Shedding light on Uganda’s Umeme debate

Last week I wrote an article for The Independent explaining why the Ugandan parliament’s recommendation to cancel the contract of the country’s main electricity distributor, Umeme, is so terribly misguided. Discussion of the electricity sector tends to be technical, dry, and confusing, littered with acronyms and figures. But we cannot allow the density of the topic to leave us vulnerable to populist oratory, political witch-hunts, or outright ignorance of politicians. There is too much at stake for Uganda’s energy sector, and too much at stake for the Ugandan public.

How kicking out Umeme hurts Uganda

MPs have generators and other coping resources if the energy sector fails but their voters and industrialists could incur ruinous costs

Parliament’s recommendation to cancel the Ugandan government’s contract with the country’s main electricity distributor, Umeme, has reinvigorated the debate over the company’s performance, as well as issues of sovereignty and national interest. The debate has been characterised by both misunderstanding and misinformation, sprinkled with a dash of deceit.

Umeme bears the brunt of the Ugandan public’s frustration with power supply, but both the assignment of blame and the debate are myopic; Uganda’s most severe challenges in the energy sector do not lie with Umeme.

In fact, the Umeme debate is a costly distraction from the sector’s most pressing issues.

The cancellation of Umeme’s contract would be very costly for the country and ordinary citizens who would suffer most. The question is why, considering Umeme’s record of relatively impressive performance, is the company being hounded out of the Ugandan market? What will investors in capital-intensive sectors like energy, infrastructure and the nascent oil and gas sector, make of politicians’ overtures to a policy of re-nationalisation?

Umeme; small part of energy sector

When then-electricity public utility, the Uganda Electricity Board (UEB) was “unbundled” in 2001, three main arms of the sector; generation, transmission, and distribution, were created. They now run distinct successor companies.

Distributors, Umeme, are responsible for making new connections to the electricity grid, maintaining and repairing existing connections, and billing customers for electricity consumed. Because Umeme deals directly with electricity users, both individual and industrial, it becomes the public face of the energy sector. But Umeme only controls a portion of it. Without effective power generation, distributors are useless.

Thus, the generation sector is where much of the action, and much of the cost of lectricity, lies. Generation contributes at least 70% of the costs included in the electricity bill each customer receives. Uganda’s energy generation potential is enormous, as the country is blessed to be the home of the Nile River, which provides massive hydropower potential. Much of thecountry’s existing power generation infrastructure is old, however, and the delay of much needed hydroelectric projects has translated into higher costs.

Owen Falls Dam, now known as Nalubaale power station, was completed in 1954. During the colonial period, the Uganda Protectorate, with her advantageous positioning at the source of the Nile, was seen as the most promising generator of power in the region, although the British colonial government focused on developing industry in Kenya. The Owen Falls Dam, therefore, was originally designed in large part to supply Kenya. Owen Falls fell into severe disrepair in the 1970s, and was operating at less than half capacity when the National Resistance Movement came to power in 1986.

Investments in the past two decades, including the long-delayed Bujagali project, in addition to an expansion of Owen Falls, with Kiira power station coming online in 2003, have increased generation capacity. But generation remains below potential capacity and, with Uganda’s rapidly growing population and economy, additional investments, such as those being made at Karuma, are required to ensure demand does not outstrip supply.

Like Owen Falls Dam, much of the existing electricity distribution system also dates back to the 1950s. This network relies heavily on open-wire cables. Open-wire cables are relatively inexpensive to install, but prone to damage and outages caused by short-circuiting. Corrosion of uninsulated conductors can also make maintenance quite costly. Trying to distribute power through an outdated network is like trying to fetch water with a reed basket: inefficient at best. This is just one of the challenges distributors face in Uganda, and distributors are tasked with maintenance, updating, and extension of the network.

After years of high losses, low collections and generally poor management of power distribution, the government of Uganda signed a support agreement with Umeme in 2004. At the same time, UMEME obtained a supply license and distribution license from the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), a lease agreement with the Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Limited (UEDCL), and a power sales agreement with Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited (UETCL).

