Expert Commentary

From violence to voting: War and political participation in Uganda

2009 study published in the American Political Science Review on how soldiers in Uganda's civil war are more likely to engage in post-conflict political participation.

Since the late 1980s, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group originally from Northern Uganda led by Joseph Kony, has been engaged in a war with the Ugandan national army, the People’s Defense Force. In the developing world, this type of protracted civil war is far from uncommon. The effects of long-term armed conflict on former soldiers — a subject within the emerging field of post-conflict research — is an area that continues to be examined.

A 2009 study from Yale University in the American Political Science Review, “From Violence to Voting: War and Political Participation in Uganda,” assesses the effects war-related violence and combat have on social and political participation in Northern Uganda. The study uses survey data from more than 700 male Ugandan youth, ages 14 to 30, from the rural areas of Kitgum and Pader, where LRA recruitment in the form of abductions was widespread over the two decades of war.

The study’s findings include:

  • There was an increase in voter turnout among former soldiers abducted by the LRA as compared with non-abducted youth; among those who experienced abduction, there was an “11 percentage point increase in the probability a youth older than 18 voted in the 2005 referendum.”
  • Having been abducted was associated with a greater likelihood, by 3.4 percentage points, that a young man will be a community mobilizer.
  • Among abducted youth, those who witnessed more acts of violence during their time with the LRA were more likely to be politically active after their abduction, with “each additional act of violence witnessed … associated with a 4.2 percentage point increase in the probability of voting and a 2.3 percentage point increase in the probability of being a community mobilizer.”
  • Among the ways that abducted and non-abducted youth differ in experience, having witnessed acts of violence is the factor that most strongly affects abducted youth’s greater likelihood to be socially and politically active later in life.

Similar connections between conflict experience and political connections have been detected in other countries, the author notes, including in Sierra Leone and Aceh, Indonesia. In Uganda, “interviews with the youth yield narratives of newfound self-control, confidence, and skills. Such accounts, although far from conclusive, nonetheless mesh with psychological theories of posttraumatic growth and political evidence on expressive voting…. These findings may have (hopeful) implications for millions of fighters in dozens of war-torn countries, especially in Africa. To the extent that positive political engagement also springs from violence against civilians, many more millions may be affected in the same way.”

But the author also notes that the study has several limitations that should restrain “generalizations of the results,” including the limited way that political participation was measured (confined to voting, community leadership and holding of political jobs), and that the survey only sampled young men.

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