By melina plates
By 2016 Ugandan will be 40 million, 25% of the youth. Museveni’s win in 2011 shows why the opposition should pay attention to such demographic changes among voters.
“The youth of Uganda today are more educated and more socially interconnected than any generation before them. Over 40% use a mobile phone everyday”.
Despite pre-election jitters and stockpiling of food stuffs, election 2011 proved as peaceful as the campaign period, save for a few isolated incidents of violence. Predictions of a surprise opposition victory proved hopelessly optimistic. Museveni received percentages so high in parts of western Uganda that even those in State House called the landslide support of the president “embarrassing” in some districts. Most devastating to the opposition, Museveni swept longtime opposition strongholds in northern Uganda, turning all but a few blue districts yellow.
The political landscape in Uganda had changed since 2006, but not all the candidates in 2011 understood how or why. Museveni did. Of the most significant changes in the political sphere were; (1) the end of the LRA conflict in northern Uganda, and (2) the evolution of political parties, particularly the NRM, in a multiparty system.
As the architects of the reorientation of the political sphere since 2006, the President and his party were well prepared for election 2011. Meanwhile, opposition presidential candidates campaigned with an outdated playbook. By the time they realised the rules of the game had changed, they had already arrived at the gunfight, knife in hand.
The end of the LRA conflict has meant that the invisible wall that stood at Karuma for over 20 years is now being dismantled. Northern Uganda in a peaceful age is experiencing tremendous growth, and improvements in road infrastructure mean that the trip from Kampala to Gulu, from Lira to Kitgum is now not only possible but popular. Northern Uganda is connected to the rest of the country in a way it has not been in decades, and inter-region travel, trade and communication will only increase in the years to come.
By bringing northern Uganda back into the picture, Museveni has been able to transform himself from a President of the west and ally of the center, to a fully-fledged national President with countrywide support. The north-south divide that has for so long plagued Uganda’s politics is slowly ebbing away.
Since 2006, Museveni has been investing heavily in northern Uganda, and the success of this strategy was made manifest at the polls last Friday. Former opposition strongholds are hardly recognisable in 2011. Meanwhile, opposition candidates took for granted what was historically their home territory. Perhaps they figured it would be impossible for twenty years of neglect to be forgiven in five. By the time they realised northern Uganda was swinging toward the president, it was too late to recover their losses. The political damage to the opposition, the result of concerted development efforts in the north by the ruling government, could not be undone.
In addition to the changing politics of the north, the NRM has also capitalised on the evolution of the multiparty system. By luck or by wit, the NRM has been able to adapt quickly to the changes a multiparty-system has brought to Uganda’s politics in a way that opposition parties have not.
At the time of the 2005 referendum, no party knew exactly how to leverage a multiparty system for their own political gains, including the NRM. Nevertheless, for a short time the presidential playing field looked empty and Museveni sat back for an easy win. Then suddenly, in late 2005, caught by the surprise entrance of Besigye, Museveni blundered badly. Reacting in fear to a political ambush, he resorted to violence, which served only to fuel the fire propelling Besigye’s campaign.
In 2006, Museveni’s campaign and political career were falling apart at the seams. He hung on that year, but quickly learned that brute force was a nowhere strategy. In a multiparty environment, he had to adapt. The movement itself had to adapt. As he watched opposition parties fight amongst themselves, each as personality driven as his own, an opportunity arose to reinvent the NRM. Instead of fighting the opposition, a tactic that had utterly failed him, the NRM ignored the opposition and left them to bring down one other on their own. Meanwhile, the NRM became the center of political discussion, most especially during the NRM primaries – an event that proved a political masterstroke.
Over 6 million people voted in the mid-2010 NRM primaries, and over 9 million were registered as NRM members. The contests were heated. They were exciting. The primary allowed voters greater involvement in the election process, and allowed the masses to bring down NRM historicals whom the president could not bring himself to remove personally. Museveni brought the power to the people, and in the process let them do the NRM house cleaning in areas where he was leaking support. The primaries allowed political underlings to take the fall for system-wide failures, all the while strengthening the party as a whole and solidifying Museveni’s own position at the helm.
Whereas Besgiye’s arrest had fueled the momentum and debate of the 2006 election, the power of the people in the NRM primaries fueled the momentum as campaigns galloped toward the 2011 election. The NRM stole the show before the opposition could even climb up on stage. With six million voters six months before national elections, it was clear Museveni had the numbers on his side as February 2011 grew near. Try as they might, opposition parties could not match the fervor of the ruling party’s internal elections. Once again, the NRM had changed the rules of the game, and the opposition could only scramble to catch up.
As Uganda moves into Museveni’s fourth term in elected office, the political scene continues to change. Perhaps most significantly, the country’s youth will soon be stepping into the driver’s seat of the democratic process. Five years from today, there will be nearly 40 million Ugandans, the majority of whom will have been born under Museveni’s rule. 10 million of those will be between the ages of 18 and 30 years old, and eligible to vote. They will constitute the majority of the voting age population in the next election.
For these young men and women, Idi Amin and Milton Obote are relics of the past, and the bush war a history in which they played no part. How will political actors and political parties interact with the youth, with the changing demographics in Uganda? Will the opposition be prepared this time, or will they still be playing catch up?