Umeme is thus like a building manager hired to collect rent from already unhappy tenants. While the manager can change the odd light bulb and maintain the cleanliness of the property, he should not be held accountable for the dilapidated condition of the landlord’s property. But holding Umeme accountable for failures that are sector-wide, both historical and contemporary, is exactly what parliament is trying to do. The public is quick to follow suit, because it is Umeme that comes knocking at their door to collect.

But let’s interrogate the key concerns raised by parliament. Key components of Umeme’s contracts and negotiations, and those which are under most intense debate currently are a) buy-out provision in the case of early termination of contract, b) the escrow account, and c) performance targets.

Key points in the Umeme debate

The buyout provision

The buyout provisions cater for three types of termination: government initiated, Umeme initiated, and “natural termination”. In each case, the government of Uganda pays Umeme.

In case of the first, the Ugandan government pays Umeme a percentage of un-depreciated investment capital. It pays between 106% and 120% of Umeme’s net investment, depending on the year of contract termination. This payment includes compensation for future profits that government has forced Umeme to forego. In the case of the second, the government pays between 80% and 94% of net investment, again depending on the year of contract termination. Finally, in the case of the third, government pays 105% of net investment.

The Parliamentary committee that recommended termination of the Umeme contract described the concessions as “lopsided” and the buyout provisions as “abnormal”. It made no reference to similar or related contracts elsewhere in Uganda, or beyond.

In fact, governments, especially in countries with high political or financial risk, must provide assurances on the security of investments in order to attract investors. Further, providing compensation for future profit foregone in the case of government default is standard practice. This kind of insurance policy, in the form of buyout provisions, is common for other investments in Uganda and in the sector in particular, including Bujagali.

Moreover, the investments made by Umeme, or any other distributor for that matter, are largely investments made in Uganda. These investments will continue to benefit the country even if Umeme is gone. To illustrate the point, consider this analogy. Imagine you own a large plot of land but have been unable to manage it. You have therefore hired someone with technical and financial expertise to invest in the planting and harvesting of your crop, say, maize. Your investor provides fertiliser for the soil, installs an irrigation system, and even constructs a processor. The land that had once sat fallow is now productive and profitable, thanks to her efforts. She takes home a portion of the profits, but also shares profits with her partners and stakeholders (including you) and increases the availability of nutritious food for the community.

Assuming you wanted to take over her now profitable business, would you simply throw her out? Probably not. You would repay her at least for the equipment she had installed on your land, and perhaps other less tangible investments. After all, they are investments made on your land that you will continue to benefit from. If you did go ahead to remove her without compensation, you would certainly have a very difficult time finding anyone to take her place. Word of your reputation with investors would spread fast.

In the absence of a buy-out clause in your contractual agreement, investors would not want to invest in your land or your power sector. Buy-out clauses are essential to attracting investment. Such provisions are especially critical in countries like Uganda that, for reasons fair or unfair, are considered medium or high in terms of political risk.

An argument can be made that the terms of the buy-out could have been better for the Ugandan government, but the simple fact is that the government agreed to these terms. An analogy again clarifies the point. Assume you were to sell your plot of land and agreed with a buyer on a price. If you later learn that you could have gotten more money for your land, something you would have known if only you had done proper research, the mistake can only be yours. You would have no basis for demanding more money from your buyer. Parliament is right to question the process through which contracts are drawn, but a mistake on the part of government, if indeed one was made, cannot itself be grounds for terminating the contract.

The escrow account

Like the buy-out agreement, the escrow account reduces the risk that investors will incur losses imposed by government. The escrow account provides a source of revenue for Umeme to draw upon in the event that government defaults on electricity payments to government entities. Indeed, government has defaulted numerous times, demonstrating the importance of such a provision.

Historically, a lot of government public utilities have failed because of government non-payment for services. By December 2012, for example, government institutions owed National water & Sewerage Corporation (NW&SC) about Shs40 billion.

The Ministry of Defense, police, and prisons are the main consumers of electricity on the side of government, and also the primary defaulters. After Umeme shut off power to police due to non-payment in 2012, police responded by impounding Umeme vehicles.

