Ugandan Activists Face Criminal Charges Following Pipeline Protest

Human rights watchdogs sound alarm on crackdown on environmental advocates in the East African nation.

IN UGANDA, the climate crisis poses a real and present threat to citizens. So too does the act of protesting against climate-polluting projects, due to the state’s brutal crackdown on climate activists.

That threat is being felt by 11 young climate activists, all of the them Kyambogo University students, who have been embroiled in Uganda’s criminal-legal system since late last year. The students were arrested while protesting against the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), a 1,443-kilometer pipeline that will transport crude oil produced in Uganda’s Lake Albert oilfields to Tanzania’s port of Tanga for export. The most recent crackdown came on Dec. 15, when four activists, members of Justice Movement Uganda, were arrested — and, they say, beaten — by security forces during a peaceful march to deliver a petition to the country’s parliament. The petition asked parliament to halt the pipeline project and free seven of their colleagues who were arrested in November and locked up in the country’s Luzira Maximum Security Prison.

EACOP protester

More than 30 environmental and human rights defenders, many of them students protesting the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021. Photo courtesy of Phototheque AT.

“My friends and I, numbering over 50 students, marched from our hostels of residence to parliament, but only a few us managed to reach the gate of the parliament because we were attacked by police from the start,” Bwete Abdul Aziiz, one of the four students arrested on Dec. 15, told Earth Island Journal. The 26-year-old Kampala resident was separated from the main body of protesters along with a few other marchers. Although this separation helped the smaller group reach the grounds of the parliament, it led to their alleged assault and arrest by Ugandan security forces.

“They kicked us all over our body and slapped us repeatedly,” Abdul Aziiz said of the assault. The security forces then drove the activists to the Central Police Station, where they were detained for four days. On Dec. 19, the same day the first group of seven protesters gained their freedom, Abdul Aziiz and three others, Lubega Jacob, Lutabi Nicolas, and Kalyango Shafik, appeared in court on the charge of causing public nuisance, which carries a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment. From there, they were remanded to Luzira, where they spent the holidays. It was not until Jan. 10 that they able to obtain a bail. They appeared in court on March 11, and are due back on April 17 for further hearing.

Since their release on bail, the activists say they have been receiving anonymous calls often accompanied by threats of physical harm unless they stopped campaigning against TotalEnergies. The French energy company, together with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Tanzania State oil companies, is currently building the pipeline.

“Ever since we got bailed out, life has not been the same, due to continuous threats from unknown people, and we have been shifting our places of residence over and over due to fear for our safety,” says Abdul Aziiz. He has since lost his job, which he relied on to support himself, his two siblings, and his mother, and to pay his tuition at Kyambogo University where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Arts and education.

THEIR ORDEAL, analysts say, demonstrates the incredible odds faced by Ugandan climate justice activists trying to stop a massive fossil fuel project in a continent that is on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe. “What has been happening is that the judicial system is harsh for those against the project, like any other advocates who asks question about governance issues in the country,” a Ugandan oil and gas expert, who wishes to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the Journal.

Under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, a staunch backer of EACOP, climate activists in Uganda regularly report being threatened, harassed, and prosecuted. At least 30 environmental and human rights defenders, many of them students, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021, according to a November report by Human Rights Watch, which was published before the November or December arrests.

“The illegal arrests and fake trials of activists who are protesting against EACOP is part of the government and oil companies’ strategy to instill maximum fear among Ugandans so that no one questions the excesses happening in the EACOP plans,” Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of public policy research and advocacy group AFIEGO-Africa Institute for Energy Governance, told the Journal. “In effect, the arrests and trials have no legal basis but just evil objectives to continue shrinking the civic space.”

Once described as a mid-sized carbon bomb by the Climate Accountability Project’s Richard Heede, the EACOP, which will cost an $5 billion to construct, comes with six pumping stations to maintain the oil flow and pressure in the pipeline (two in Uganda and four in Tanzania). It will terminate at Tanzania’s coastal city, Tanga, with a terminal and jetty from which crude oil will be loaded onto tankers. It is expected to be operational by 2025, and if completed, would be responsible for 34 million tons of carbon emissions per year for some 25 years.

Human Rights Watch has warned that the oil pipeline has already “devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda” by displacing them from their homes “and will exacerbate the global climate crisis.” The project passes through multiple ecologically sensitive areas in Uganda and Tanzania and requires land acquisitions covering some 6,400 hectares. Consequently, villagers have reported cases of land grabbing, displacement, disruption to families and villages, and unfair and inadequate compensation for losses.

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Impacted communities say the Ugandan state has enabled TotalEnergies in violating their rights. Nyakato Magreat, a single mother from Kasinyi village in Buliisa District, which had previously rejected TotalEnergies plan to make use of their lands, provided an example of the government’s role. Speaking at a mock tribunal organized by a coalition of civil societies, Make Big Polluters Pay (MBPP), last May, she recounted how soldiers invaded their village to force them to back down. “The Hon. Minister for lands came to our community with many soldiers who were carrying guns, and most of us accepted the compensation amount of UGX 3,500,000 ($905) per acre, which we had earlier rejected out of fear. Total then gave me a small one-bedroom house on a small plot of land, despite my large family,” she said.

A December report by international NGO Global Witness also outlines evidence that TotalEnergies has been involved in efforts to intimidate impacted communities to accept offers for their land. The report documents cases where community members say they were forced to sign agreements without a chance to read them, as well as cases where armed security forces accompanied company and government officials making the compensation offers, pressuring them to sign.

TotalEnergies has denied involvement in the arrests of climate activists or pressured disposition of lands. In response to request for comment, the energy company said that it is committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights and standards anywhere it operates. A similar request for comment sent to the Ugandan Police Force went unanswered as at press time.

But activists continue to insist that the company is an accessory to violations committed by the Museveni government. “I think that the actions of Total and others amount to aiding and abetting injustices. By virtue of contract with the government, they have powers and can walk away if the other party/government violate people’s rights,” Kamugisha said via text. “But they are enjoying the outcomes of violence, displacements, and fear created.”

The Ugandan activists are not alone in their experience. Around the world, environmental activists face serious threats of violence as they defend their lands and the climate. What’s more, governments are increasingly criminalizing peaceful protest by climate protesters. That includes through the enactment of new anti-protest laws in places like Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and the enforcement of existing ones in places like Germany, Italy, France, India, and Egypt.

“EACOP IS A TIME BOMB which needs to be stopped as soon as possible due to the environment hazards and social violations it encompasses,” Mpiima Ibrahim, a climate activist and student of Kyambogo University, told the Journal. The 22-year old, who escaped arrest during the march in December, believes that although “many people say it is a pathway to development, EACOP is actually a pathway to extinction, since science has made it very clear that we have approximately one decade to cut down our global emissions before we face severe climate catastrophe.”

Despite contributing only 2 to 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Africa continues to experience extreme weather events ranging from floods to droughts and to heatwaves, which leave a trail of destruction and fatalities. Last year, Libya’s storm-fueled flood claimed over 11,300 lives in September. At around the same time, more than 3,000 people lost their lives due to flash floods in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and at least 860 people were killed in Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which affected Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, Malawi, Réunion, and Zimbabwe, according to reports. Today, over 29 million people continue to face unrelenting drought conditions across Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Niger.

All of which is why, amidst the brutal crackdowns, Ugandan climate activists are not backing down. “Everyday we make sure that we are doing something to stop this deadly project,” Abdul Aziiz says, “and our goal is to see that climate justice prevails and climate destroyers must be punished.”

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