The involvement of youth in political processes in Africa is more critical now than ever before, considering that 70% of African population are young people less than 29 years, compared to for example 34% in Europe. Scholars have consistently emphasized that many countries in Africa are moving towards more open and free political societies but a large segment of the population remains marginalised from effectively participating in the democratic processes. Yet, the consolidation of any democracy requires that citizens (of all category) engage and participate in politics. More often than not, youth have been portrayed, in the words of Mcgee and Greenhalf as a ‘frustrated and excluded lost generation’ with little voice in political processes despite their demographic dominance. Uganda is no outlier to this democratic failing.
Uganda is one of the countries with the youngest population in the World. As of 2015, Uganda was second to Niger, among countries in the world with the youngest population with a median age of 15.9. Moreover, the latest population census 2014 places 81.3% of the total population under the age of 35 years, and 20.6% of the population between 15 and 24 years. In terms of electoral input, the youth contributed nearly half of the registered voters with approximately 6.4 million youth (18—30 years). However, the eminence of youth participation in Uganda’s political processes remains a major contest. Even with their numerical strength, the youth in Uganda still face challenges in participating meaningfully in the politics of the country.
In trying to unpack the question of whether or not political parties in Uganda have provided adequate space for youth political participation, it is imperative to understand what institutional and organisational structures are in place to foster the participation of all groups within the population. The constitution of Uganda, for instance, permits all political groups in the country to compete for the acquisition of political power. Moreover, in terms of representation, the constitution is sensitive to the inclusion of potentially marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities, women and the youth and indeed provides for their representation by gazetting a certain number of seats in parliament and local governments. Also, Political parties in their internal organizations have to a larger extent mainstreamed these constitutional provisions into their internal party systems. The NRM Youth League for example, has structures similar to that of the main party body with only appropriate modifications. And so, are the DP, FDC and the UPC.
So, in terms of institutional and organizational preconditions for effective youth participation in a fair and transparent manner, Uganda seems to have them in place. And yet, youth participation has not translated into policy influence to respond to youth issues despite their demographic electoral dominance. In attempting to understand why this is so, I employ Verba et al’s civic voluntarism model of political participation to question why Uganda youth have not been able to translate their numerical dominance into effective political participation to influence public policies in the country.
My central argument is that, albeit the existence of good institutional and organizational structures for effective youth participation, Uganda youth lack the critical resources (economic and civic) to draw on in order to participate meaningfully in political processes. This has subsequently made them vulnerable to political manipulation by political elites in the country. In today’s highly commercialized Ugandan politics, youth demographic dominance has been used to support the interests of dominant elites with no or little interest to youth issues. My argument rests on the assumption that political participation is a dynamic social phenomenon that captures a plurality of political activities intended to directly or indirectly influence political choices at various levels of the political system.
According to the civic voluntarism model, political participation is largely shaped by citizens’ involvement in non-political institutions such as work, voluntary and religious organizations. Proponents of this model argue that certain resources especially time, money and civic skills are necessary for political participation. Most fundamental is the acquisition of civic skills, which, according to the theory, takes place in the non- political institutions outlined above. What this implies is that for any population group to effectively influence political processes they must have economic resources but also civic skills to enable them engage with the dominant political actors. These civic skills which among others include skills in; chairing meetings, organizing peaceful demonstrations, advocacy, lobbying, networking to mention but a few, are gained through involvement in non-political establishments then replicated within political organizations for meaningful engagement.
With Uganda’s youth unemployment rate standing at an alarming 19.7% according to according to official statistics from UBOS, Uganda youth face poverty, barriers to education, multiple forms of discrimination and inadequate access to decent health care package. Many of our young people are rural based, engaging in subsistence agriculture without any prospect of a decent paid job. Against this background of inadequate gainful engagement of Ugandan youth in economic activities, our young people will always be charmed by financial incentives from the political elites who use them as a rivulet to achieve their egoistic political interest. My view is premised on the conviction that unless our young people become effective economic actors, their voices and demands will always be taken for granted.
A study by Uganda Youth Network in 2013 revealed that youth participation in political processes in Uganda is often motivated by the need for entertainment and money. The report goes on to demonstrate that many youth lose their candidature during campaigns both as a result of lack of financial resources but also as an avenue to get huge financial recompense for withdrawing in favor of wealthy political elites. Financial motivations also make young people to rent out their services to perpetrate violence during election periods. Overall, youth engagement tends to increase during election periods to attract political rents while post-electoral periods receive the lowest level of youth participation as many get sidelined. The few who seek to make leaders accountable are enticed by diminutive facilitations for lunch and promises for jobs, which in most cases are never granted.
Due to high youth unemployment rates, young Ugandans are predisposed to poverty, which makes them prone to bribery from the political elites. Poverty and unemployment also make youth legislatures to view political positions as a job opportunity rather than a platform to influence political decisions and policies in the best interest of the youth. Also, as Kruger has argued many youth leaders in Uganda associate political positions with stable income in the first place, which leads to poor participation by young people.
To wrap up, I have attempted to expound the discussion on youth political participation in Uganda further by placing the debate within a theoretical model. The model discussed here, emphasizes youth involvement in non-political institutions, particularly work, to enhance their capacity to effectively participate in political processes. Drawing from this analysis, here are some key points to conclude with on this discussion:
Specific conditions must exist to incentivize inclusive participation in political processes. These institutional and organizational prerequisites seem to be in place in Uganda e.g. Affirmative action for potentially marginalized groups provided for in the constitution (mainstreamed by political parties)
But having these institutional instruments alone is NOT enough. The youths must have the capacity (economic and civic) to organize around specific interests under the legally provided platforms in order to actualize these institutional instruments for their effective participation
Strengthening political participation by the youth therefore requires, most importantly, addressing the critical binding constraints (economic and civic) that impede their capacity to participate meaningfully in politics. This entails economic empowerment/addressing the underemployment/unemployment problem as well as increasing youth participation in other non-political organizations in order to acquire the necessary civic skills for political engagement.
It is my belief that only through these engagements shall we be able to equip the youths with the confidence they need to steer clear from the political manipulation of the wealthy political elites in the country.