The performance targets

Another complaint leveled against Umeme by parliament is under-performance. Umeme negotiates performance targets with the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), and these targets are re-negotiated every seven years. The first negotiation was in 2005, and the most recent was in 2012. The targets and figures listed in the ad-hoc committee report are outdated both because they include information only until 2011 and also because the targets themselves were renegotiated two years ago. Umeme’s targets for the year 2012, the final year of the first period, and 2013 were the following:

Performance target 2012 Target 2012 Performance
Percentage of electricity lost 28% 26%
Investment US$65 million US$166 million
Revenue collections 95% 94%
New connections 60,000 220,000
Operating allowance US$42.5 million US$46 million (balance covered by Umeme)

The new targets for 2018 set even higher standards for losses, investment, and operating costs, and thus far Umeme is on track to achieve them. Losses today are at an all-time low of 20.5%, and collections nearing 100%, and connections exceed 220,000. The company has also installed 50,000 prepaid meters (Yaka). At least by the standards the ERA has set, Umeme is performing adequately.

Return to `dark ages’

Having considered some of the main complaints voiced by MPs, let’s turn to the consequences of their recommendation – to cancel the contract. The costs of a government-initiated cancellation of the contract are immense and numerous. The cost incurred by government to cover the buy-out payment, amounting to 120% of Umeme’s investment to date, is only one such cost. The buy-out payment may in fact represent only a fraction of government’s long-term losses.

Cancelling the contract with Umeme necessarily involves replacing the distributor. Having demonstrated willingness to terminate contracts, however, the Ugandan government is likely to have even less bargaining power than with the 2004 contract. Delays will likely ensue, and investors will demand insurance for what they will rightly perceive as a high likelihood that government will renege on its contractual word. These delays will affect distribution in the short term, and far worse service provision can be expected until the next contract is signed and at higher tariffs. Ordinary Ugandans will be literally left in the dark.

Rattling investor confidence not only affects the terms of future contracts with distributors, but also with investors elsewhere in the energy sector, including those investing in power generation.

Karuma is the next major hydropower plant, with expected installation capacity of 600MW. Uganda is counting on this plant to cover her rapidly expanding generation needs. After several years of delays and the collapse of negotiations with Norway’s Norpak Power Ltd, Chinese company Sinohydro has been awarded the contract to construct Karuma. However, financial closure has not been reached. If Uganda reneges on the contract with Umeme, it is entirely possible the Karuma project will be delayed even further, in exactly the way Bujagali was. These are delays the energy sector, Ugandans, and Ugandan industries, can simply not afford.

Already, the recommendation of MPs to cancel the contract has likely shaken investor confidence. Umeme itself relies on investors and banks to either invest in or lend money for its operations. If Umeme’s future is called into question, it will become more difficult for the company to meet its investment targets. Again, it is ordinary Ugandans who will suffer most.

The focus of the energy debate should not center on Umeme as a company or the particular agreement signed with government, but on policy and planning for the sector as a whole, with special attention to power generation. Umeme is a convenient and popular punching bag, one that politicians have been happy to hold before the public.

These same politicians are now baying for Umeme’s blood, but their assault is short-sighted, even from a purely self-interested perspective. Remove Umeme and politicians themselves will take the blows of public frustration at an energy sector that will be on its knees. Even those who want to replace Umeme – take a close look at the business interests of Umeme’s strongest critics – will find themselves facing increased upstream costs. Public anger now will pale in comparison with what will happen if Umeme gets the boot. Distribution would likely collapse and investors across the sector would retreat or demand even higher premiums. The premium on investor risk will affect not only the electricity sector, but also the oil sector where the stakes are equally high.

The ultimate victim of this political witch-hunt is not actually Umeme, but the Ugandan public. That the Ugandan public has been tricked into championing its own future losses is most tragic of all. As parliamentarians park fancy cars in their new parking yard, cut their hair in parliament’s new salon to the humming of generators, and enjoy pensions and pay raises that allow them to privately overcome the failures of the public sector, their constituents will be left powerless and Ugandan industries incurring potentially ruinously steep costs. Having in just three years passed legislation curtailing freedom of assembly, dress, and association, among others, this parliament seems hell-bent on using the remaining two years to take the country back to the dark ages, quite literally.

