What 20-year-old Proscovia Oromait lacks in political experience, she makes up for in self-assurance. “I went into politics because I saw the corruption in Uganda and the way politicians behave,” Oromait – described as probably the youngest member of parliament in African history – told the Guardian. “I want to fight for my nation.”
The sudden rise of a young woman with new ideas might be cause for celebration in Africa. But Oromait is hardly an anti-establishment figure: her father was an MP and she worships longtime ruler Yoweri Museveni, while the opposition derides her ascent as “juvenile politics”.
The second of eight siblings, Oromait became interested in politics at the age of 12. She was a high achiever as class monitor, a prefect and journalism club president at her school. She also fell in love with Charles Dickens.
In July, as she turned 20, her father died. Her response was to run for his vacant parliamentary seat herself. Usuk, in eastern Uganda, is an impoverished rural constituency of some 100,000 people, with only one functional secondary school.
“My dad passed away and I wanted to fulfil his manifesto,” she recalled on Friday. “I believe no one could fulfil his manifesto instead of me. He fought for agriculture, which I am following through. Wherever he is, he’s feeling happy now. He always said to me: ‘You have to become a politician.'”
But her age became a burning issue at the byelection hustings. “During the campaign my opponents intimidated me,” she claimed. “They went on the radio and humiliated me. But I stood as me and decided I’m going to stand until voting day. As Obama said: ‘Yes I can.’ Yes, Proscovia, I can.”
She added: “Many people have been making propaganda against me. But I say it’s not the tiny body, it’s the brain in here. I don’t like the way they intimidate me. I say: ‘I am a woman.’ I didn’t have an advantage because of my father. He was a good man. I have to complete what he started.
“If you want corruption, vote for the people who did nothing for five years. The politics of Uganda is not only for the old. It is also for the youth of today and tomorrow.”
Oromait was never less than confident of victory, though the opposition claims it was marred by vote rigging, corruption and violence. “I went to sleep. I told my aunties, wake me when I’ve passed. They woke me and I said, ‘God is good.’ We celebrated for a week and I spent a lot of money. Yesterday I was sworn in and we celebrated again.
“I remain what I am. I am here to serve the people of my constituency and listen to their needs. They send me to do what they want. I’m like a customer to them. The people here respect me. If you respect me, I will respect you.”
On Friday she also registered at the Ugandan Christian University to study journalism, which she will combine with parliament. “It’s just a matter of time,” she said by phone, while simultaneously typing an essay and making soup for the local community. “There is nothing that can defeat me.”
Some 45% of the Ugandan population is under 25 years old. Oromait, who is single, admits that entering parliament will mean a different life. “I feel sad that I’m losing my youth. I’m going to be with a group of people who are mature in mind. I won’t feel strange when I go into parliament. The MPs are like my parents,” she said, adding: “I do have friends the same age as me.”
Museveni’s ruling party had been pushing hard for a win in Usuk, having lost seven in eight parliamentary byelections this year. The result has come to be widely seen as a test of the president’s popularity after 26 years. He is delighted with his new protege.
Oromait said: “The president was very excited because his party won the election and the youngest MP comes from his party. If I ask, he will give me. He calls me his youngest daughter.
“He’s a good leader. People say he’s a corrupt man but he’s not. If he was, Uganda could not be in the position it is today.”
But the opposition regards Oromait as the latest warning sign of a decadent system. Salaam Musumba, the deputy president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), said: “It’s a very dangerous trend evolving in Uganda. We are going to a point of juvenile politics. Our country needs seasoned thinking and maturity. I see a pattern of monarchy emerging. This is like passing on the baton to another member of the family.”
She added: “In a normal democracy it’s really a shame that a 20-year-old is an MP. She’s not an role model for young people: being young is about discovery. It tells us the underlying picture of politics in Uganda.”
Sam Akaki, the FDC’s international envoy to the UK and European Union, said of Oromait: “Her limited education also casts serious doubt whether she will contribute anything in parliament, leave alone understand its procedures. This is hardly the way to promote the youth and democracy in Uganda. She will certainly not become Uganda’s William Pitt the younger, who became British prime minister at 24, because Museveni will stand and [win] the 2016 elections by hook or crook.”
Barnabas Tinkasiimire MP described the election of Oromait as a national embarrassment. “When you analyse that baby, what kind of knowledge and experience does she have?” he asked the Associated Press. “This is unbelievable.”