Numerous barriers, including deliberate attempts by governments to stifle the youth vote, limit young Africans’ participation in elections across the continent. Several regimes such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon increasingly employ strategies of discouraging or preventing young people from voting to influence election outcomes.
Physical intimidation is one commonly used tactic. But there’s another worrying new trend – using the electoral system itself to suppress youth voting, as is the case in Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni has been accused of using the country’s voter registration process to silence young voters ahead of next year’s general elections. Recently some opposition parliamentarians alleged that an estimated one million first-time voters would miss voting in the next election cycle.
Uganda’s constitution and electoral laws seem incompatible with the country’s youth demographic reality. It is reported that at least 3 800 Ugandans turn 18 every day. Ugandan law states that a voter must be a citizen of 18 years and above at the time of registration. According to Article 59 of the constitution, every citizen of Uganda who is 18 years of age and above has a right to vote.
The Electoral Commission has refuted allegations of youth voter suppression, arguing that the electoral code is reflected in the country’s constitution. Does this mean that Uganda’s electoral laws are designed to delay the induction of first-time voters? Whether parliamentarians like it or not, Uganda’s political regime has the backing of the law.
With over a year before the elections, some opposition members of parliament (MPs) feel that the registration process could have been extended. MPs had called for a reopening and extension of the registration process, but the Electoral Commission said there was insufficient time and resources for this. The constitution also didn’t allow it, they said.
Opposition parliamentarians also argue that the electoral system is outdated. There have been calls in the past to make the Ugandan voter registry electronic which would provide a flexible registration period with minimum human influence.
However some youth groups disagree with parliamentarians that the youth vote is being suppressed. They feel the plight of the youth is being politicised for selfish political gains, and have urged the parliamentarians to stop doing so.
A representative from the African Youth Initiative Network-Uganda told ISS Today, ‘I don’t think it’s a deliberate move to deny young people a voting opportunity. It is about logistical implications for the Electoral Commission – specifically their ability to produce sufficient voting material. In a politically charged atmosphere like this, contestants would look for what makes opponents look bad and how to attract sympathy.’
A member of Allied Muslim Youth Uganda took a similarly pragmatic approach, telling ISS Today that, ‘Though it is regrettable to be in this situation, all that can be done is to encourage those already registered to turn up and vote for the leaders of their choice.’ So despite these legal setbacks, many of Uganda’s youth remain aware of the potential of their demographic electoral dominance.
Without being able to legally reopen voter registration, a significant portion of Uganda’s youth are left pondering about safe spaces for youth in electoral processes. The build-up to next year’s elections is already riddled with controversy largely linked to the rise of the cross-party People Power Movement led by musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine. This movement, popular with young Ugandans, has faced violent actions by the army and police, including breaking up gatherings and arresting members.
Uganda’s leadership is yet to adjust to a broadminded and flexible multi-party system of governance, and even more so, youth visibility in the opposition. Before the 2005 referendum on Uganda’s multi-party system, many prospective opposition parties or politicians were prevented from organising rallies related to Uganda’s socio-political and economic state. This gave Museveni’s party the edge as it had no such limitations.
The 2021 elections have piqued the interest of millions of young citizens because of the youth-related controversy. Whatever the outcome of the vote, Uganda’s youth should support strong advocacy campaigns on the absence of youth-friendly electoral laws or the need to modernise existing ones. To stimulate a mindset shift in their favour, young people should tirelessly insist on increased visibility in political processes – specifically elections.
Muneinazvo Kujeke, Junior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding
This article is published as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP), which is funded by the government of Norway.