An officer from the Ugandan army participates in the burning of fishing boats near the shore of Lake Albert. Photo: Just Finance International 2024.

The Ugandan army is accused of human rights violations in the fishing communities around the shore of Lake Albert. Community members have witnessed assault, battery, and detentions without charge. Soldiers have allegedly forced families to abandon their homes, boats, and fishing equipment, depriving communities of their most basic means for survival.

The expanding oil operations of China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), a Chinese parastatal company, in Uganda’s Kingfisher Development Area, have been accompanied by intensifying abuse of the local communities. During one recent field visit, Just Finance International was told by community members that soldiers from the Uganda People Defence Force (UPDF) have forcefully evicted families from their homes in several villages. 

Along the southern bay of Lake Albert, families have been fishing as a primary means of livelihood for generations. One year ago, there were approximately 1200 people living among the 13 villages next to CNOOC’s oil fields. In the past couple months, JFI has corroborated that many of these inhabitants have been forced to leave the area. In some villages, as many as two out of every three residents are gone. According to local testimonies, seven out of the total 13 villages have been either completely emptied or partially occupied by the Ugandan army. 

While the Chinese company CNOOC expands their oil operations, the Ugandan army are systematically evicting people from the villages surrounding the project. According to testimonies seven out of 13 villages have been emptied or occupied by the Ugandan army. Photo: Just Finance International (2023)

Before the arrival of CNOOC the land in Kingfisher was communally owned. The Ugandan constitution (under Article 26) clearly provides for prompt, fair and adequate compensation for affected communities before the land is taken. Yet the evicted households have not received adequate compensation from the army, the government, or CNOOC. Nor have community members received adequate relocation assistance.

JFI learned from interviews that armed soldiers camped outside the homes of local villagers. The soldiers informed the villagers that their homes must be evacuated within two days. After the villagers and their families were evicted, the soldiers brought their own wives and children and moved into the abandoned houses. In some cases, the soldiers began cultivating the gardens and fishing with the same boats and nets that had been confiscated from their original owners. 

Video showing how fishing boats are taken away from their owners by men dressed in military uniforms.

For these fishing communities, the problems began after CNOOC arrived in the area in 2013. Gradually, it began acquiring more land, causing greater disruptions to the communities’ traditional ways of sustaining themselves.

A decade after the parastatal Chinese oil company first arrived in Kingfisher, the broken promises have accumulated and tipped into violence. Earlier pledges of improved living and work conditions were quickly broken or forgotten according to the community members. 

Assaults, abuse and detention

“CNOOC promised us qualified work, but we didn’t get any. Instead, they brought labor force from other areas in Uganda. We can only get casual work. The payment is only 10000 Ugandan Shillings (about 3 USD) a day which is too little to survive from,” recounted one man.

Witness testimonies from the community describe nearly daily assaults by the occupying soldiers. Fishermen who tried to resist say they have been attacked with sticks, and in some cases even been beaten until they lost consciousness.

The UPDF forces have reportedly prohibited local fishermen from fishing in Lake Albert, citing alleged breaches of fishing regulations. If the fishermen did not stop, they would be “held under detention,” the soldiers said. 

As previously reported by JFI, UPDF forces have confiscated and even burned  the villagers’ fishing boats and nets. Other families say they have received orders forbidding them to cultivate their vegetables and crops. Traditional herdsmen from the villages told us they have even had their livestock seized or slaughtered.

Fishing boats and nets being burned by the Ugandan army at the shore of lake Albert. Photo: Just Finance International 2024.

Women interviewed by JFI recalled witnessing incidents of sexual abuse by the occupying soldiers. In some cases, the soldiers entered the homes of young women and forced them to choose between providing fish to the soldiers or else having sex with them.

Other women told JFI that some girls from their villages have been forced into cohabitation with the soldiers and moved into their barracks. There have been further allegations of some women resorting to prostitution with UPDF soldiers for survival.

Some of these women are reportedly under 18 years old. Villagers told JFI that members from their community are taken into detention almost every day. When JFI visited the area in February, over 28 people had been held in custody since January. In most cases the detainees were held for a few days, but some had been detained for up to two weeks without any formal charge.

