from politics. That's why some were bribed in the recently concluded elections and they quit..."
During the conversation, it was clear that having peaceful, free and fair elections is non-negotiable for young Ugandans. It can also not be disputed that young people need to continue occupying spaces and defying odds. Going forward, the young participants proposed a number of recommendations that will see even more youth participating more meaningfully in the country’s future electoral processes. Chief of these is the fact that youth must unquestionably be engaged in each and every initiative that pertains to them because there cannot be anything for youth without the youth. The economic and civic limitations that impede their capacity to engage in politics must be addressed including unemployment and underemployment.
Uganda’s young population has also demonstrated that they can shape good governance. To strengthen this and encourage young women and men to hold their leaders accountable, continuous civic education must be carried out. Additionally, media platforms must be easily accessible to young people to enable them to freely speak out about their concerns and influence political discourse. The participants were however undecided about whether the government should regulate media platforms during elections in order to counter fake news narratives that have the ability to influence political perspectives.
To address the threat of election related violence, the young people on Twitter were of the view that some of their peers opted for violence as an election strategy because they believed it was the only way that their voices would be heard and their needs recognised. This will stop if politics and the police are separated and the youth are given platforms to freely air their views for example by allowing young people to exercise their right to peaceful demonstration when unsatisfied with their state of affairs. Peacebuilding activities such as peace talks and dialogues on radio and TV were suggested in the hope that these would contribute to promoting unity and a culture of peace among Ugandan youth.
"…It is untrue that young people are not empowered - being youthful in itself is power. This year we saw young people use their voice to edge their way further into Uganda’s political landscape despite the challenges they face. In order to address these diverse challenges, effective youth engagement strategies must be developed according to the context of each region in Uganda and take into consideration the specific barriers faced by certain communities that limit their engagement..."