The King and Queen-makers

Published online February 28, 2011

Driving through the countryside or city streets in Uganda or Rwanda, one is greeted by the same sight over and again – children. Youngsters in colourful uniforms fill the sidewalks and paths every morning and afternoon as they trek to and from school.

Jogging in the early morning down Kigali streets I have more than once been embarrassingly out-run by little girls in dress shoes and backpacks, screeching gleefully as they dash past. Meanwhile, the smaller children toddle curiously around the home, and babies find themselves securely strapped to the backs of their busy moms. You don’t have to look up demographic figures to know that one word characterizes the population: young.

In a region long defined by civil war, violence and dictatorship, youth is the new and hopeful quality permeating society. The wars that wracked the region for the past several decades have drawn to a close, one by one – the Ugandan civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, the 20-year terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the Congo wars that followed. As the worst episodes of violence recede, how will newfound security affect the political, social, and economic opportunities and beliefs of the new generation? How will the youth relate to the decisions of leaders whose lived experiences are increasingly distant from their own?

The children and young adults of today will live profoundly different lives than those of their parents and grandparents. While conflict continues in eastern Congo, a peace and cautious hope has come to most of the region. Nearly half of Rwanda’s population today was born after 1994. 52% of Rwandans and 61% of Ugandans are less than 20 years old. Nearly three quarters of all Ugandans have lived under President Yoweri Museveni for their entire lives.

Most Ugandans and Rwandans, therefore, know only stories of the terrible wars that once ravaged society. The scars, visible or not, are everywhere, but the memory is increasingly derived from history passed down by those who lived through it. As these children come of age, they face very different challenges than their parents before them. The vast majority will attended primary school, and will read and write in English. Many will graduate from secondary school, and an increasing number will obtain a university degree. Unlike their parents, most will not fear for their lives, but for their livelihoods.

Yet for now, those who govern the countries in which these children grow up – individuals who were intimately involved in the conflicts of the past several decades – continue to make calculations, judgments, and risk assessments based on the experiences through which they have survived, as have done leaders before them. National security is at the top of the agenda for every government, but the price one is willing to pay for security is shaped by experience. For the older generation, there may be no price too high. For the younger generation, the choices may not be so clear-cut.

It is difficult to assess the extent of the divide between today’s youngsters and the generation that preceded them. Often votes are a good indication of political and policy preferences, but the post-conflict generation is only just coming of age. Surveys too can help, but ultimately we are left to some speculation.

Recent surveys in Rwanda show that both the young and old continue to place a high value on national security. Overall, 44% of Rwandans said that “strong defence forces” should be the top national priority, with a similar percentage across all age groups, according to the World Values Survey. In the U.S., by contrast, while 38% of all Americans surveyed believe strong defence forces is the most important national priority, only 20% of those under 30 list national defence as the top priority. The vastly different security challenges facing each country have surely shaped these preferences.

In Rwanda, an extraordinarily large percentage of people not only support strong defence forces as the top national priority but would also contribute to this goal – 95% of all Rwandans and 96% of 15-29 year-olds surveyed said they would be willing to fight for their country. In the U.S., only 41% of 15-29 year-olds were willing to do so. 91% of Rwandans also expressed a preference for greater respect for authority in the country. All this suggests that so far, there is little evidence of a generational difference in security preferences. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that most of the peacetime generation is still too young to be included in any survey. We are likely still observing the preferences of an adult population for whom the remnants of conflict may still be too fresh, and continued violence in eastern Congo too close.

In Uganda, evidence is mixed regarding whether the old and young have different preferences when it comes to national priorities, but there appear to be greater differences than in Rwanda. There are obviously serious economic challenges facing Ugandans, which may trump security concerns for the ordinary citizen — 64% of 18-29 year-olds were unemployed in 2008, according to an Afrobarometer survey. For most Ugandans, “improving economic conditions for the poor” is the most important national priority. Only 17% of 18-29 year olds listed maintaining order in the nation as the highest priority. Interestingly, young people expressed greater fear of political intimidation or violence than the very old in Uganda – 36% of young people said they had “a lot” of fear of political violence. And worryingly, the majority of Ugandans believe political competition often or always leads to conflict.

Uganda and Rwanda are both societies in transition  — transition away from conflict, transition toward greater political participation, transition out of poverty. How today’s children will view the behaviour and policies of leaders whose life experiences are increasingly distant from their own is yet to be seen. It may be too soon to detect generational differences in any scientific way, but ready or not, the youth bulge is coming into its own. Young people already make up the lion’s share of the population in the region. In just a few years they will be the king and queen-makers, or breakers. Watch this space.

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