Basic legal procedures appear to have collapsed to petty bribery. Some detainees obtained their release only after their relatives paid money to the guards. After the payment was offered, the doors to the cell would be opened, allowing the detained person to escape while the guards looked the other way. 

Community members told JFI that many detainees had no access to food in their cells, and that it fell upon family members and relatives to provide them with food. In some cases, detainees were left for days without anything to eat.

The area around Kingfisher oil development used to be a flourishing fishing community before the interventions of the Ugandan army. Photo: Just Finance International 2023.

According to the community members, none of the detainees, even upon their release, were ever provided with any documentation indicating the basis of their detainment, nor what their charges were. The military simply said they used “bad fishing methods” – a claim contested by all the fishermen JFI spoke to. The community members protested that it was not in the UPDF’s mandate  to regulate fishing activity on the lake and arrest citizens.

Economic hardship

The army’s erratic confiscation of fishing boats and equipment has created immense economic hardships for the Kingfisher communities. For generations fishing has been the engine of the local economy. Without income from fishing, many other businesses in the communities have suffered. Many local villagers have resorted to taking out loans, or selling their belongings, including livestock such as cattle, simply to afford food for their families. 

The herdsmen in the area are also struggling to survive. The expansion of CNOOC’s oil operations has pushed their cattle far from their traditional pasture grounds, leaving many cattle with too little to eat. One herdsman told JFI that CNOOC has imposed movement restrictions on the cattle, and that he must now travel two kilometers away in order to feed his cattle. Three of his cows have died while his remaining cattles can no longer produce milk due to the lack of food and clean water.

Most families interviewed by JFI say that they can only afford to eat once, or at most, twice a day. Some can only afford to eat cassava which is the cheapest staple food. Before the military’s impositions, the villagers had no issue serving three balanced meals a day for their families. All the community members who spoke to JFI said they were forced to withdraw their children from school because they could no longer afford the school fees.

The military’s intensifying harassment, detentions, and disruptions have pushed many community members to leave their generational homes in search for a more stable life elsewhere. Among those who remain, some have had to accept unpredictable day labor opportunities from CNOOC, even as they say the wages are too low to support a family. This has created greater pressure on the local fishermen to try and  secretly fish during nighttime, despite the enormous risks of military retaliation and detention.

Fish drying in the sun for sale in a local community market, befor the recent army clampdown. Today almost all activities supporting Kingfisher community has been banned. Photo: Just Finance International 2023.

The deteriorating conditions in these communities have caused enormous stress on the Villagers. Fishermen worry ceaselessly about how to earn basic income to feed their families and make payments for hospital and school fees. JFI heard about rising cases of depression in the communities, as well as increased incidents of suicide.

Representatives from the community have attempted to contact CNOOC to share their grievances. The company has responded to community complaints with repeated pledges of change, yet there has been nothing to show for it, according to the community representative​​s.

Many community members JFI spoke to believe that the army has plans to clear all of the villages surrounding the Kingfisher oil field, and that there was nothing the villagers could do to prevent it. Increasingly, they are resigned to move elsewhere and look for other means of survival. If they don’t, they fear the worst might happen.

“The soldiers detain and torture us. They carry guns and they can shoot us,” one man told JFI. “We are frightened.”

Who is Financing the operations in the Kingfisher oil field?

The biggest shareholder in the Kingfisher project is TotalEnergies EP Uganda (56.67%), followed by CNOOC Uganda Limited (28.33%) and the Uganda National Oil Company (15%). 

China’s CNOOC Uganda Limited is the operator of the oil field, with financial ties to the Bank of China and other major Chinese financial institutions (see list below). 

However, four prominent western banks are among the top ten lenders and underwriters to CNOOC. At the end of 2022 the biggest lender/underwriter was Citigroup, followed by JPMorgan Chase.

The ten biggest investors/underwriters in CNOOC

Lender/underwriterCountryTotal lending or underwriting
USD million (Dec, 2022)
Bank of ChinaChina3148
China International Capital CorporationChina1611
China Development BankChina869
Agricultural bank of ChinaChina685
JPMorgan ChaseUSA672
Goldman SachsUSA672
Industrial and Commercial Bank of ChinaChina549

Footnote: This data was provided by Reclaim Finance and was originally provided for the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero in January 2023.