Ugandan politicians are using the country's jobless young people as pawns to advance their own ambitions
Ugandan politicians are playing a dangerous game with the country's legions of unemployed youth. Instead of tackling the problem, leaders on both sides of the political equation are exploiting jobless youngsters for their own ends. In doing so they risk sending the east African nation into a spiral of political and social upheaval.
Uganda has the world's youngest population, with 78% of its 34m citizens below the age of 30, according to a 2011 report by the International Youth Foundation, an international charity based in Baltimore.
It also has one of sub-Saharan Africa's highest rates of youth unemployment, according to a 2012 study by ActionAid International Uganda (AAIU), an NGO. The study sampled both rural and urban youth and found that 61.6% of Uganda's youths (those between 12 and 30 and not enrolled in primary, secondary or tertiary education) were jobless.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts the figure far lower, at 7.3%, but the ILO's definition of youth unemployment is "unrealistic", according to AAIU project co-ordinator Rebecca Kukundakwe.
The ILO's definition excludes anyone who has worked for "even one hour in any economic activity ... during a specified recent period (usually the past four weeks)", according to the ILO website. "Our perspective is that if someone is not in continuous and meaningful employment, he or she is not employed, especially when it comes to the youth," Ms Kukundakwe said.
Like most sub-Saharan African countries, Uganda has enjoyed healthy economic growth. Its GDP, fuelled by copious flows of foreign direct investment and a boom in the retail and construction sectors, has grown by about 5% per year over the last decade, according to the World Bank.
But this progress has still not been fast enough to create the economic opportunities needed to absorb the large pool of young people joining the labour force every year.
Uganda's 3.2% annual population growth is one of the world's highest, according to a 2013 report by Uganda's official population policy department. "Youth unemployment in Uganda is a time bomb," Ms Kukundakwe told Africa in Fact. "We have a category of young people who are energetic [and] mobile, but who are not being utilised. Like the saying goes, 'An idle mind is the devil's workshop.'"
Ms Kukundakwe pointed specifically to an "ominous" development: the growing tendency of politicians--both in government and among the opposition - to use unemployed youths to advance their own agendas. Politicians pay cheap bribes to idle youths to stage violent demonstrations, she said.
"There's patronage. We have a lot of young people who are not concerned about their own country but are only interested in how much they can get from politics, and politicians are exploiting this." Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, faces growing opposition as failed government policies and runaway corruption fuel popular anger.
Uganda's poor urban youth, in particular, are enraged by politicians who they see as privileged and self-serving, and whose affluence has come at their expense. The majority of Uganda's jobless youths live in cities and towns, according to Ms Kukundakwe.
It is in these urban centres that political violence has flared repeatedly since the 2011 presidential elections. In the wake of those elections, a wave of civil unrest swept the capital Kampala, the capital, and several other large towns, including Jinja and Mbale in the east, as well as Mbarara and Kabale in the south-west, championed by Kizza Besigye, then the leader of the country's largest opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change.
Stone-throwing young mobs took centre stage in these riots. The government responded with a deadly crackdown that left at least nine dead and scores wounded, according to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
Although government action stemmed the unrest, violent confrontations between opposition youth and security forces have since become routine events in major towns. Markets and public bus terminals in downtown Kampala, crowded with idle youngsters, attract opposition politicians eager to rouse popular anger against the government.
Images of the resulting violent clashes have become regular features on the country's news pages. Last January 9th and March 6th, youngsters gathered in downtown Kampala to hear Mr Besigye and four MPs expelled last year from the ruling National Resistance Movement. Police used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the youthful crowd.
President Museveni's government has long admitted that Uganda's high youth unemployment is a problem, but has done little to combat it. However some officials in his government, unnerved by the recent spate of youth-led clashes, are starting to propose solutions.
Pius Bigirimana, the permanent secretary in the gender, labour and social development ministry and whose portfolio is responsible for youth welfare, oversees a $106m programme launched last January, which hopes to provide job-training skills or start-up capital to 1.4m people under 30. Critics of the project, however, question the government's intentions.
Gerald Karuhanga, an independent MP, claims this programme is a politically expedient way to win youth loyalty ahead of the 2016 elections. "The timing, and the way it's being implemented, already shows the intention has more to do with political mobilisation than [a desire] to create employment and eliminate poverty among the youth," he said.
Mr Karuhanga is concerned that Mr Museveni's government intends to hand out the money directly to young people--as it has done before, with predictably dismal results.
The government launched a programme in the late 1990s called Entadikwa (Luganda for "seed capital"), which provided young people with small, unsecured loans, ostensibly to help them start small businesses.
The programme failed, however, as Mr Bigirimana admitted to Africa in Fact. Recipients used many of these handouts to buy alcohol and pay bride price, according to news reports. A similar programme, dubbed Bonabagagawale (Luganda for "prosperity for all") was rolled out in early 2000s and suffered the same fate.
When the government hands out the money directly, it creates the sense that these are simply contributions made in return for political support, Mr Karuhanga said. Instead, the money should be transferred to microfinance institutions, which could vet potential beneficiaries and provide and collect the loans, he argued. Uganda has a healthy network of more than 100 separate credit providers that could support such a scheme, according to the finance ministry.
Mr Bigirimana has also proposed a more radical measure to reduce youth unemployment: limit the number of children a woman is legally allowed to bear.
Uganda has the world's seventh-highest fertility rate, with an average of 6.2 children per woman, according to 2013 figures from the United States-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB). Uganda is poised to see its population of 34m leap to 55.4m by 2025 and 113.9m by mid-century, according to PRB projections.
"We should come up with a policy that limits the number of children someone should produce to four," Mr Bigirimana said. "If you produce five, you should go to jail."
His suggestion, however, might find stiff resistance from his own government. President Museveni has argued that Uganda's high population growth is not a problem. Instead, the solution is to expand the industrial and services sectors.
"The problem is not population per se," Mr Museveni told a July 2012 summit on family planning in London. "Africa, or in this particular case Uganda, needs to metamorphose from a pre-capitalist, quasi-feudal society to a middle-class, skilled working-class society. That social metamorphosis will inevitably bring down the population growth."
There is some truth in Mr Museveni's stance, argued Deepali Khanna, director of youth learning at the MasterCard Foundation, the Toronto-based philanthropic arm of the payments services company.
High population growth rates are partly responsible for soaring unemployment among Ugandan and African youth, she said. But insufficient economic growth, small formal labour markets, and insufficient experience and skills also play a role.
Ms Khanna also blames "skills mismatches" in the Ugandan economy - when job seekers do not have the skills demanded by the labour market - and low economic activity in the countryside.
"In rural areas, young people largely work in the agriculture sector, where the lack of agricultural productivity, enterprise opportunities, financial services and stable work inhibits their ability to move out of poverty," she added.
Youth unemployment in Uganda is rooted in demographic growth and economic breakdown. It will require more than politically expedient solutions. As long as cynical politicians use jobless youth to further their own ambitions, instead of searching for a solution, the situation will only get worse.