How an old regime seeks to keep a young generation at bay

Monday January 11 2021

Travellers wait for vehicles in Kampala, Uganda, on June 4, 2020, the first day of re-opening public transport. In Uganda about seven out of every 10 citizens is aged 30 or younger. However, of the 18 million registered voters, only 41 per cent are aged 35 and below. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By The EastAfrican

When the National Resistance Army rebels led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni shot their way to power in Uganda in January 1986, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu was a few weeks shy of his fourth birthday.

This week, almost 35 years to the day and still in power, President Museveni heads into his sixth election facing Mr Kyagulanyi, now a husband, father and a popular musician-turned politician.

In a country where about seven out of every 10 citizens is aged 30 or younger, having a 38-year-old popular musician taking on a 76-year-old who has been in power for more than three decades should be a walk over.

But the numbers do not tell the whole story. There are at least four major obstacles.

First, while Uganda indeed has one of the youngest populations in the world, many of them are, in fact, under 18 and too young to vote.

Of the 18 million registered voters, only 41 per cent are aged 35 and below — the country’s official classification of youth, giving older voters a disproportionate share of the actual voting bloc.


Secondly, while the country is rapidly urbanising — the equivalent of 19 busloads every day being born or turning up in urban areas, it remains majority rural, with more than 65 per cent of the population living in the countryside.

“These rural youth are different from their urban counterparts,” a ruling party official says over a coffee at a mall in Kampala, asking for anonymity in order to speak candidly. “At 24 many of them have children and are wired to either look for quick opportunities, making them vulnerable to bribery, or at least risk-averse.”

If bringing this youth bloc to the ballot box as a vote is hard, it has been made exceptionally difficult by the obstacles the regime has thrown in front of Bobi Wine.

These include blocking his popular music concerts, truncating the campaign period to the shortest ever, and then blocking his ability to reach rural voters by arresting him or breaking up campaign rallies.

Third is the impact of voter suppression, particularly of would-be first-time voters.

When Bobi Wine ran a campaign to encourage young people to register for national IDs, bureaucrats quietly made it harder for younger applicants, including bringing the cut-off date forward.

Then there is the violence that has characterised the election, and which is likely to put off risk-averse female and middle-ground voters. A low voter turnout would be good for President Museveni and potentially fatal for Bobi Wine.

In 2016, President Museveni scored 5.9 million votes, which was enough for him to win by 60.6 per cent, despite an almost similar number of registered voters (5.3 million) staying at home. Supporters of incumbents are more likely to vote, so getting the vote out is key for contestants.

There are 18 million registered voters in this election. If the turnout rate remains the same as in the last election and President Museveni was able to hang onto his votes from the last election, he would need less than 200,000 new voters to cross the victory line.

Bobi Wine, on the other hand, would need to win not just a significant chunk of the 3.5 million votes that Kizza Besigye got in 2016, but also convince a significant number of those who did not vote last time round to turn out and vote for him.  He would need to do so against the overwhelming power of incumbency and a ruling party that, after 35 years, is embedded within the state.

By one estimate, the NRM starts out with about two million votes of party functionaries embedded in the local governance structures, intelligence, civil as well as public service.

So while the youth vote counts, for Bobi Wine to stand a chance against President Museveni will require more advanced mathematics than simple arithmetic.