Uganda’s riot police officers detain an activist during a march in support of the European Parliament resolution to stop the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. Photo: REUTERS (2022)

Recently the Ugandan government approved the construction permit for the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which will allow a future export of 246,000 barrels of oil per day. The consortium behind the project is now seeking additional financing. Meanwhile, there is growing harassment of civic actors monitoring development of the EACOP. Defenders are being subject to government surveillance, cancellation of their operation permits, frozen bank accounts, repeated arrests and abuse.

According to a recent European parliament resolution, over 100,000 people in Tanzania and Uganda are at imminent risk of displacement because of the new pipeline. Many of them fear their livelihoods will be threatened by the EACOP consortium, owned by the governments of Uganda and Tanzania, French oil company TotalEnergies and China’s parastatal oil giant CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation). 

Since 2018 the consortium has acquired farmland and houses along the 1,443km route of the pipeline. Many communities affected by the project claim their compensation is insufficient to allow them to acquire equivalent land elsewhere. They fear that the ongoing compulsory acquisition of land will lead to poverty and widespread unrest.

Civic actors in Uganda are assisting affected communities to assert their rights in the face of involuntary resettlement and loss of livelihoods. However, they are facing increasing criminalization from the national government. Based on confidential interviews, civic actors told Just Finance International that they are encountering threats from both the police, subsidiaries of the EACOP consortium and state agencies in Uganda.

Ugandan activists march in support of the European Parliament resolution to stop the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. Photo: REUTERS (2022)

Representatives from 20 Ugandan civil society organizations, all working with EACOP affected communities, have reported office break-ins, stolen computers and cell phones, surveillance of staff, threats to freeze bank accounts, digital surveillance and attempts to hack emails and organization websites. Some of the organizations have even been “exposed” in state-controlled media in an effort to harm their reputation.

These NGOs reported that over 30 human rights and environmental defenders have been arrested by the Ugandan police in the past year for campaigning to stop EACOP for providing economic or legal advice to affected communities. In many cases, defenders have been held in custody for more than 48 hours longer than legally allowed before being released. Defenders have also been detained outside the legally allowed locations and have been unable to communicate with relatives or their organizations. In some cases, they have been physically injured, according to civil society representatives.

Several organizations have raised concerns that reprisals may discourage human rights defenders from carrying out their activities.

The organizations claim the government fears the campaign against the EACOP will harm the country’s reputation or put at risk the personal gains of people in the government. It is mainly organizations scrutinizing the oil sector that have been targeted.

“The NGOs are thought to have access to national and international spaces, which the government wants to sanitize in order to appear good in the international community. It is likely this will scare away investors”, one of the NGOs told Just Finance International.

Another NGO suggested that the harassment is in response to the fact that NGOs have been educating communities on their rights.

“The government is scared of an empowered public as it threatens political stability”, said one NGO.

The problems for Ugandan civil society started in 2019 when more than 12,000 organizations were told they could no longer operate in the country following the government’s review of officially registered NGOs. Only 2,118 NGOs were allowed to continue with their activities. At the time, observers said the move was the beginning of a purge on NGO activities.

In August 2021, Uganda suspended the operations of 54 NGOs that were working in the areas of human rights, transparency, accountability and governance. More than half of the organizations were working on issues related to the EACOP. The NGOs were regarded as non-compliant with the 2016 NGO act, despite the fact that they were all registered correctly.

Many organizations claimed their paperwork was in order and that the government was using the NGO law to harass and close down organizations with whom they disagreed. Some organizations have taken the government to court to prove their legal compliance.

The Ugandan police have stopped peaceful demonstrations against the pipeline project. In 2020, police in the city of Hoima detained five environmental human rights defenders who held a peaceful demonstration aimed at stopping the oil activities in the Bugoma forest, a critical biodiversity resource.

Last year, police detained nine students in Kampala for being rowdy and blocking walkways while protesting against the pipeline, actions the police claimed obstructed and inconvenienced the public. The arrests happened after a dozen of the demonstrators had gathered in Kampala to deliver a petition accusing the government of seizing people’s land. The police broke up the group and arrested an additional nine students, claiming they did not have permission for the demonstration. The students were released on bail one week later.

In mid-December four activists were violently arrested by the police in Kampala and detained for holding a demonstration against the oil pipeline and climate change. One of them, Jackson Ssemwanga, disappeared for several days but was later released by the police.

TotalEnergies, which is the biggest shareholder with organizations in the EACOP project, claims it recognizes the importance of protecting human rights defenders and has initiated discussions in order to better engage with and understand the difficulties they encounter. China’s CNOOC has not officially commented on the claims of human rights abuses.

According to the UN declaration on human rights defenders, states are obligated to safeguard the effective protection of human rights defenders under national law. Total Energies and CNOOC have a responsibility to prevent, mitigate and, where appropriate, remedy human rights abuses that they cause or contribute to. This is also true for the state of Uganda, which must stop targeting human rights and environmental defenders. 

So far 24 banks and 18 insurance companies have declined direct support of EACOP, according to the organization Reclaim Finance. Targeted harassment of civil society actors must be a key issue when other investors and insurance companies consider financing the next phase of the EACOP project in Uganda.