As Africa’s politicians of the 1950s and early 1960s fought for independence, one force they relied heavily on were the youth.
Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), the party that led Uganda to independence, was no exception. From its formation through its early years in power, its youth league was a force to reckon with.
As UPC prepared for the 1961 general election, it brought into its rank and file youthful figures such as John Kakonge as its party administrative secretary.
Raiti Omongin was in his early 20s when he was appointed a youth representative to the party’s central executive committee.
UPC’s youth joined the elders as they stumped the country looking for votes in the 1961 elections. When they lost to DP, the pain of the loss was felt in equal measures.
Becoming a thorn in the flesh
Soon after independence, cracks between the youth and their elders started to appear. The cracks exploded in 1964, culminating in the replacement of Kakonge as secretary general at the party’s delegates’ conference in Gulu. He was a darling of the party’s youth league.
The party’s leadership was concerned about the youth demand for a distinct organisation independent of the party. A youth delegates’ conference had been held in Mbarara in April 1963, but it was marred by difference in education levels and regional imbalance.
“It became obvious that the more the youth moved towards the creation of a separate organisation, the more they were divided on which group or which region was to dominate the new structure,” writes Prof Akiiki Mujaju in a 1975 paper.
At the end of the Mbarara conference, two major issues were brought to light.
“At hand were two conflicting propositions. The proposition that the age limit should be put at 30 was advanced by the relatively younger youth who were still at school or at university, many of whom were from Buganda and the western regions. The other group suggested 40. Those who wanted the age to be put up to 40 also called for dual membership. That is to say, a person could belong to both the league and UPC,” Mujaju writes.
According to the Uganda Argus newspaper of January 1, 1964, even Obote himself favoured the age limit to be at 40 years. The solution was to raise the age limit to include as many members of the party as possible and to make the membership of both almost coterminous.
With the youth not agreeing in entirety on the issue of age limit and dual membership, the party failed to have an official youth league.
The league’s last straws
Much as the party in power wanted to keep its youth league, the youth had developed nationalistic ideas which were politically suicidal to the party.
“The youth league has demanded government to enforce the removal of the portrait of the Queen of England in all Whites and Asian-owned businesses and the display of the portrait of the prime minister and that of the president of Uganda,” wrote the Uganda Argus of July 12, 1963.
In November 1963, the league held demonstrations against Asian business owners. They demanded that government takes away their businesses and hand them over to indigenous Ugandans.
Among the businesses targeted during the demonstrations was the General Motors showroom where the manager was roughed up and assaulted.
When police was called in, Omongin, the league’s representative to the party’s executive committee, was among those arrested. In court, they were convicted of unlawful trespass and assault.
“The government used executive orders to release the youth leaders,” reported the Uganda Argus.
Earlier in 1963 during the launch of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, prime minister Milton Obote made a speech in which he said “Uganda is ready to host and offer bases for training of nationalist fighters on the African continent”.
A British businessman in Kampala called Hunter described the statement as a “threat to foreign investment in Uganda.” His comment drew the fury of the youth league and it demanded for his deportation.
The league staged a number of demonstrations demanding that the government takes strong actions against foreigners.
Twice in 1964 and 1965, they took over Kampala Club which was a members- only club patronised mostly by Whites and people of Asian origin. Diplomats on several occasions were pelted with tomatoes and eggs.
The league was also suspected of fuelling strikes in schools against expatriate teachers.
It was not only the UPC old guard that got concerned over the actions of the youth. One Opposition MP called the league "a police of the police".
On the floor of Parliament, Opposition leader Basil Bataringaya called on the authorities to control the actions of the youth before it was too late.
“Mr Speaker, surely the youth wing, be it DP or UPC or KY, is not primarily concerned with looking for political offenders and bringing them to justice… Mr Speaker, we cannot go on like this. Let us face the fact that these Youth Wingers, if they are not stopped in good time, are going to be very difficult to handle,” Bataringaya said.
However Internal Affairs minister Felix Onama, who doubled as the party’s deputy secretary general, downplayed the concerns.
“Nobody is above the law, be they UPC or DP Youth Wingers. We shall take a very big pair of scissors and trim their feathers off their wings so that they do not fly at all,” Onama told Parliament.
Birth of NUYO
Shortly after Onama’s remarks, UPC clipped the wings of the youth league by creating the National Union of Youth Organisations (NUYO).
“Intended as a coordinating non-political body, NUYO was supposed to incorporate all existing youth organisations and had such objectives as to create nationalism and patriotism and engage youth in rural development efforts.
But the initial emphasis was placed on total discipline, symbolised by demands for drills from 5am to 8am,” writes Prof Mujaju.
The new organisation was put under the Ministry of Culture and Community Development. Unlike the party’s youth league which did not have structures at the village level, NUYO had youth assistants from sub-county to the ministry headquarters. They were paid as civil servants.
The UPC old guards in launching NUYO and the appointment of a new secretary general, thought the youth league members would turn their loyalty to the party and NUYO.
However, according to Students and Politics in Developing Countries, D. Emerson says, “large sections of youth attempted to persuade Kakonge to launch a new party.”
When the party officials realised what the disgruntled youth wanted, under the guidance of Grace Ibingira, the new party secretary general, it was decided that they abolish the party’s youth league.
To keep the party’s youth, they created regional organisations that were under the control of the party’s regional executives.