Event Reports

Youth Discuss Peaceful, Free, and Fair Elections

by Maike Messerschmidt

2nd National Youth Conference Held at Makerere University

More than half of Uganda's population of voting age will be under 30 in the 2016 general elections. However, young people are not fully integrated in the democratic processes of the country and already today there are worrying trends that indicate that some degree of election violence seem likely in 2016. In light of these developments, KAS in cooperation with UNIFOG, CCG, and UYONET implemented a conference which brought together over 100 young people from all over the country and focused on the theme “2016 and beyond; Young people for a peaceful and credible election experience”.

The second National Youth Conference took place from 25th to 27th June 2015 and brought together 130 youth from different sectors of the Ugandan society. The biggest group of participants were students from all over the country, three representatives from each of Uganda’s leading 25 universities. Also part of the audience were youth in political parties, university chapters of political parties, representatives of the National Youth Council, of civil society, and the business community. The youth participated in a programme which focused on the question of how young people are and should be part of the creation of a peaceful election process before, during, and after the elections. In order to discuss as many aspects of this issue as possible, the presenters and panellists in the four panels of the conference were drawn from civil society, academia, media, the business sector, and politics.

The first panel, which had the purpose to introduce the youth to the issue at hand and map out the overall challenges and chances, had the title “Youth preparedness for the 2016 general elections and beyond: steps to full civic empowerment and peace promotion”. The presentation was given by Edgar Tabaro, Senior Lecturer of Law with the Uganda Christian University and Advocate with Karuhanga, Tabaro & Associates, who emphasised that the youth held the key to the stability of their country in their hands. They had to use education and modern communication tools to engage meaningfully in the democratic processes in Uganda. He compared current political youth groups in Uganda with those in other countries, where political change had taken place and outlined that all of the successful movements and groups for change were united behind certain values and principles. Based on that, he stated that this was an element which was missing within the Ugandan groups, because those were, as he put it “busy dragging others in the dirt and demanding for money”. Therefore, while the youth had the tools to engage, so far they had not prepared and engaged meaningfully, also in connection to the upcoming elections. Tabaro’s presentation was discussed by Emmanuel Kitamirike, Senior Associate with the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, and Isabella Akiteng, Project Coordinator with the Uganda Youth Network.

Following the first panel was the official opening of the Second National Youth Conference by Hon. Muruli Mukasa, Minister for Gender, Labour, and Social Development. In his speech, the Minister emphasised that elections were a sacred part of a democracy, however, sometimes they involved unnecessary and often backwards excitement which would lead to turmoil. For 2016, in his opinion, this should not be the case. He stated that elections were always only as peaceful as the players and majorities as well as their behaviours which are involved in them. In that regard, he referred to the saying that the Ugandan political actors and youth shall reap what they sow. If they decided to sow chaos, instability, and greed, they would reap the same come election day. If they, however, decided to sow peace, understanding, tolerance, and stability, they would sow peace, understanding, tolerance, and stability.

