BULIISA, Uganda – Ugandan environmental campaigner Judith Bero-Irwoth has spent years warning of the risks of a planned crude oil pipeline and its impact on communities in the west of the country.
Protests by activists like Bero-Irwoth have ramped up in the Albertine Graben region and the capital, Kampala, in recent years since France’s TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation struck deals to develop Uganda’s oil fields.
The agreements include the proposed $3.5-billion East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which would ship crude from Lake Albert in Uganda to global markets through a port on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast.
Development groups have raised alarm about the impacts on the climate – saying the pipeline will generate 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually – and on communities, as an estimated 14,000 households are at risk of losing their land.
But climate campaigners are increasingly being targeted and stifled under the Public Management Order Act and legislation governing NGOs, said Dickens Kamugisha, chief executive of the Kampala-based Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).
Bero-Irwoth said she had become more cautious since police stormed her home in Buliisa district in September 2021 during a community meeting about the oil development plans.
While she and some others managed to flee, Bero-Irworth said police seized documents including attendance sheets and used them to track down and arrest her and several locals for holding an “unlawful assembly” and “sabotaging government projects”.
“The government will do anything to make sure that no one talks to communities about the dangers of this oil pipeline,” said Bero-Irwoth, who heads Tufanye Pamoja, a community green group whose name means “Let’s Work Together” in Swahili.
“They want to silence us,” she said, noting that 26 of the group’s 500-odd members had been arrested since the meeting.
Albertine police spokesman Julius Hakiza said the members had “failed to seek permission from a district police officer … (and) were arrested for holding an illegal assembly”. He could not provide the exact number of arrests.
Under a tightly-controlled system led by President Yoweri Museveni since 1986, Uganda has faced criticism from rights advocates for using restrictive laws to stop political dissent.
Internal affairs ministry spokesman Simon Peter Mundeyi denied that the government wanted to “stifle climate activists”.”The law is clear and if activists don’t follow the procedures, we will have no option but to arrest them,” he said.
‘We work in fear’
More than a dozen people in Kampala have been arrested at two separate protests against the oil pipeline since October alone, according to the city’s police and protesters involved.
Biology teacher Bob Barigye said he and three other protesters were charged in December with “inciting violence” and being “a public nuisance”, and spent a week in police custody where they were accused of spreading Western propaganda.
“All we want is to have a peaceful dialogue with the government so that they can stop the oil pipeline,” the 34-year-old said, adding that the four demonstrators had been released on police bond and were due to appear in court later this month.
Justice ministry spokesman Simon Peter Jamba said he could not comment on any such arrests until the courts had delivered judgments. No climate activists have been convicted to date.It’s not just individuals who have faced sanctions.
The Ugandan government in August 2021 suspended the operations of 54 NGOs, some of which had campaigned against the oil production plans and advocated for the affected communities.
Kamugisha of AFIEGO said he was arrested in 2021 because his organisation – which has advocated against the EACOP – was found to be operating without a valid permit under the NGO Act, despite being registered as a not-for-profit company.
“The government does all (of this) to instill fear in you so that you don’t hold them accountable. Many climate activists and critical organisations are suffering because of that,” he said.
Beatrice Rukanyanga, founder of another NGO that was also affected – the Kwataniza Women Farmers Group – said they were seen as “anti-government and anti-development”. Her organisation was suspended for four months but is now active again, she said.
“The civic space is shrinking every day in Uganda, and as climate activists we work in fear, yet we have to fight for ourselves too,” said Rukanyanga, whose NGO is based in Hoima district, from where the EACOP would transport oil to Tanzania.
Hakiza of the Albertine police said the authorities sometimes suspended NGOs for “spreading Western propaganda (about the oil pipeline) to influence the locals into activism”.
Hoima Resident City Commissioner Badru Mugabi accused local anti-oil activists of being “deceitful”, and said they were “mobilising people to begin protesting against the oil project that is meant to benefit all Ugandans”.
The pipeline plans have faced opposition outside Uganda too. The European Parliament in September passed a resolution urging Total to delay development by a year to consider alternatives.
At the U.N. COP27 climate change talks in Egypt in November, Africa’s chief negotiator Ephraim Shitima, of Zambia, criticised Uganda for its response to the anti-EACOP protests, which he referred to as “forms of expressions from helpless communities”.
In the Albertine region, those protesting against oil production must also contend with worsening climate change.
Residents of Kasenyi village, where Total is building an oil treatment plant, said farmland was increasingly being flooded since large swathes of trees that acted as a buffer during the rainy season had been felled to make way for the facility.
Charles Onen, chairperson of the Resettlement Planning Committee for the surrounding Ngwedo sub-county, said he was threatened by the police after holding a protest with locals to raise concerns about several issues including the flooding.
Onen said “they warned me that if I didn’t find a way to control my people, I will find myself in jail”. Police spokesman Hakiza denied Onen’s version of events, calling it “baseless”.
Total’s head office did not reply to requests for comment, but one of its Uganda-based employees – who spoke on condition of anonymity – said the company had held meetings with local community leaders to “ensure smooth operations”.
The oil giant has previously promised to ensure “sustainable development including the environment and respect for human rights”, and said that adequate compensation, housing and livelihood projects would be provided for impacted households.
At a meeting last month, Bero-Irwoth urged community members not to rush into agreements with Total.
She said the company had asked residents whose land abuts the treatment plant to sign documents agreeing to give up part of their land in order to establish a clear demarcation between local homes and the facility.
Bero-Irwoth said it was a bid to avoid land conflicts in the future, adding that Total should clarify how it would compensate people for damage if an environmental disaster occurs.
“Right now our communities are battling with floods but Total is yet to address the problem,” Bero-Irwoth said.
“If it takes them long to address a problem like this, what will happen if a major disaster strikes, especially when the oil pipeline begins to operate?