June 21, 2016

By Matthew Sebastian


A fighter jet conducts training exercises above. Credit: Matthew Sebastian

This summer I am conducting preliminary dissertation research on the place of young people in contemporary post-conflict northern Uganda. From ~1986/7-2006 northern Uganda was the site of an intense and drawn out conflict between the Government of Uganda and a number of rebel groups, most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). While the conflict has since left Uganda and moved into neighboring states, the Ugandan state and its military remain at the helm of counter-LRA missions, there has been no formal resolution or cessation of hostilities, and northern Uganda sits at an uncertain impasse of not-peace/not-war. As new violence broke out in Gulu in May and June of 2014, residents were quick to call attention to the open migration of both military personnel and arms along its roads. As I traveled towards the South Sudan border a year and half prior in 2012, one young man remarked, “They tells us war is over, but we know better,” as a fighter jet conducted training exercises in the sky above us.


Many consider the war a breaking point between generations, the literal fracturing of cultural heritage from their youth. This often comes up when I speak with older men who are leaders in their communities. “You see this boy, he does not know,” I was told as a young man stood peering around a wall just behind us, listening intently to a conversation I was having with an elder from Kitgum. The young man, despite his demonstrated interest in the content of our exchange, was presumed to have no bearing to engage in the history we were discussing. He was written off as being concerned with “other things.” Yet, after our conversation, the young man approached me eager to learn about the colonial memories of Acholiland the man had shared.


A memorial statue dedicated to the children affected by the war at GUSCO, a rehabilitation center for young ex-combatants that was central during the war.

A memorial statue dedicated to the children affected by the war at GUSCO, a rehabilitation center for young ex-combatants that was central during the war. Credit: Matthew Sebastian

Uganda is often touted as having the youngest population in the world, a characteristic that has brought an enduring anxiety for governmental and non-governmental bodies alike. Some reports estimate that 77% of the population in Uganda is under the age of 30 – with Gulu District standing at 71% – and there is a real fear that these demographics are simply untenable in the context of overwhelming, long-term unemployment and lack of access to formal education and other forms of learning. There has been a massive upsurge in governmental and non-governmental projects to develop youth into what, for example, the finance minister has called “a future productive force” (2012), particularly in northern Uganda where protracted conflict has been present throughout the full span of their lives. With many families displaced from their homes for more than two decades, a large portion of young people were denied formal education and have been left, as many put it, to just “struggle along” with limited support from what remains of informal family and patronage networks.


It is in this context that young people have become a major focus of state, nongovernmental, and community intervention programs. While many of the emergency relief organizations and programs have since left, youth-focused programs have proliferated. As I worked on a larger project on documentation and memorialization projects over the last five years, the specter of the young and idle Acholi man or woman continued to haunt the conversations I had with a diverse group of government, NGO, and community practitioners. It is these economies of care and disregard (such as we see above, with the elder from Kitgum) enacted through these intervention programs that I am interested in pursuing this summer, and for my more formal dissertation field work next year.


The Gulu District Youth Council Strategic Plan 2014/2018, published last year, is one such program. The report is a five-year strategic plan for how to deal with what it calls the problem of idle youth in Gulu District through bureaucratic intervention led by a partner of local government. The language is important here. The report makes clear that its goal lies in “uniting, mobilizing, and in protecting youth from all forms of manipulation” (my emphasis). It seeks to produce a Gulu that is “a fairer, more equal place, with fewer of us likely to face manipulation and more of us able to realize our potential to the fullest.” It is about acting as “a just and caring society” by “recognizing the duty we have to the vulnerable (the young and the disadvantaged) lots in our society.” The language of protection and care here pulls from a humanitarian ethic that is the cornerstone of documentation that has a deep history in northern Uganda. The Millennium Development Goals are mentioned regularly throughout the report, as are the partnerships to be forged with community-based organizations and international NGOs. It situates itself squarely as a post-conflict form of bureaucratic care for what it considers a neglected population in need of protection: youth.



A close-up of the statue. Credit: Matthew Sebastian

One of the things I want to do with this research is think about the present-ness of “post-conflict” as a particularly imaginative space, where novel forms of relations can be forged at what is often spoken about as a dawn of a future that is about to come (just beyond the horizon). This is not to say that bureaucratic management or decision making is done on a clean slate – of course these styles of governance regularly reach into already-established precedents to produce the five-year plans we see today. However, what I do want to emphasize are the ways in which future-making projects in a post-conflict moment are positioned in such a way that they often mark their territory on the novelty of a new dawn. I’m interested here in what João Biehl calls the “present-day fields in which life chances are forged – the crucial economic and moral significance of care.”


We might then turn our attention to how and why young people come to matter to state and NGO led interventions, not dissimilar to questions above about how and why particular memories and histories come to matter to particular memorialization projects. An attention to modes of bureaucratic care that seek to transform the future of their young subject-beneficiaries might elucidate another important form of state power in the aftermath of protracted civil conflict. I’m looking forward to learning more in the coming month.