 

Winners and losers in Uganda’s 2013-2014 Budget

BTTB 2013-214

Winners (increased % of budget): Works and Transport, Energy, Public Administration

Losers (decreased total spending): Tourism, Trade and Industry, ICT, Social Development (what is that?), Education

Background to the Budget 2013-2014 available here.

Looks like we are focusing on physical capital at the expense of human capital. Will it pay off?

Who supports foreign aid in Uganda?

A new paper by Harris, Milner, Findley, and Nielson finds that while the Ugandan public generally prefers foreign aid to government programs, Ugandan elites (LCs and MPs) prefer government programs:

We examine the differences in behavioral and attitudinal responses between mass and elite recipients. We generally find that citizens strongly prefer foreign aid over government programs, and elites in most contexts express a preference for government programs over foreign aid. The results for masses are stronger than for the elites, but we interpret this as evidence that citizens see aid as an escape from clientelism, whereas elites may perceive more avenues for the capture of aid resources.

 

Full paper here.

In statistics we trust?

Maybe not. Foreign Policy has a fascinating (if alarming) piece on the quality of statistics in Africa. We could expand the analysis to other developing countries as well.

Upon achieving statehood, African states moved to expand their statistical capacity. They performed population censuses, business surveys, and agricultural censuses. But their ability to do this was hit hard by the economic crisis of the 1970s. The administrations faced large external imbalances, high rates of inflation and general shortage of funds which weakened government bureaucracies around the region, leaving many of them unable to measure their economies. Moreover, the statistical offices fell into further neglect during liberal policy reform that followed the economic crisis in the 1980s and 1990s (the period of “structural adjustment”).

Looking back, it seems odd that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank would have embarked on growth-oriented reforms without ensuring that governments had the tools to reliably determine whether their economies were growing or stagnating. For statistical offices, structural adjustment meant having to account for more with less: Informal and unrecorded markets were growing at the same time as the same reforms curtailed public spending. As a result, our knowledge about the economic effects of structural adjustment is extremely limited. The cumulative record of annual economic growth between 1960 and today, for African economies does not realistically show what happened with economic development.

Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, also writes about “Africa’s statistical tragedy.”

2012 SFAS conference, “Mobile Africa”

This year’s annual conference of the Stanford Forum for African Studies will be held October 26-27, 2012 at the Stanford Humanities Center. All are invited to attend. Guest speakers include Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town) and Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop, best known for his book, Murambi.

The full conference program can be found on the SFAS website.

The crumbling myth of invincibility

Published online April 16, 2012.

The recent fall of three leaders exposes the myth of invincibility

In the past few weeks we have witnessed three modes of succession in Africa:  a coup, an election, and a death in office. Former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure fell in a coup led by army officers on Mar. 22. A few days later, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade lost in a run-off election to a much younger and wildly popular opposition candidate, Macky Sall. Only weeks later, Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack, paving the way for vice president Joyce Banda to take the reigns. Now Mali’s coup leaders are themselves facing yet another transition as an interim president is ushered in.

The results in Mali and Senegal are being celebrated, one could say, as the christening, or perhaps the confirmation, of democracy. An election carried the day in Senegal and an unconstitutional takeover of government in Mali is being rolled back. Malawi could pass too. Joyce Banda is the new president, thwarting a feudal-like succession of wa Mutharika by his brother. Still, Malawi remains a work in progress.

For most people, presidents and prime ministers are conjured up imaginings both grand and grotesque. We talk about some as tyrants or despots. Others we call “father of the nation” or perhaps, philosopher-king. While we know that these individuals are human, their reputations – whether good or bad – often make it difficult to think of them as such.

I don’t often spend time with heads of state, but two years ago I attended the 2010 African Union Summit in Kampala, where dozens of leaders had come to gather. At that conference were many of the almost mythical characters we spend our days talking and writing about. Among them, Muammar Gaddafi, Abdoulaye Wade, Mwai Kibaki, Goodluck Jonathan, and Bingu wa Mutharika, the latter of whom chaired the session. These men (and yes, they were nearly all men) suddenly became real to me in a way they had never been before. They were no longer an abstract idea but flesh and blood, sitting around a satin green and white clothed table in a tent pitched on the banks of Lake Victoria. They sipped water and waited for translations in their headphones. At that moment, they did not seem powerful so much as vulnerable.

