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Uganda: Violence and youth participation in politics

By Omar Kalinge-Nnyago
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The youth in Uganda have been at the forefront of political change since pre-colonial times. In the tumultuous post independence period, more youth held guns to kill, and they were killed too. They were both the perpetrators of political violence and the victims of it. In the so called NRA liberation war of 1981-85 which overthrew Milton Obote, over 80% of the fighting force were young people. Others were not young. They were children. The phenomenon of the child soldier, or “Kadogo” was born out of that grisly war that killed an estimated half a million people in the Buganda area of Luwero. The subject of this war still engages politicians and civilians alike: Who killed all those people? Dr. Olara Otunnu, UPC party president has thrown a spanner in the works: he wants an independent inquiry in the 5 year war, claiming that the whole truth is not being told.

The official line is that he people were killed by the then government's Uganda National Liberation Army, UNLA. After the fall of Obote, the subsequent insurgencies in Teso, and the Eastern border areas were dominated by youth. LRA's Joseph Kony has employed more children than youth in combat than at any time in Uganda's history. The bulk of his youth fighting force was once children under arms. It was hoped that a return to democracy would herald a new era of peaceful youth participation. It was not to be. Political violence during elections has been significant since the first post- civil war election of 1996. Youth have been invariably used as executors of violence, targeting other youth. The youth can be blamed for volence. But as one landmark electoral case showed, it is sometimes the very old politicians who refuse to quit. That commands youth violence targeting other youth.

In 2006 a judge set aside the election results for the parliamentary seat for Bugweri county, Iganga district. In his judgement, he said that the campaign by the then-minister of information, eighty year old Ali Kirunda Kivejinja had been marked by “widespread intimidation, violence and torture of [opposition] supporters and agents…. The totality of the evidence on record supports the conclusion that [Kivejinja] ran his election campaign as if it was a war.” The ruling said he even had a detention room in his home “for those he wanted to force into supporting him.” (HRW)

However, no one was ever held accountable for crimes committed during that campaign. In January 2009, President Yoweri Museveni named Kivejinjia to be minister of internal affairs, putting him in charge of police who will provide security during the 2011 campaign and on election day. This is one of the most disturbing realities as the country gears for elections. It is one of these realities that make the prospects of a free and fair election in Uganda impossible to imagine. The Uganda Peoples Defence Forces the other week passed out a special youth militia in the near Eastern area of Bugerere. A spokesperson of a controversial cultural leader whose imposition caused the deadly September 2009 riots in the central region stated that the militia was to protect the imposed leader, Sabanyala, in times of need. The UPDF spokesperson denied the accusation that the government army was specifically training NRM leaning paramilitary youth as a build up to a violent 2011 elections, claiming that any group that wanted military training was free to approach the UPDF for their services. Many more thousands of youth, called NRM cadres more have been passed out, once publicly in Kampala by the president himself and commander of the armed forces. He was dressed in full military gear, to capture the mood of the occasion.

In light of these grim circumstances, it is not difficult to forecast a reduced participation of normal youth in the political process especially in the forthcoming elections, for fear of their security. On the other hand it is another section of the youth that are being prepared to perpetrate violence against fellow youth in the coming elections. At this moment, it is important for positive thinking youth to embark on a massive campaign against electoral violence and draw attention of the world to this scourge that threatens Uganda's sovereignty and stability as an independent democratic nation.

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