Why young people in Rwanda and Uganda will not be silenced

Wednesday October 18 2017

Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine speaking at a rally in Kampala.

Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine speaking at a rally in Kampala. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA | NMG 

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A few years ago in Kigali, while I was having a drink and chatting with a veteran of the war that propelled the Rwandan Patriotic Front to power, he mentioned a phenomenon I had hitherto not heard about.

After exploring several topics, we came to what he saw as the growing expectations of young Rwandans and how they were gradually translating into a certain outspokenness which, among people of his generation, was quite alien.

People like him had either grown up in exile where, as refugees, they had no right to make demands on the governments of the countries that hosted them, or on the humanitarian organisations that did this or that for some, from time to time.

If anything, it was the constant feeling of having no rights that fed their desire and determination to return home one day, to a country many knew nothing about, but about which their parents and elders told them with much longing.

Eventually they returned home and took charge. At long last they now had a country of their own. But the country was so damaged physically and psychologically that agitating for rights was not the first thing that came to mind. Rather, foremost in their thinking was the great obligation of building something new in place of the ruins they had inherited.

Some had returned with young children and relatives. Others had theirs subsequently. And in Rwanda they found others, of course. These, together with theirs, had grown up in a rapidly transforming country, in which they were learning to assert themselves and make demands, perhaps a little too much, he believed. These, he said, were the “merci Kagame” (thank you Kagame) generation.

It was Kagame, after all, who had led the creation of a society in which the burden of history did not weigh as heavily on them as it did on their parents and elders, and in which they could look to the future with ample confidence that there would be no return to the bad old days.

Careful observation of and interaction with this segment of Rwandan society, whatever their individual peculiarities, reveals a group that to a large extent exudes confidence and optimism that theirs is a country destined for a future that can only be better than the past.

Especially remarkable is the collective belief that their country’s leadership is driven by noble aspirations.

Museveni generation

Meanwhile across the border in Uganda there is also a “Museveni generation.” They are the 30-something age group who were just about to be born, toddlers, or about to enter primary school.

Collectively, they recall very little or nothing about the turmoil that preceded the National Resistance Movement’s ascent to power. Their early years were, however, a period of national renewal. Ethnic and religious sectarianism were banished from politics. In place of the political exclusion and witch-hunts of the past came inclusion and consensus building.

In Museveni, Uganda seemed to have acquired its own “mwalimu” (teacher) who, chalk in hand before a blackboard, lectured about the evils of obscurantism, political manipulation of the masses by unprincipled leaders, the bankruptcy of leaders who sat on imported furniture and ate on and drank in imported plates and cups; and flew around in presidential jets while the people they led walked around on jigger-infested feet without shoes.

No-party ideology

The Museveni generation grew up hating political parties because they divided the people. They embraced the no-party ideology and its seeming potential to unite society rather than tear it apart.

In recent years, however, something has happened to growing numbers of this generation. Disillusionment has set in where before there was optimism.

Today they are more likely to be heard criticising or attacking the country’s leadership for what they see as the multitude of failures associated with their long tenure in office.

They are more likely to be heard lamenting the self-enrichment of a few at the expense of the majority than about equity and social inclusion. The one thing many share, whatever the degree of their disillusionment, is the view that those in positions of power and authority are in it for themselves, not for the people whose interests they purport to represent.

No group opens a window into the thinking of this generation than the younger members of what has come to be known as the “Red Ribbon Movement.”

The Movement, if indeed that is what it is, derives its name from the visibly small but loud and determined grouping in parliament that is dead-set against moves by elements of the ruling party to “engineer” the lifting of the presidential age limit from Uganda’s constitution.

And nothing captures their feelings better than two letters written recently, one to young Ugandans by musician-turned Member of Parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, and another to “Grandpa Museveni” by intrepid lawyer, Andrew Karamagi.

One is a plea to young Ugandans to emulate the Museveni generation who in their youth refused to fold their hands and do nothing in the face of misrule. The other is a bold rebuke of what one could term “the Museveni system” for, above all, dreams deferred.

For future historians studying the evolution of the two contexts and their respective liberation movements, these two generations will be indispensable lenses.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]