The second panel took place under the theme “Current youth involvement in political parties and processes; what are the implications of the emerging youth political groupings for 2016 and beyond.” This panel focused especially on the question of the current organisation structures many young people engage in, considering that Uganda has in the past experienced that certain youth groups and structures can be easily manipulated into becoming agents of violence for the political elites on the polling day while other structures have the potential to contribute constructively to the election process. The main presentation of this panel was given by Jude Mbabali, President of the Uganda Catholic Lawyers’ Society. He explained that in his opinion, the youth were a vulnerable group when it came to calls for violence but that, on the other hand, many vibrant young people were already constructively engaged in the youth wings of political parties and in political parties in general. One of the biggest problems for youth engagement in political parties was, according to Mbabali, the monetisation of politics, which starts with the party primaries, where participation was dependent on the ability to mobilise fees and to win support through financial favours. Another problem he saw was that many youth groups, even in political parties, focused too strongly on personalities rather than issues – examples being youth groups within the NRM who either support President Museveni or former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. Mbabali emphasised that it was the responsibility of the education system on all levels and in all formats to inform young people about their roles in governance and political parties and to form the youth into democrats. Following Mbabali’s input presentation, Andrew Karamagi, Programme Officer with the Human Rights and Peace Center (HURIPEC), compared politics to a game of chess, where all the different actors in the political process equal chess pieces. In his analogy, currently young people equaled the chess piece of the pawn, which is the most numerous and generally the weakest piece – which also has the potential to be promoted to higher positions. That was also what he asked from the participants: to not be “survivors, beggars, and victims”, as he named them, but to be active participants in the democratic process. Furthermore, he stated that many of the existing youth groups were merely the result of poverty and ignorance rather than real political engagement, and particularly emphasised this point for the recently recruited “crime preventers”. Democratically organised political party youth wings, and other groups like the jobless brotherhood and the No More campaign, in his opinion, were exceptions to the statement above and signaled a positive trend for youth engagement. The panel was closed by a call by Clare Sseremba, member of the Young Leaders Think Tank for Policy Alternatives, for young people to be active, to stop victimizing themselves, and to stop letting others define who they are. Instead they should get active and prove to the political parties and elected leaders that their contribution was urgently needed in the political process.

With the third and final panel of the first conference day, the issue of what the youth can do to ensure free and fair elections was posed: “In what ways can young people escape the possibility of electoral violence? What is the role of young people in championing a credible, peaceful, free and fair election?” Nicholas Opio, Executive Director of Chapter Four, called on the youth to behave like the majority that they are within the Ugandan society and to build for the future instead of destroying it through the use of violence. He outlined five ways in which the youth can prevent violence in general, but also in which they can keep themselves from engaging in violence. Firstly, he explained that the negative impacts of violence on individuals and societies have to be outlined more clearly and spoken about actively in order to counter violent discourses from political actors. Secondly, the youth would have to find the challenge of their generation, define it clearly, and focus towards overcoming the challenge and improving the situation. Thirdly, young people had to actively reject the subscription into groups that could become agents of violence and stick to groups which offer a value basis which unites them rather than a call to the streets – only then they would also be taken seriously as stakeholders rather than a nuisance. Fourthly, Opio stated that the legal ways in Uganda were still fairly independent and can be used for moving many issues. And finally, participation in elections in a serious and high-quality way would be necessary for young people to show that they are not interested in participating as agents of violence and prevent recruitment and manipulation and for them to be an integral part of the process which cannot be declined access if they should become inconvenient for any of the other stakeholders. Nicholas Opio’s presentation was discussed by Awel Uwihanganye, KAS Programme Coordinator for Social Market Economy, Media, and the South Sudan Programme, who emphasised that the warning signs of electoral violence could already be seen in Uganda at the moment. For example, ethnic prejudice and hatred was communicated openly, but even those who did not agree did not speak up against it. This, Uwihanganye demanded, had to stop. Furthermore, the youth should find like-minded people, organise themselves, and engage constructively. The second discussion was made by Johnson Adejumobi, a student of Cavendish University Uganda, who shared his experience with election violence and peaceful elections in the Nigerian context. He stated that the youth had taken up a major role in the past elections in Nigeria, as they had been present at every polling station and used social media to communicate the results even before they had been communicated officially. He furthermore called on the present guild presidents and speakers to go back to their respective universities and advocate for the path of peace.

The second day of the conference saw the discussion of the National Youth Manifest for the 2016 elections by three working groups, as well as the presentation of the results. This discussion can be seen as one way of engaging the youth positively and constructively instead of them engaging in destructive practices or even violence. Similarly important was the presentation and discussion of a Conference Communiqué, which contained strong calls against violence by all actors, but also commitments by the youth that they would abstain from violence in any way and be advocates of peace and free and fair elections in the 2016 general elections and beyond.