The youth of Uganda today are more educated and more socially interconnected than any generation before them. Over 40% use a mobile phone everyday. 80% of the 280,000 Facebook users in Uganda are between the ages of 18 and 29, and social media membership grows by tens of thousands every month. These youth share similar challenges, and express the same grievances. These grievances are two-fold. One, they worry about economic factors, such as job creation and commodity prices. Two, there continues to be concern about the quality and delivery of public services like healthcare, education and infrastructure.
Today’s youth are growing up in a low-income country, where the demand for jobs far outstrips the supply. By 2016 the working population will demand around 600,000 new jobs per year, according to the Population Secretariat. Yet in 2009, only an estimated 100,000 new job seekers found jobs. How will an ever-rising demand for work be met?
Despite Museveni’s claims that Uganda will reach middle-income status by 2016, any college graduate can see that this goal is wildly unrealistic even if one takes into account the seductive promise of oil. The country’s economic growth has been consistently among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, with an average rate of GDP growth at 6-7% per year for the past 20 years. But the astonishingly high rate of population growth, at 3.2% per year and 6.7 births per woman, means that per capita income growth has been much lower than total economic growth, about 3.8% per year.
At current economic growth and fertility rates, the Population Secretariat projects that by 2016 Uganda’s per capita income will reach just above US$800 and Uganda will remain a low-income country. If today’s economic and fertility trends continue, Uganda will not reach middle-income status even by 2040.
The population is well aware of the economic challenges the country faces, and most Ugandans think the government is not doing enough to address these challenges. In the 2010 Afrobarometer survey, a vast majority of respondents across the country thought the government was doing “fairly badly” or “very badly” in handling a number of economic issues, including improving living standards of the poor (62%), creating jobs (74%) and keeping prices down (86%).
In addition to economic woes, people countrywide worry about the kind of education their children are receiving, and the treatment they receive (or not) at public health facilities. When asked to list the top three “most important problems facing this country that the 2011 elections needed to address” most respondents listed public services. Across all regions, the top three most common responses were health, infrastructure, and education. Very few people thought the government was doing “very well” in service provision – only 8% thought government was performing very well in improvement of health services, 9% in addressing educational needs, and 6% in maintaining roads and bridges. While responses varied slightly by region, the overall trends in dissatisfaction with services were remarkably similar.
On the campaign trail, complaints about public services were similarly ubiquitous. But here, where an opportunity to tap into widespread discontent should have presented itself to the opposition, Museveni twisted the spotlight around, blaming local officials for problems that in reality existed system-wide, and that he himself had overseen. Framing himself as a fellow victim of systemic corruption, Museveni presented to the populace thousands of local platforms, each disarticulated from the rest, but which collectively resonated with the masses. Meanwhile, where opposition candidates, like Besgiye, pushed a national agenda – One Uganda, one people – the message of national unity, however morally or ideologically preferable, seemed to fall flat.
The truth is, complaining about the systemic challenges Uganda faces – an ailing health sector, the potholed roads, and a fumbling public school system – has not helped opposition presidential candidates. Why? Because an empty clinic, an unpaved road, and an absent teacher are viewed by a majority of the electorate as local problems that are the responsibility of local officials.
Where the system fails, as with public services, voters tend to hold local officials responsible. But where the system succeeds, as with peace and stability, voters credit the president himself. This contradictory allocation of responsibility is not limited to “ignorant” villagers, as some will claim. Many Kampala elite also blame not the president but “those around him” for the failures of government and burgeoning corruption.
However, Uganda’s youth are beginning to show signs of employing a different logic in evaluating leadership. Compared to their elders, they are much less likely to trust the president, and much more likely to support opposition parties. The 2008 Afrobarometer poll found that 46% of 18-29 year olds trusted the president “not at all” or “just a little”, only 34% of 50-64 year olds and 25% of those 65 and above voiced such a critical sentiment. 31% of the 18-29 age group said they supported FDC, compared with 22% of 30-49 year olds, 10% of 50-64 year olds, and 9% of those 65 and above. The youth were the only age group whose support of the NRM, at 42%, did not reach a majority.
The opposition, therefore, has an opportunity in the next five years to take advantage of the energy, education and frustration of Uganda’s youth. These youth will soon, if not already, face the challenges of earning a living and raising families of their own. But the opposition needs to take a cue from their archrivals in yellow. They need to learn to adapt to the changing political, social, and economic landscape, and to change the rules of the political game themselves from time to time. They cannot afford to play catch up any longer if Uganda is to have serious multiparty competition at the presidential level.
Opposition parties should have learned by now that name-calling and finger-pointing does not win votes, just as Museveni learned that brute force was a poor strategy for success at the ballot. Although they see the President use vote buying as a campaign strategy, they cannot marshal the considerable resources he has at his disposal to placate the population with brown envelopes. They will have to be more creative when facing a ruling party machinery of mammoth proportions.
Opposition candidates will need to demonstrate that they can actively unite a population that is eager for change – and this begins with demonstrating intraparty and intracoalition cohesion and initiative. Abstaining from the vote, for example, is a slap in the face to opposition supporters and inspires no confidence in alternatives to the ruling government.
The opposition is disadvantaged from the perspective of financing, because they lack the state resources or legitimacy to prove their own strength, but they have the demographics on their side, and the moral high ground. The time has come to throw out the old playbook, and write up the rules for the next five years.