Sometime last year I woke up to the awful footage of a bleeding Gaddafi, dragged and beaten through the streets near his hometown of Sirte, Libya. My first thought, after my horror, was of the sunny days of the summit when for a brief moment Gaddafi was not an abstract “tyrant” but a terribly mortal human being, even if an extravagant one. Then a few days ago, the news of wa Mutharika’s passing again brought me back to memories of the summit, watching and listening to the Malawian president’s numerous speeches. This is not, of course, to say that there were many similarities between the two former leaders, apart from one thing – they were both men, in the mortal sense of the word.

I rarely have such opportunities to see the human side of world leaders, but it strikes me that leaders themselves inevitably do. Watching the fall of Toure, Wade, and wa Mutharika must be terrifying for many current office holders. Here they have not one but three distinct (and yes, plausible!) means of losing power. The greatest asset for many long-time leaders is precisely their non-human qualities. It is the creation and sustenance of a myth of invincibility, the suspension of reality. You can be sure this myth is in place when you cannot imagine a future without the Dear Leader, when a person and nation get fused together. Gaddafi and Libya is a perfect example of this. So too is Mobutu and Zaire, Mugabe and Zimbabwe, Kim Jong-Il and North Korea, the Saudi royalty and their kingdom. Often these men live so long that you even begin to believe that something supernatural must be at work. Alas, all things good and bad must come to an end.

Leaders, however powerful and long-lived, are increasingly bombarded with reminders of their own mortality, political or otherwise. So too are their publics. The myth of invincibility is deteriorating quickly, and its destruction accelerates with every political transition. As a leader, what lessons can be learned from these recent turnovers?

For one thing, the increasing strength of political institutions cannot be overlooked or underestimated. The days of overrunning constitutional power are not over, as the case of Mali demonstrates, but their days are numbered. The triumph of constitutionalism in Senegal, Malawi and even Mali provides evidence that the supremacy of the law is very often real. Articles of the constitution may seem innocuous and pliable, but they provide a focal point for society. The law, written clearly for all to see, provides a line in the sand between just and unjust. Those who dare to cross that line do so at their own peril.

Moreover, the legacies of leaders are increasingly dependent on their respect for and adherence to these maturing political institutions. Leave the political playing field graciously and you will be heralded as a champion of democracy and progress. Stick around to play by the old rules, and you will likely find yourself kicking and screaming all the way to The Hague.

Finally, if leaders worry over their own mortality, they had best get their national hospitals in tip top shape. This business of flying to South Africa (much less Singapore) for medical treatment, a luxury reserved only for the elite, is absurd. South Africa is too far when a health crisis strikes, even if you have your own personal jet. If it takes selfish fear on the part of leaders to prompt the development of good medical facilities, so be it. No one said development has to be an entirely selfless enterprise. Just get on with it already.

Our biggest development challenge

Published online April 11, 2012

Why solving inequality is a must for Africa’s development

In the morning young children brush their teeth outside makeshift houses as a snaking line of Range Rovers crawls by.  In the afternoon, businessmen fill cafes while street vendors peddle their goods in a sea of commuters inching towards home. In the evening, toddlers sit transfixed by flat-screen TVs while their neighbors sit playing by candlelight. We are living in a world where shopping malls are popping up alongside young boys herding cattle – a clash of peoples occupying the same space but living lives that bear no resemblance to one another.

Rarely in history have such extremes coexisted. The yawning chasm between rich and poor is palpable but not physical – lives but not livelihoods overlap. In some ways, disparities in wealth are inevitable. Countries whose average annual income is in the hundreds of dollars but whose annual economic growth soars at rates of 5% and beyond are bound to experience uneven transitions to prosperity. Access to opportunities, education, even liquidity is not even or equitable. We can’t wish away these disparities, but sooner or later, we will have to address them.

This was also the message of a keynote address by John Githongo, Kenya’s famous whistleblower, at a conference on innovations in governance a month ago at Stanford. I had heard a lot about Mr. Githongo and read Michela Wrong’s popular book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, which documented his time fighting corruption in the administration of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. I had heard so few critical words about the man that I began to become suspicious – surely he could not be as saintly as depicted! Like all of us, Mr. Githongo surely has his flaws, but I have none to report. His speech was simply exceptional.

