Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda dreaming: What will our lives be like the next seven years

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 19   2014 at  02:00
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I got into all sorts of trouble for the column “‘Emperor’ Museveni, And What Puntland In Broken Somalia Teaches Us About Democracy”.
I will pick on the issues that arose from the way the column ended: “Why has Museveni gotten away with 28 years of sometimes repressive and bad rule? Me thinks one reason is because the youth in Uganda are the youngest population in the world. All of 77 per cent of our population is under 30 (some figures put it at over 78 per cent)… “The unemployment rate for young people aged 15–24 is 83 per cent. Ordinarily you would think they would be angry and out there demanding and voting for change. No. As we shall explain in a next article, their unemployment is one reason they won’t”.
Some readers wrote in to say it was unfair to leave the column on such a cliffhanger. Fair enough.

Others thought it was a criticism of Ugandan youth, and went on to contribute their ideas about how the young chaps were useless. Wrong.
Yet others thought-read it as a call to young Ugandans to take up arms against the government. Again, wrong.
As Mahmood Mamdani asked during a public lecture in Nairobi last week, there are always many possibilities and alternatives, so why do people choose from so few?
Though Uganda’s case could be considered “extreme”, other East African countries have a similar youth demographic profile. For example, the population below 30 years of age in Kenya is 75 per cent. Kenya’s median age is 18, with 75 per cent of its population being below 30 years of age. In Burundi it is 74.9 per cent, and Rwanda is like Kenya at 75 per cent.
They all face high unemployment, and we shall see how that impacts their wider politics.

The important thing to note at this point, is that 78 per cent of Ugandans were either not born when President Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986, or were babies. Therefore, they are not emotionally vested in the story that brought Museveni to power. The exception is those from northern and upper eastern Uganda, who lived through hell during the 1987 to 2004 wars there.
In general, therefore, Museveni is really not their president. Now you would think that poses political risk to the Big Man. Not exactly. I will go out on a limb here: They might be angry at being jobless and the lack of opportunities, but they don’t feel terribly let down or frustrated because they were not there or were too young to form much expectation of his rule.

The youth in Kenya, for example, played a key role in the post-election violence that followed the controversial December 2007 election. But then most of them were around in 2002 when Mwai Kibaki and his Rainbow coalition were elected amid great expectations. Many felt personally let down by political outcomes.
Museveni really doesn’t have that kind of relationship with most young people in Uganda today.

In addition, as we are seeing in many other parts of Africa, he is actually profiting from the failures of his regime to push policies and reforms that create good jobs in enough numbers.

Because of record unemployment and rising inequality, more and more young people are dependent on their parents. Anecdotal evidence in Uganda and the region indicates that increasingly many of them, especially the males, live at home with their parents when they finish college as they are not able to move out and set up on their own.
The overall impact of this is to make both the parents and their 30-year-olds who are stuck at home more averse to risk. In the past if there was political trouble during regime change, the parents could move from Kampala and live with their children in Jinja or Mbarara, or in Zambia.

Or the children could leave Mbale where they had just got a job in a bank, and lie low in their parents’ home in Kampala. That is less so these days, so the lack of security/escape options has made both parents and children more cautious in pushing their political luck, in case things backfire.

The politics of the children increasingly becomes the politics of their parents – conservative. They might surf the Internet, do dazzling things with their smartphones, and build clever mobile phone apps, but at the end of the day they will not do anything that could lead to the disruption of their parents’ businesses (which is probably where they work or get a monthly allowance), the loss of their homes (which is where they still live).

Being young and radical is no longer the same thing---and for good reason. The leader of the future will be he or she who makes the 78 per cent dream again. Tough call.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com & twitter:cobbo3