Citizenship/Mwananchism from Below: Constructing Citizenship in Uganda

Ivan Mugulusi (St Louis University, USA)

Authoritarian regimes prefer obedient and docile citizens who will perform the public functions demanded of them and who will not try to change the status quo (Svolik 2012). Opposition groups hope for the opposite: citizens who will feel inspired to march in the streets demanding free elections, who will see themselves as responsible agents capable of effecting change. While regimes have many tools at their disposal to mold the citizens they want to have, opposition groups face a tougher challenge. They need to convince the public to behave in a new way in the face of years of socialization to the contrary and often without access to popular means of mass communication. In this text, I examine the ways opposition groups in autocratic regimes nudge citizens out of docility and into action, helping them construct new identities as citizens empowered to act instead of subjects cowed into silence. Relying on original interviews with and observation of activists in Uganda, I show how activists offer people ways to participate that reject the docile roles governments intend for them. In particular, I show how activists help people form horizontal bonds with others like themselves, constructing a new definition of citizenship from below.