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Uganda's Young People View Upcoming Presidential Election As A Chance For Change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's head overseas for a moment now to the African nation of Uganda. With an average age of 17, the country has one of the youngest populations in the world. That means most voters who'll go to the polls tomorrow to elect a leader have only known one president - Yoweri Museveni, who's been in power for 35 years. His rival, a singer-turned-politician who is half his age, has electrified young people, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The capital of Uganda is known for its boda bodas, motorcycle taxis that crowd at intersections and weave through traffic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

PERALTA: They are mostly driven by young men. Vincent Kizito, who is 24, lounges on his motorcycle in downtown Kampala. Over the past few years, he says security forces have made his life impossible. They look for every violation to arrest him or impound his motorcycle to squeeze a bribe out of him.

VINCENT KIZITO: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The little money he gets, he says, goes to the cops. But Kizito says he is hopeful right now, and it is all because of the singer-turned-presidential-candidate Bobi Wine. He says Bobi Wine rose from the ghetto, so he knows the struggle. Bobi Wine's run for president, he says, makes him believe that change is possible.

Did you used to care about politics?

KIZITO: (Through interpreter) No, I never did. I never thought that I had got a candidate who would show me the beauty about Uganda, what I can be and what I can do for my country.

PERALTA: Sarah Bireete of the Center for Constitutional Governance says young people in Uganda represent the largest part of the electorate, but they are left at the margins of society with few jobs or opportunities. She says that's the way it's been for decades. And so in the previous two elections, young people stayed home. But five years ago, Bobi Wine was elected to Parliament. He led a rebellion against the social media tax and against changing the constitution to allow President Museveni to run again. Both efforts failed but...

SARAH BIREETE: Bobi Wine reenergized young people, and they are now interested in the affairs of their country.

PERALTA: Bireete says they are also sophisticated. They grew up on the Internet, carefully studying mature democracies. And they know what Museveni calls a democracy - one full of crackdowns on opposition and free speech - is not that.

BIREETE: They cannot take an excuse of democracy, and that's why they're on the streets fighting.

PERALTA: On the outskirts of Kampala, Ronnie Mwange, who is 28, shows me his house.

RONNIE MWANGE: This supposed to be a dining.

PERALTA: He built this house with money from his motorcycle taxi. It was never his dream to drive a motorcycle, but he was orphaned. He couldn't afford school. And with a motorcycle, he could hustle 24/7. He says he survived on soft drinks to save enough to build this two-bedroom house.

MWANGE: This is supposed to be a garage.

PERALTA: Oh, I see.

MWANGE: Supposedly if I get a vehicle.

PERALTA: You can still dream in Uganda.

MWANGE: Yeah, we can still dream in Uganda. But if I tell you at my age and the way I work, I wouldn't be only having this.

PERALTA: He deserves better, he says. Uganda deserves better. He says in the past, he didn't care much for politics. But this time, he made sure to stop by his polling station to pick up his registration.

Why?

MWANGE: Because I still have hope that maybe this time around, things might change.

PERALTA: Maybe this time, he says, young people can change Uganda.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kampala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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