An entire generation of Ugandans has grown up under one president. Now they’re the principle battleground in an election that could end the aging strongman’s rule.
- By Angelo IzamaAngelo Izama is a Ugandan journalist and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
KAMPALA, Uganda — Walt Disney’s latest fairy tale has the added virtue of being based on a true story. Directed by acclaimed Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, The Queen of Katwe — which is scheduled for release early next year — follows the life story of Phiona Mutesi, an AIDS orphan who grew up in a slum in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and rose to international fame as a chess prodigy.
The movie’s producers seem to be betting that American audiences will recognize it as a familiar rags-to-riches tale, an East African version of Slumdog Millionaire. But audiences in Uganda will likely see a parable that hits closer to home. Mutesi is a so-called “Museveni baby,” one of millions of Ugandans born after 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni took power. It’s a demographic group that has become an unpredictable majority in Uganda and the principal battleground for next year’s general elections.
After nearly 30 years at the helm, Museveni is facing his toughest race yet. On the ballot will be the president’s longtime political ally, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who also served as the secretary-general of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) until he was fired last year. Museveni also faces a challenge from Kizza Besigye, who was the president’s personal physician during the Bush War that brought him to power. Besigye has run unsuccessfully against Museveni in the last three elections. The strategies of all three candidates have focused on recruiting young voters by exploiting the main crisis facing Museveni babies — a lack of jobs and economic opportunity for young people.
Besigye, who led widespread “Walk to Work” protests against high fuel and food prices in 2011, has made it clear that his campaign will be one of defiance. He held a symbolic post-nomination rally at the Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium in Kampala’s Central Business District, which saw violent protests back in 2011. According to Human Rights Watch, at least nine people were killed in those protests, which were led by Besigye and involved mostly unemployed youths. (Opposition sources say that dozens of people were killed.) Since then, the outspoken opposition leader has been the target of regular arrests and beatings by the police under Uganda’s draconian Public Order Management Act — ironically pushed through by Mbabazi before his own fallout with Museveni.
Mbabazi, who patronized many of the NRM’s young Turks while serving as the party’s secretary-general, has also sought to galvanize the youth vote: He launched his “Go Forward” campaign on YouTube and has promised to act as a kind of bridge between his own generation and that of the Museveni babies by stepping aside after a transitional five-year presidency.
But the biggest push to win over Museveni babies is being made by the president’s own party. In the 60,000 villages around the country where the party has an official presence, the NRM has sought, with the help of government security forces, to recruit millions of young people into so-called “crime preventer” forces. These village-level volunteer organizations ostensibly serve as a kind of neighborhood watch, but opposition figures have slammed them as little more than militias for the ruling party. (Indeed, “crime preventer” forces are often commissioned at official ceremonies attended by Museveni or other senior NRM officials.)
The NRM’s fervent young recruits have worsened the tense atmosphere of the pre-election season. The party’s internal primaries were the most violent in recent memory. In the central Ugandan district of Luwero, for example, the home of the newly elected party boss was torched. Nearly a quarter of individual races for MP drew complaints to the party’s elections commission. And now the NRM has been forced to hold reruns in several constituencies after it emerged that ballot stuffing was widespread.
The general election promises to be equally fraught. There have been reports of youth militias allied to various politicians muscling up ahead of the vote, and rowdy NRM supporters have already been involved in violent altercations with Mbabazi supporters.
Perhaps in anticipation of additional unrest, Mbabazi and Besigye were photographed in October at a London meeting with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and ex-ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, both of whom played visible roles in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 election violence in Kenya. (Annan helped put together a government of national unity, and Moreno Ocampo later indicted then-Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, now the deputy president.)
But even if political elites reach an accommodation with one another ahead of the vote, their young followers will likely continue their political agitation. After all, politics offers one of the few avenues in Uganda for economic opportunity.
The ranks of the Ugandan political class have swelled dramatically over the past three decades, as Museveni’s ruling party worked assiduously to accommodate its political rivals. Institutionalized patronage became the name of the game. The country has nearly four times the number of MPs it had at independence, and new districts sprout up every presidential term. According to an internal estimate by the Independent Election Commission of Uganda, the total number of elective offices being contested in 2016 is 1,747,664. That includes everything from administrative posts at the village level to seats in parliament — and it means that the political class is over five times the size of the Ugandan civil service, including the army.
Such is the allure of a job in politics that more than 4,000 candidates ran for just 418 parliamentary seats in the NRM primaries. That number could double in the general election, as party candidates are joined by independents. When one considers the high rate of turnover among incumbents — 67 percent of sitting MPs lost their seats last time around — it’s easy for young Ugandans to see the election as the biggest legal lottery on offer and certainly more lucrative than the football-betting stores that are equally addictive to unemployed youth.
The dream of getting rich through politics may not be as glamorous as Mutesi’s rise from the slums to international chess fame. But for the Museveni babies that will dominate next year’s election, sadly, it is much more realistic.
Photo credit: AFP / Getty Images