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Event Reports

Student Leaders as Drivers of Democratic Reform

by Maike Messerschmidt

Debate of the Candidates for the Position of Guild President, Makerere University

On 8 March 2015 the annual guild presidential candidates’ debate took place at Makerere University. The debate is traditionally organised by the University Forum on Governance (UNIFOG) and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Uganda and South Sudan. The debate gave the nine candidates for the position of Guild President the chance to improve on their debating skills and offered the students of Makerere University an opportunity to inform themselves about the candidates and their programmes.

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Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world: more than 78 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Even though there are affirmative action laws in place, which for example guarantee four seats in parliament to youth representatives, the inclusion of the perspectives of the youth in the policy cycle and overall political process of the country is still rather poor. However, political stakeholders gain an interest in the Ugandan youth during campaigning and election periods, and with good reason: Young people between 18 and 30 years constituted more than half of the voting population in the general elections of 2011 and due to the overall demographic trends in Uganda, their percentage is expected to be significantly higher in the 2016 elections. As these numbers demonstrate, the youth can be a critical mass in democratic reforms and processes in the country – however, they can also be used for the opposite if their potential is undermined by practices of clientilism and general monetisation of politics.

The second aspect of the demographic situation in Uganda in connection to democratic governance is that today’s youth will sooner or later take over the political leadership of the country. However, it has been stated by many observers that the potential future leaders are not fully prepared and capable of taking over leadership positions even on the sub-national level. They take up the same habits as the senior politicians in the country: a focus on personalities, power games, and an attitude of political intolerance.

The debate organised by KAS and UNIFOG tackled both problems: While the candidates for guild presidency were given the opportunity to learn about political tolerance and respectful dialogue as well as engage in issue-based debates, the electorate – in this case the student’s body – had the chance to inform themselves about the candidates, their goals and programmes, and their suitability for the position of guild president. Through that, they will be able to make an informed decision come election day at the university and they will have a positive experience with elections and campaigning that is based on the values which make it possible for multi-party democracy to function – for many of them the first experience with elections in general.

The debate was opened by the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Roy Ssembogga, who thanked KAS and UNIFOG for giving the Makererians the chance to get to know their candidates. He urged both audience and candidates to stay in order, be polite and respectful, and show support if they agreed with what was being said. Through his remarks he set the tone of the debate and emphasised that the Electoral Commission strongly held the debate to its etiquette.

Bruce Balaba Kabaasa, the Executive Secretary of UNIFOG, admitted in his opening words that he himself stood for the position of Guild President 12 years ago, and “lost miserably”. However, platforms such as the debate were crucial for the candidates to prepare them as leaders, as he could tell from his own experience, and help them influence governance issues. He added that the youth should not wait for the middle aged to take over once today’s leaders left power, but instead be prepared and qualified to jump in and take on responsibilities.

Mathias Kamp, the Country Representative of KAS, gave his first official opening remarks in his new position and stated that there was no better opportunity for him to do that than the Guild Presidential Candidates Debate at Makerere University. He emphasised that in order to strengthen democracy, which is one of the overall goals of KAS, it was crucial to strengthen the youth in a democracy. Future leaders, however, should not only wait for their time to come, but also think about what difference they could make already in the present time. He told the audience and the candidates that their voices could still be louder within the political process of the country.

Having set the tone and laid the foundation for the debate to proceed in an orderly and constructive fashion, it was the candidates’ turn to present themselves. Each of the nine candidates, among them unfortunately only one female candidate, was given the possibility to introduce their leadership ideals and goals in a short five minute speech. The main issues which they mentioned were security on and around campus, with a special focus on thefts and violent crime, as well as the financial situation of the university and the different faculties. Furthermore, questions of health care on campus came up and some of the candidates touched on issues of gender equality and the rights and access of persons with disabilities. Following that, the moderator, the candidates themselves, and the audience had the chance to inquire in more detail about the leadership skills and political ideals of the candidates, as well as their specific goals for the university and the faculties. During the entire debate there was an excited yet positive atmosphere in the hall with the audience supporting their candidates and the ideas they thought would bring the university and the students to the forefront of education and socio-economic transformation.

The debate was further enriched by brief remarks from Hon. Sebuliba Mutumba Muddu-Awulira, Democratic Party Vice President Central Region and Member of Parliament (MP), who stated that presenting yourself and your ideas and issues was one of the biggest challenges even current MPs faced. Therefore, a platform like the candidates’ debate would be perfect to learn and qualify yourself, so that come election day in 2016, a new and better skilled generation of leaders would enter the political arena.

Hon. Gerald Karuhanga, Youth MP for the Western Region, closed the event. As he himself started his political career as Guild President of Makerere University, he could relate to the situation the candidates found themselves in. Being caught by the spirit of the event, Karuhanga declared that is was exciting for him to hear young men and women who spoke so brilliantly. Even though Uganda faced many problems, especially in regards to leadership and good governance, he reminded the candidates and students that the country out there was waiting for them. In his opinion, the training and brains of Makerere University were able to solve the problems at hand. He emphasised once more that a debate of this format was a perfect opportunity for student leaders to learn and thanked the conveners for the successful and inspiring event.

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