Shape of Things to Come: Uganda’s Demographic Barriers to DemocracyApril 13, 2010 By Elizabeth Leahy Madsen
In March, Uganda’s cultural landmark, the Kasubi Tombs, were destroyed in a suspicious fire. Tensions spilled over when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni paid a visit to the Bugandan site and found his entrance blocked by an angry crowd. According to an independent newspaper, soldiers accompanying the president opened fire, killing three civilians.
With ethnic-tinged unrest and student protests in Kampala, as well as cross-border conflicts in the north and east, Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, is facing a potentially serious test as elections approach early next year. The country’s demographic profile, and in particular the lack of opportunities for growing numbers of young people, will add to the country’s challenges, as I argue in a new case study of Uganda’s demography.
Uganda has the youngest population in the world, with 77 percent of its people younger than age 30. Women in Uganda have an average of 6.7 children each and 41 percent of married women have an unmet need for family planning. The population of Uganda is currently growing by about one million people per year, and given the force of its demographic momentum, Uganda’s population is likely to almost double by 2025 even if fertility declines.
Population Action International has found that countries with age structures like Uganda’s are the most likely to experience internal strife and autocratic governance. Between 1970 and 2007, 80 percent of outbreaks of civil conflict occurred in countries in which 60 percent or more of the population was younger than age 30.During that same period, 90 percent of countries with an age structure like Uganda’s had autocratic or only partially democratic governments.
Demography alone does not cause conflict. Most governments, even those with youthful populations, do not become entrenched in internal violence and upheaval. But age structure affects a country’s vulnerability to conflict, due to the demands a government faces in providing for its growing numbers.
In Uganda, young people face diminishing prospects in agriculture, the primary industry, as plot sizes shrink with each successive generation. At projected population growth rates, land density may increase 350 percent by 2050, from 122 inhabitants per km2 to a possible 551 inhabitants per km.
Only one-quarter of students who enroll in primary school reach the final grade, and even those with university degrees find few jobs. A reported youth unemployment rate of 22 percent is even higher in urban areas.
After 25 years in power, President Museveni will stand for a fourth official term in 2011. Despite growing dissent among his constituents, he appears confident of keeping his seat. Regardless of what happens next year,Uganda’s leaders must firmly commit to addressing their country’s demographic issues.
Age structure can become a window of opportunity if youth are engaged in society and couples can choose the number of children they can support. But in Uganda, that window remains far out of reach.
Three new case studies from Population Action International on Haiti, Yemen and Uganda examine the challenges specific to countries with very young age structures and recommend policy solutions.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a senior research associate at Population Action International (PAI). She is the primary author of the 2007 PAI report The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World.
Photo Credits: “Atanga.pater.uganda,” courtesy of flickr user Kcarls.