09/20/2012 12:16 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST

Why Young Blood in Politics is a Good Idea


Kampala's chaotic, dusty streets are always crowded. Women with babies selling newspapers, boda guys calling passengers over, street kids begging for money and school kids giggling as they walk home in their old-fashioned uniforms. But there's one sight you will rarely see, if at all: seniors.

This shouldn't be a surprise, considering that 83 per cent of Uganda's population is under 30. And this isn't unusual in Africa. According to the UN World Population Prospects, 60 per cent of the continent's population is under 25 years old, while only 5 per cent are between 60-80 years old.

The issue of age recently exploded in the Ugandan media when a 19-year-old woman won a by-election in Usuk, Uganda. Suddenly, the newspapers and street chatter were dominated by speculation on what it meant that a 19-year-old, who hadn't even finished her secondary education, could win an election. How could someone so young, so inexperienced, adequately represent her constituents? A general unease seemed to emerge over the thought that youth could be running for politics -- should politicians not be experienced, mature, thoughtful or at the very least, finished with school?

Sure, Proscovia Alengot Oromait may not be a lawyer or a businesswoman, but if young people are the majority, then they must be represented. After all, so many of the continent's problems are a particular burden for youth. Take education: Uganda only has a 67 per cent adult literacy rate and one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. The nation suffers from high child marriage rates, high infant mortality rates, poor healthcare systems and a crumbling infrastructure. How can youth compete on a global level when they are so hampered by lack of resources every step of the way?

And if youth will face the consequences of poor planning and deficient services, they might also bring a new perspective to politics. A look at the recent by-elections, marred by violence, allegations of corruption and voter intimidation, suggests that maybe having young people in Parliament might not be so bad.

In following the media response to Oromait's election, I thought of some of the comments after the 2011 Orange Wave victory in Quebec where a number of students were elected as Parliamentarians. Many of them were ridiculed and written off some kind of mass political error. And yet, contrary to the pundits, these young parliamentarians haven't stumbled or failed. It has been inspiring to watch young Parliamentarians like Pierre-Luc Dusseault, (elected at the age of 19) and the so-called "McGill Four" -- all of whom are under 24. They have shown real poise and maturity in their roles. Young Dusseault has even been elected Chair of one of the most politically fractious Parliamentary Committees -- Ethics and Accountability.

I think Alengot will provide a similar fresh perspective. There is even a greater urgency for voices like hers in Uganda. She knows first hand the difficulties facing the youth population in a country with underpaid teachers and poor social support. She can speak for the millions of disenfranchised youth who are struggling to find their place in a hostile market with little social support.

In Uganda, as in Canada, the youth are the ones bearing the brunt of the global economic crisis, and yet are facing constant criticism for being entitled for wanting a good education and decent jobs. They have a right to be represented and heard. Sure they may not have the "experience" of older politicians but can they do any worse than Uganda's Museveni or Canada's very own Stephen Harper?

To Ms. Alengot I say, you go, girl.