Human Rights Watch (HRW) has leveled allegations against Ugandan authorities, claiming they are involved in the harassment, arrest, and physical assault of activists and demonstrators who are protesting a significant East African oil project led by the French energy giant, TotalEnergies.
This $10-billion venture, undertaken by TotalEnergies in partnership with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, aims to develop oilfields in Uganda, which President Yoweri Museveni has lauded as an economic boon.
However, it has encountered strong opposition from human rights activists and environmental groups.
Legal actions in France and concerns raised by the European Parliament regarding wrongful imprisonments of environmental activists and inadequate compensation for those evicted from their land have added to the project’s controversy.
The project involves drilling approximately 400 oil wells within Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, the country’s largest protected area, and transporting crude oil via a 1,445-kilometer pipeline to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.
TotalEnergies contends that those displaced by the project have received fair compensation, and measures have been taken to safeguard the environment.
HRW conducted interviews with 31 individuals in Uganda and Tanzania between March and September 2023, including 21 activists, many of whom disclosed facing threats, harassment, and arrests without charges.
John Kaheero Mugisa, the former head of the Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association, who advocates for fair compensation for those displaced, reported multiple arrests, and deteriorating health after seven months in prison.
Activists in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, as well as in Buliisa and Hoima, the towns closest to the oilfields, revealed that their offices were raided in 2021.
These pressures and threats have hampered their work due to the fear of arrest and the potential loss of their livelihood.
One displaced individual, Jealousy Mugisha, traveled to France for a court hearing and was detained and interrogated upon his return to Uganda.
Government security agents at the airport issued a chilling warning: “You are not supposed to witness in France again. If you go again, you will lose your life.”
HRW also spoke with students who were arrested during protests against the oil project.
One protester described being detained at a demonstration in June at Uganda’s parliament, where he was subjected to beatings by uniformed parliamentary security officials, who used batons, gun butts, and their boots to subdue the demonstrators.
Felix Horne, a senior environment researcher at HRW, characterized this situation as a “chilling crackdown” that stifles free expression concerning one of the world’s most contentious fossil fuel projects.
He called on the Ugandan government to immediately halt arbitrary arrests of anti-oil pipeline activists and safeguard their right to exercise freedom of expression in line with international human rights norms.
In response to these allegations, TotalEnergies expressed its recognition of the importance of protecting human rights defenders, affirming its stance against any attacks or threats towards those who peacefully and lawfully promote human rights.
The Ugandan government, however, has not responded to the allegations presented in the HRW report.
HRW had previously called for a halt to the oil project in July, citing severe environmental and community-related concerns, while President Museveni remains committed to the project.