(Politically) idle youth

They are educated, have jobs and money to spend in bars and boutiques but no desire to participate in the political process.

There is a preconceived notion regarding presidential elections that the youth make up a voting bloc, a group who all cast very similar ballots. But is this really the case?

“Let me emphasize how very unimportant voting is to me: If on that day there is a party going on the whole day with enough alcohol, I will miss the voting,” said a young male who works for a technology company.

So goes one youth vote. Should candidates focus most of their attention on young people? How much do the youth really care? True, they make up the majority vote due to over population and lack of contraception use. There sure are a lot of them around. But how many of them, regardless of whether they are registered, are actually going to vote, or even care about voting?

The desire to vote is relatively high among those youth who have been neglected by the government, namely the poor, unemployed and undereducated. But what about the middle class youth who have jobs, have pocket money to spend in bars and boutiques, who in comparison to most youth in Uganda, have a certain degree of monetary security? How will they vote? Or more precisely: will they vote at all?

Mugagga Karemire Mukuve is a volunteer in the FDC campaign bureau and represents institutions of higher learning on the FDC National Youth League.

He explained that there are different segments of voting youth. One consists of first time voters who have just reached eligibility to vote, as well as those who participated in the last elections. If the majority of people in this category registered to vote, they would substantially raise the number of eligible voters in the election. Unfortunately, many first time and second time voters have not registered to vote because they are disillusioned.

Bridget, a fashion designer, falls in this category. Along with most of the young people interviewed for this article, Bridget declined to use their real names.

“I’m not voting because I did not register. I’m not interested and personally, I hate to line up. Plus, I know the voting is going to be rigged anyway. So I do not see the point of hassling. The Electoral Commission is not organized enough for me,” she said.

Lorna, an administrator in a freight company, echoed her sentiments: “My vote won’t determine who is giving me my salary at the end of the month. As long as I’m not adversely affected economically, my one vote isn’t going to change anything. A more efficient government isn’t going to change the way I live. It won’t change food prices or unemployment and many of the problems in my country. I do not believe in idle promises.”

Mukuve noted that apathy runs high among the youth, who display a indifferent attitude towards the upcoming elections: “They do not see its value. They do not think change will come. Ugandan politics is polarized, opposition parties are disorganized and they feel the government does not warrant their mandate. Hence, they choose to be apathetic.”

Bob works in a telecommunications company and is the embodiment of the apathy Mukuve is talking about: “I do not see what’s so important about voting. I’m voting, yes, but that is only because I am bored and want to see what it feels like. I have a policy: as long as the person who comes into power doesn’t mess up my plans to prosper and be happy, I don’t give a damn.”

On a positive note, Mukuve revealed that another segment comprises of young people who believe the time is now to cause an impact in the election.

“This segment is what most politicians are fighting for. Unfortunately, this is a pointless fight as these are voters who will not be swayed by songs and promises. They already have their political mindset and it will not change over a few months of campaigns,” he added.

A fact that is evidenced by the words of Adam who works for the Ministry of Finance: “I felt sick to my stomach when Lumpens put Seeya in power. From then on, I decided to cast my vote in form of protest so they can see that this is my opinion. They can’t fail to read that! For me, the presidential election is about venting out my frustration for years of corruption and nepotism. My candidate will not win but it will make me feel better that I at least tried to do something about it rather than sit back.”

Raymond Kukundakwe, another unemployed graduate, is also voting for three reasons: “I want to exercise my right, just for the fun of it and I want change.”

In Mukuve’s opinion, presidential hopefuls should be fighting to win the votes of the first time voters who unfortunately, did not turn up to vote in huge numbers in past elections. He believes that if one presidential candidate were able to master the support of all young people eligible to vote, that candidate would win the election.

“Given Uganda’s political dynamics, it is not possible for any one candidate to master a bloc vote,” said Mukuve. “This is because Uganda is heavily divided along tribal lines, religious lines, among other interests. A candidate has to appeal to individual interests, like the unemployment factor or rights of the disabled. There is no single point of interest that galvanizes all young people. On the contrary, the young people who perceive themselves of having been deprived of opportunities blame the government for it – and these are the real majority.”

Peter, an unemployed graduate, is one of them. “I have no interest in voting because this government is crap,” he believes. “I registered because I’m unemployed, see no chance of getting employment any time soon. And I thought that a voter’s card would be an alternative form of identification as I do not have a driver’s permit.”

Mukuve concluded with the fact that the Electoral Commission has established a reputation for rigging that has destroyed its name with the local populace. Many of the youth the Kampala Dispatch spoke to were of this opinion.

Trevor, a lawyer, said, “The outcome is obvious. There is no point. I’m not voting”

Nsereko Mai, a Tours and Travel executive, lamented: “In the last election I participated. When I went to bed, my man Besigye was winning. But in the morning, the change in the outcome was magical. It’s not that he had so many supporters or that we really wanted him in power, it’s just that he really had the best chance. I did not believe the outcome of the last elections, and I will not vote in this one. It’s not free and fair!”

And there are those like Dorothy, an NGO worker, who believes rigging can persevere but who will still exercise their right to vote anyhow. “I’m voting because it is my civic duty to do so. I want to vote for people who will make this country better. I don’t think voting in the presidential election will make a difference but I still want my voice to be heard.”

Hudu Hussein, who works with the NRM Communications bureau, expressed a different opinion, painting a rosy picture of the political activity of the youth and the prospects they know are in store for them, this is, if they vote for NRM.

“The NRM has not just started looking for youth votes recently,” he stressed. “The youth are actually politically active because NRM as a party has put in places structures to enable that. Uganda is the only country in East Africa with youth representatives in parliament. In addition, the National Youth Council which was formed in 1993, is an arena which was given to the youth as a training ground for future leaders. This aids to link youth to the president’s office.”

Hussein explains that the NRM youth manifesto touches on issues that will benefit the youth and they realize that. The operations of the National Agricultural Advisory Services, although problematic, has proven successful in promoting youth engaged in agriculture. The production of extra electricity will lead to further industrialization and employment opportunities for them.

He admits that unemployment is a big issue in Uganda that has demoralized the youth but argues that it is a problem all over the world as well, so the NRM cannot be said to have failed in that respect.

All in all, it looks like the majority of the youth that presidential hopefuls are trying so hard to woo are disillusioned and apathetic, all waiting for an elusive Barack Obama to fill their hearts with hope for a better future. Will one majestically materialize come 2011? The election results alone will tell. Or will they?

By Lindsey Kukunda