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On the 2nd September 2016, we brought together 130 students and youth leaders from Nkumba University to discuss crucial issues of youth participation in democratic processes. Under the theme "Beyond Elections: Fostering and Sustaining Constructive Youth Political Engagement", the debate provided a unique platform to share ideas and forge possible alternatives for engaging young people not only in political participation but also economic and social development.
In his opening remarks, Donnas Ojok, Programme Officer at KAS, reiterated on the KAS’ continued interests in supporting young Ugandans to be constructive political participants. This, he said, “is one of the tenets of democratic consolidation in a country where the population of young people is a on a fast rise. Again, for the youth to be a demographic dividend in Africa there is an urgent need that their participation on how the society is governed is considered as a precondition for development”, Donnas Ojok emphasized.
In his presentation, Bruce Kabaasa, the Associate Director of the University Forum on Governance (UNIFOG), co-organizer of the event, called upon the youth not to think that their numbers will automatically play to their tunes if they work hard to earn a space in the economic and political arena. “Young people should stop imagining that their numbers will play a significant role in improving their livelihood or position within the political arena. Rather, they should engage, build networks and broaden their economic capacity in order to be constructive participants in democratic consolidation."
Bruce Kabaasa’s presentation also stressed the need for young people to be prepared if they want to take full advantage of the political landscape in Uganda. He in fact attributed the low performance of young political aspirants in the recently concluded 2016 elections in Uganda to a high level of disjointedness among youth and youth groups. This low performance is a stark contrast to the high number of youth who voted in the previous election and it is a clear indicator that young people are often agents of the political elites who do everything within their means to make sure that young people get the crumbs while they enjoy the top cream of the political establishment.
The panel session moderated by Peter Rokekya, a former guild president of Nkumba University, also steered conversations which and stimulated a plethora of ideas on youth participation in electoral processes. Kemigisha Sarah, a student of international relations, implored youth to take full advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. She was particularly more explicit on the need for youth to be economically empowered; an issue which she insists is the cornerstone for youth development. “Youth relevance will only be felt if they are economically empowered. This calls for hard work and aggressiveness in chasing for opportunities”, she opined.
Henry Byansi, a human rights activist and the current guild president of the Nkumba University, detested the continuous shrinking space for political engagement in Uganda. Pointing out to the recently effected Public Order Management Bill, Byansi called for the creation of an environment which favors constructive youth participation. Byansi’s claim was however refuted by the moderator who maintained that young people should stop complaining all the time and start using the space they have, however limited they are. “How do complain about lack of space to engage politically when you are even not utilizing the little space you have?”, he asked.
Assimwe Gloria, the University’s Gender Minister, touched on youth capacity building as the hall mark of youth development in Africa. Rephrasing Nelson Mandela’s quote, Gloria said that “education is the most important tool for the youth in Uganda to become constructive political participants”. Education, she notes, “is a tool for building political capital, confidence and creating a critical mass of young Ugandans”.
Nuria Innocent, the Chief Justice of Nkumba University hinted on the need for a more aggressive movement to indulge women in political participation. “Even in this room, there are very few women. Women’s continued disinterest in politics is a negative sign of youth political participation”, she lamented.
During the plenary session where 20 participants shared their views and perspectives about the topic, there was a general consensus about the need for young people to up their game in political participation. There were accusations that young people keep misusing every opportunity given to them. One participant used the analogy of food. “Many young people today want food to be given to them on a silver plate. When served the food, they also need to be given a folk to eat the food. As if that is not enough, they still want someone to put the folk in their mouth.”
One take-away from this debate was the need for a radical mindset shift by the youth. They need to change their perspectives about life in general and politics in particular. They should desist from being opportunistic and exploiting the opportunities that come their way. In fact, they should be able to grab such opportunities and use it as a launchpad for creating a sustainable future for the African youth.
“The solution is us. Let’s stop asking many questions because we already have most of the answers” was the last advise that wrapped up the meeting.