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September 21, 2012

In Uganda, Mixed Reactions to Africa’s Youngest MP

by Hilary Heuler

The Ugandan parliament swore in the youngest MP in African history this week, 19-year-old Proscovia Alengot Oromait.

Proscovia Alengot Oromait, a 19-year-old from eastern Uganda, took her oath of office Thursday as Africa’s youngest-ever member of parliament. Having won a local bi-election last week, Oromait will be filling the seat of her late father, a legislator who died in July.

But the difference is that while her father was an independent, Oromait belongs to Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement or NRM.

The election is historic, leading some local media to speculate that politics could be changing in a country where around 50 percent of the population is below the age of 15.

But speaking to reporters on Thursday, Oromait made no claim to represent Ugandan youth, saying simply that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I wanted to run the programs that were left by my late dad behind. I want to fight [for] peace and unity between Teso and Karamoja. And that’s why I went for these bi-elections,” she said.

Nicholas Sengoba, a political commentator for Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper, says the NRM was not seeking the youth vote when they chose her as their candidate.

“The calculations are not made in that way," Sengoba explained. "The calculations were for a victory, and that’s it. So it’s not really about that.”

What it is about, he says, is winning. The ruling party has lost a number of recent bi-elections, and Sengoba says the NRM’s priority at this point is to maintain their power in parliament. Party leaders guessed that Oromait might garner sympathy votes because of her family history, he says, and they guessed right.

“The NRM has been extremely desperate to stop this trend, and this perception that it is no longer an electable party, especially at the parliamentary level.  Because you know, the strength and the numbers of NRM within the parliament has helped to perpetuate this party and President Museveni in power,” stated Sengoba.

Not all NRM parliamentarians are pleased that their new colleague, fresh out of high school, is so young and inexperienced. For some, the election was an embarrassment, says Sengoba. “It has left the NRM within that particular region very, very divided. There are people who felt that this particular girl was simply stuffed down their throats. It is a very great embarrassment," he said. "And we don’t know how it will affect this young girl.”

But Oromait insists that despite her age, she is up to the task, and that voters in her district believe in her. “It’s not age that works, it’s the brain and the knowledge that one has to fight for the constituency," she said. "I believe I can fight for the people in my constituency, and the sole reason as to why they voted [for] me, it’s because they knew I’m capable of doing what they want.”

Oromait is currently enrolled in a university, and says she plans to balance her studies with her new duties as a politician.