Why are Ugandan youth so angry? These 4 takeaways illuminate recent protests

Supporters of pop star turned lawmaker Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, hold a poster of him as they gather in the Kisekka market area of Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 23. (AP)
Supporters of pop star turned lawmaker Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, hold a poster of him as they gather in the Kisekka market area of Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 23. (AP)

On Wednesday, Uganda issued a ban on rallies, anticipating the return of musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, who reportedly has been in the United States seeking urgent medical treatment after being detained by Ugandan security forces.

The government edict is in response to large protests that rocked Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Young people demonstrated in June against the government’s new tax on social media, which they see as regressive. They also turned out in August to protest the arrest of Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobi Wine, a 36-year-old parliamentarian elected in 2017. After Wine’s release, the government initially prohibited him from leaving the country for further medical attention, sparking more protests.

Why are Ugandan young people so angry? My research this summer in Kampala suggests youth there feel significant political and economic exclusion.

Here’s how I did my research

I explored how Christian institutions like churches and their leaders may influence citizenship norms and behaviors among urban youth. I defined youth as people 15 to 35 years old, using the age range in UNESCO’s African Youth Charter. I interviewed a number of church leaders involved with youth programs, as well as youth involved in community and political affairs (“youth activists”). I also conducted group discussions with youth in both high- and low-income neighborhoods, and surveyed youth who attended church services regularly, and those who did not.

I asked youth to define “good citizenship” and the behaviors that illustrate that citizenship. I also asked them to discuss how local and religious leaders may affect citizenship. Here are four key takeaways that shed light on recent Ugandan events.

[This new history of Uganda is a must-read]

1. The lack of economic opportunities is a serious problem.

As political scientist Lisa Mueller uncovers in her study of protest movements in several African countries, economic grievances often motivate rank-and-file protesters. In Uganda, where 78 percent of the population is under the age of 30, competition for jobs is fierce. Unemployment among 18- to 30-year-olds stands at over 50 percent. “Driving Uber” has rapidly become an economic “out” for hundreds of unemployed university graduates.

Many youth I interviewed reported that unemployment prevents good citizenship. For them, being a good citizen means readily providing help to others in times of crisis, paying taxes, buying food for their family and employing people in a business. Destitution prevents these actions.

Economic challenges also linked to another aspect of being a good citizen — knowing what is going on in the community. Youth respondents said that the new social media tax blocks good citizenship, since Facebook was the most mentioned means by which youth learn about events. Youth reported feeling stuck, waiting for opportunities to fulfill expectations, including those of citizenship.

Economic exclusion also makes it easier for politicians of all parties to manipulate youth. A few dollars (20,000 Ugandan shillings) can entice youth to attend election rallies or — at times — intimidate political opponents.

2. Youth define citizenship broadly.

I asked, “What does a good citizen do?” The most popular response was “follow the law” — and it made little difference if a respondent attended church. In a country with rising crime rates and widely reported corruption, such a response was understandable.

But youth also said citizenship involved positive relations with others, getting along with neighbors, saying a kind word to others and helping their communities. As political scientist Russell Dalton found in the United States, the concept of “citizenship” is multifaceted and dynamic. In Uganda, frequent and infrequent churchgoers alike believed church leaders may help foster a sense of community-oriented citizenship. But respondents across the board said church leaders had, at times, been caught in a political tit-for-tat that undermined this role. Some wanted church leaders to take a stronger stand on the issues that youth face in their daily struggles. Others thought that religious leaders had been compromised through past interactions with government.

3. Youth see few opportunities for formal political engagement.

This theme was widespread even though Uganda has special seats for youth representatives in its national parliament, district assemblies and urban councils — and church and community leaders urge youth to become engaged. As Mueller’s work revealed, political grievances may spark protests. A catalyzing event for Kampala youth — and many frustrated older adults — was the December 2017 passage of the parliamentary act that removed presidential age limits. The new law ensured that then 73-year-old President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, can run for reelection in 2021.

For many respondents, the law further entrenched the president and other long-standing officials in the ruling National Resistance Movement. One youth remarked, “There is no space for us.” Another said, “In the various ministries they [hold] positions forever so, …. how can I involve myself there?” A third explained: “They don’t leave offices of authority.” This attitude crossed party lines, as youth discussed all parties’ inability to incorporate “new blood.” This context helps explain Bobi Wine’s appeal to young people and their anger at his arrest and reported mistreatment.

4. Youth envision a better Uganda.

Political scientists Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly show that even when protests in Africa do not achieve lofty goals, they can build political consciousness and political imagination. Ugandan youth demonstrate such political possibilities. I interviewed youth who educate others about AIDS, women’s rights, good governance and entrepreneurship. In impoverished communities, youth do community policing and they care for orphans. Some of their activities may put them at risk of family ostracism, social exclusion, jail and violence.

These youth varied in family upbringing, gender, income and education levels and religiosity. Their motivations included love for the community, religious conviction, memories of injustices experienced and, yes, even political opportunism.

One research survey in one African capital may have limited scope, of course. Yet these findings suggest lessons that stretch far beyond the individuals I met in Kampala. In Uganda, youth anger is rooted in economic and political exclusion but also helps shape a vision for an Africa that offers more opportunities to more citizens.

Amy S. Patterson is professor of politics at University of the South, and author of “Africa in Global Health Governance: Domestic Politics and International Structures” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

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