The message? Inequality is the primary development challenge of the next few decades – inequality of outcomes and opportunities, of expectations and aspirations. Inequality is not only morally repugnant but also easy to politicize, ethnicize, and militarize in Africa, he argued.

Herein lies the real threat to development  — a new round of conflict and instability triggered by inequalities that are the product of the very economic transitions for which we strive.

Githongo likened our current state of affairs to a meeting of old and new technology. We have often been successful in getting right the hardware of the state – infrastructure, education, health – or at least making noticeable progress in these areas. However, the software, made up of political rights and freedoms, is outdated. Combining old software with new hardware is like buying a brand-new Dell laptop and loading it with Windows ’95 – it will have a blue-screen! And what follows is not pretty.

Where political opposition and mass protests have been successful at toppling regimes, there has frequently been a political hangover. After the euphoric triumph of the many over the few comes the realization that updating the software of political freedoms and institutions does not happen overnight. The end of dictatorship does not call for champagne. The inequalities that prompt regime collapse do not disappear with the despot.

The challenge of political instability provoked by inequality is particularly acute in urban areas. There are vast disparities between rural and urban populations, but it is the inequality within urban areas that seems to drive most conflict. Revolutions rarely begin in the countryside.

The hopefulness of the Arab Spring just one year ago has given way to the realization that we do not know how to cope with the mobilization of society based on inequalities, whether economic or political. Sitting governments often retaliate violently, exacerbating societal tensions that are already on the verge of a breaking point. Ordinary citizens do not know whether to join the masses in protest, run for their lives, or sit tight and wait for calm. The dominant actors on the world stage shout past each other, often rendering impotent international institutions like the United Nations.

The good news that in many places, the software is being updated, albeit in fits and starts. Coups and election violence notwithstanding, there have been gains in political freedoms across the continent. The development of the media, slow strengthening of parliaments, widespread acceptance of elections, and multitude of multiparty elections that have increasingly resulted in regime transitions are all evidence that political freedoms are far from stagnant.

Of course, just as with a computer, it is frustrating when the machinery of politics and society temporarily freezes or crashes. You lose your work, and you lose time. But if we are discouraged at the pace of progress, we have not only to look at ruling parties but also at the would-be political and social entrepreneurs who have not always put pressure on the powers that be or provided a viable political alternative. Inequality has allowed political opposition to mobilize the masses, but what comes next? Without organizational or institutional infrastructure, opposition parties and coalitions are unlikely to prove any better than the regimes they oppose.

Watching cities like Kigali or Kampala increase in size and wealth is inspiring, but the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is also larger than ever before. Inequality will not vanish as countries grow, and may eventually impede or even threaten further progress. For this reason Githongo’s case is a strong one: inequality will be one of the greatest development challenges of this generation. I think we have the tools to avoid a meltdown. Everyone knows what Windows ’95 is a dinosaur. The question is, who is in charge of the update?

Does women’s empowerment promote economic development?

Conventional wisdom and a number of recent papers say yes, but Matthias Doepke and Michèle Tertilt have a paper out that suggests we think twice about this relationship:

“In this paper, we examine the link between female empowerment and economic development from the perspective of economic theories of household decision making. We develop models that are consistent with the empirical observation that an increase in female resources leads to more spending on children. We use these models to address two related questions. First, we focus specifically on programs that target transfers to women and aim to raise female income, and ask whether such policies really make children better off. Second, we consider a wider range of policies, and ask whether alternative forms of female empowerment have similar effects.
While at first sight it may seem that existing empirical evidence is sufficient to answer these questions, our theoretical analysis shows that this is not the case. We demonstrate that the link from the observed empirical patterns to policy implications is far from obvious: the effects of policy interventions are highly sensitive to the details of the underlying economic model, unintended consequences can arise, and different forms of female empowerment can have opposite effects.”

Full paper available here.

In related news, happy Women’s History Month! International Women’s Day 2012 is this Thursday, March 8. More on this soon.

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.