Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Lost Generation: Uganda's Disillusioned Youth By Charles Parkes

Almost every day, the traffic along Entebbe road, leading into Kampala, will draw slowly to a stop. Seconds later, a wailing police car will buzz between the halted cars and taxis. A moment of silence, and President Yoweri Museveni's motorcade will shoot past, all sirens and khaki-clad soldiers. If you look closely, you'll see the President himself through a black limousine's window (he's usually reading a newspaper).
As Museveni rushes from his residence into Kampala to address Uganda's political crises this scene is repeated endlessly - the next renegade former ally, the latest action in the campaign against Al-Shabaab or the next politically motivated arrest. With campaigns winding up and battle lines already being drawn for the 2016 election, it seems the number of army-escorted journeys can only increase.

These trips seem to be working for the president, who is enjoying his 29th year at the head of his NRM-fronted regime. His stranglehold on Ugandan politics is tighter than ever, with Presidential challenger (and former Prime Minister) Amama Mbabazi's campaign for office recently stopped short with his undramatically simple arrest, and plans for the President's son's eventual takeover rumoured to be well underway. Uganda seems anything but the near-dictatorial state that it is - political violence is infrequent and isolated, and anti-government movements are rare. The two armoured police trucks that loom over Kampala's city square appear to be guarding against nothing.

But this stability reflects not satisfaction, but disillusionment. Would-be voters know that casting their ballot is a pointless gesture in a rigged election that will, like every election since 1996, return the president to power. Citizens reluctantly accept that hopefuls like Mbabazi, will either lack the weight to run a proper campaign or face arrest (and many are as corrupt as the incumbent, anyway). Museveni will win because he always has.
Importantly, disillusionment isn't limited to cynical adults who have lived under him for decades. Students and young graduates, historically key players in African political resistance, have succumbed to the regime's obsessive self-protection. Museveni has been around for thirty years, and few see potential for upheaval. As one third year student put it, 'He's going to win. He's been winning elections all my life.'

The gloomy implications for Uganda's future are clear - if change is to happen, it's unlikely to come through the gates of Makerere University or one of the country's other student establishments.
This isn't an accident. Museveni's policies have cleverly targeted the educated elite that could go on to be his challengers. Government funded scholarships have been cut, ensuring that the majority of those at university are fortunate enough to have a lot to lose, and legislation currently being pushed through will reduce much-needed flexibility when paying fees.

Activists like Kizza Besigye, particularly popular amongst students, have been undermined and humiliated. Voices of resistance like that of "TVO" (Tom Voltaire Okwalinga), a shadowy Facebook profile with remarkably accurate political information and a very open anti-Museveni message, are tracked in expensive online pursuits and forced even deeper into cyberspace. Dozens of police surround sites that could, like the city square, be starting points for protests. Most importantly, Museveni's police have consistently shut down peaceful student demonstrations as soon as they start, with the ring leaders arrested and often given lengthy prison sentences -it's relatively uncommon to find a graduate who hasn't been stung by their liberal use of tear gas.
Young people aren't seduced by Museveni's rhetoric - they understand that another five years of his rule means another five years of inefficiency and autocracy. They would have, like most observers, noticed the irony as Museveni nodded slowly in response to President Kenyatta's assertions about the importance of young people in his recent address to the Ugandan parliament. But Museveni very carefully avoids overstepping the mark -the police action and state-run repression never quite grow serious enough to spark more widespread dissent, and the students accept him with reluctance.

 This leads to attitudes like those of Ella, a 22 year old student who understands that although 'he is bad, he could be worse.' She added 'I don't like him, but I don't mind him that much, either'.
It's this political climate that means the president is safer than ever. In dealing with the youngest population in the world, the president is ready to absorb at least another generation into his legacy. Like their parents, the youth of today accept the foregone election result as unchangeable - devoid of hope and optimism, they focus instead on trying to get jobs in Uganda's struggling economy, where some estimates put youth unemployment at almost 85 percent. Behind a bulletproof window, reading the newspaper that he runs, escorted by police he controls, Museveni is untouchable, and everyone knows it.

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