Monday, October 8, 2012

At 19, this girl is Africa’s youngest MP

Usuk County MP Proscovia Oromait Alengot at Parliament recently. She says she is not bothered by her critics.

Usuk County MP Proscovia Oromait Alengot at Parliament recently. She says she is not bothered by her critics. PHOTO by Geoffrey Sseruyange. 

By JOHN K. ABIMANYI jabimanyi@ug.nationmedia.com

For a fresh Member of Parliament barely out of her teens, Proscovia Oromait Alengot is learning the ways of her trade pretty fast.

Hardly a month after she was elected the Usuk County MP in Katakwi District, Eastern Uganda, Alengot is already a deft hand in the political art of elusiveness. Maybe it is in the DNA of “the people of people”.

This is probably the reason, to this date, a sense of mystery still surrounds the youngest MP in Africa.

Alengot has evaded interviews with journalists through persistent postponing, cancellation, rescheduling of appointments, or simply declaring herself unavailable.

In one incident, she picked up the phone and, in the midst of playful banter in the background, she said she was attending a prayer service.

In just the space of three months, she has had to cope with the transformation of a simple girl waiting to join university to being the subject of flashing cameras and a star in political rallies, a wacky world where shrewdness is essential for survival. And not forgetting that she had to mourn the loss of her father in between.

Today, as ordinary 19-year-old girls the world over invest their energies into starting university education and launching an initial bid at a career, Proscovia Oromait Alengot, now Hon Alengot, spends her time between university theatres and Parliament.

Alengot rose out of the wilderness of obscurity after her father, Michael Oromait, died of hypertension on the morning of Saturday July 21, this year.  She succeeded him as MP for Usuk County.

Some people say that Alengot was fronted and talked into the idea by the ambitious district woman member of Parliament and minister for Education, Maj Jessica Alupo. But Alengot says she did it under her own steam.

Newspapers have quoted family members as saying that Alengot took an interest in the requirements for one to become an MP after her father’s death.

To many onlookers, the 19-year-old’s candidature was a big joke. Few even gave her a chance. After all, she would go nowhere, they thought.

But Alengot had powerful backers, one of them being President Yoweri Museveni, who campaigned for her. She enjoyed photo ops with the big man, appearing dressed in oversized traditional busuti (dresses) alongside the president during the campaigns.

In the end, she won 54.2 per cent of the vote.

It is after the election results were announced that, for many, the reality sank in; Uganda now had a teenage member of Parliament. Critics were quick to spread their opinions of disagreement in all manner of forums, especially online.

“I pity my country Uganda and what has become of it. This little gal knows neither politics nor the problems affecting her people. She should be at school chasing a career,” commented one Tabbyusa.

Others, however, offered their support. “What are you talking about? That is what we want Uganda to be. If she can pay taxes and serve in the military, why not serve her country?” one Jackson quipped.

Political scientists and psychologists agreed that her age cannot be a hindrance.

Robert Tabaro, who teaches political science and public administration at Kyambogo University, says anybody aged 19 is old enough to legislate at a national level if they have an interest in politics.

It is when the person in question is “pushed”, and has not “chosen” to take up the mantle that they may not be unable to deliver.

Tabaro says that if Alengot was simply lured by the forces surrounding her, then her tenure in Parliament would be unlikely to bear good results for her constituency.

Paul Nyende, a psychology lecturer at Makerere University, says that at 19, one  is mature enough to participate in legislation. However, their childhood experiences and knowledge base will determine how well they perform.

An individual who has harboured leadership ambitions and has been exposed to positions of leadership at home and in school would fit the role, Nyende says.

The influence of one’s parentage would also be important — whether their parents encouraged them to take up leadership roles, for example.

But Nyende says the radical change from a private life into full limelight has the potential to wear down a 19-year-old. The young MP will, therefore, need someone to manage her life and offer support and advice.

Alengot seems to have that support from Maj Alupo, who appears to be her political mentor. It is this protective circle that is understood to be shielding her from journalists and telling her what to say in public — and, most importantly, what not to say.

Alengot is a First Year mass communication student at Uganda Christian University in Mukono District, a two-hour drive from Kampala.

Sources from the university describe the young MP as a confident, reserved girl who limits her interaction and socialising to two friends from her former high school.

She cites urgent constituency and parliamentary matters, among other engagements such as appointments with her wardrobe designer and hairdresser, whenever students seek to spend time with her.

Alengot attends only morning classes and is always punctual. She sits at the back of the classroom and rarely makes a contribution.

She is chauffeur-driven to school and does not have meals at the university dining hall. She dresses in formal wear that goes below the knees.

The Observer, quoting a former teacher, reported that Alengot won a beauty contest in high school two years ago. The paper also reported that there is controversy over her real age, as some official documents indicate that she is 21.

Alengot went to Madera Girls’ Primary School in Soroti,  Kigulu Girls’ Primary School, Iganga Girls’ School, PMM Girls’ School, and St Kalemba Secondary School in Kayunga. She spent a considerable part of her childhood in Jinja District, where her father’s main home was. This is about 200 kilometres from the constituency she now represents.

Many challenges will face any member of Parliament in their first term. But the odds are much higher against Alengot because there is more interest in her performance than that of an ordinary MP.

Every submission on the floor, every point of order, every point of information, every word she says in and out of Parliament will be latched upon by journalists seeking to create an image of what contributions she can make. It will be worse if she does not say a thing because that will vindicate her critics who say she has nothing to offer.

And Kampala’s notorious tabloids will be snooping around for any hint of sleaze.

Usuk constituency, and Uganda as a whole, now wait to hear what contributions she will make to the country’s development.

There will be interest in what proposals she will offer, say in the formulation of the Pension Bill or even the Domestic Relations Bill, for a person who has neither been married nor been employed before.

For Proscovia Oromait Alengot, life could feel like an adventure right now. But politics is not just an experience in excitement; she will need guts, wits, and the spirit of a fighter if her story is to conclude in a happy ending.

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