There was fear in the nervous hugs as the demonstrators assembled. There was fear in the shakily written placards of protest. There was fear in the furtive glances at the police officers watching nearby. There was even fear, drizzled with anticipation, in the eyes of rubbernecked motorists and passers-by who, leaning back into the dark recesses of memory and local knowledge, wondered whether they would be caught up in the violence or spared it.
Of course no violence erupted. There were fiery speeches, colourful costumes from the minority groups as well as last-mile purveyors of commercial retail ‘adult conversations’, but no violence. The police officers, nervously sweating through their khakis, kept the peace and a respectful distance. By the time your columnist left, about an hour or so after the march had started, it was all over bar the shouting.
So why the fear and the fuss in the first place, one might ask? Well, in one word, demographics. The typical demonstration in Kampala is politically partisan, heavily male and numerically bulked by bottom-of-the-pyramid lowlifes including some with menacing names.
This, to the best of my knowledge, was the first time the ‘missing middle’ – women, professionals, lower-middle class and traditionally apolitical types – came to the streets; think slay queens with slogans, imagine dragons. It will not be the last time.
It is hard to explain but I will try. The police have, over the years, perfected the art of policing dissent at the expense of fighting crime that they gave the dissenters an unexpected gift: folks who were previously too scared to march in the streets or too posh for politics. By politicising law enforcement, the police made crime political. And by beating the professional politicians off the streets, it created a vacuum and made politics accessible to amateurs.
So where do we go from here? It is early days but the doors to the mental and psychological prison are hanging askew on what’s left of their hinges. At the time of writing police are breaking up a demonstration, this time against the new social media and mobile money taxes, that has attracted unusual suspects, including journalists, lawyers and other professionals, some of whom are, by virtue of age or genes, children of the revolution.
Of course one demo does not a revolution make, but a mental light has been flicked on in the minds of an entire generation. Let’s call them the class of ‘97 when Universal Primary Education was established. They have at least a basic education, expect to live longer than their parents, have global inspirations but local incomes.
Consider this: In 2013 six million Ugandans lived in urban areas but every day the equivalent of 21 buses arrive from upcountry to urban areas with mostly young people seeking opportunity. By 2023 some five million would have made that shift.
In the five years to June 2017 nominal household monthly incomes in rural Uganda rose to 25 per cent, admittedly from a low base, but the number of people earning their wages off subsistence agriculture remained flat, at 43 per cent. Wages for those employed rose marginally from 24 to 25 per cent.
Urban incomes, while more than twice higher than those in rural areas, grew only five per cent in the same period; in Kampala by only two per cent.
The young people marching on the streets to protest against crime or taxes are already a demographic majority; they are about to become the democratic determinants.
Between the last election in 2016 and the next in 2021, some 4.5 million young people will come of voting age – more than the 3.5m that voted for Besigye last. Extend the election by two years, as is planned, to 2023 and the number of potential new voters – 6.8 million – is higher than voted for Museveni.
Throw in the almost five million who voted with their absence in the last election and you potentially have more ‘new’ voters than voted for the two main candidates in the previous election.
With all these young people starting to march, unless there is a significant improvement in incomes, service delivery as well as abstract concepts like free speech, good governance and fair elections, the question might as well shift from who will govern Uganda after Museveni to why anyone would want to!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. [email protected] Twitter: @Kalinaki.