They threaten us, they close our offices. They tell us repeatedly not to work on oil. ‘It is forbidden’, they say… But if we stop this means people being displaced [from the oil project] don’t know their rights and have no one to turn to that can help them get the compensation they are entitled to.
– Environmental Defender in Buliisa, Uganda, April 2023
The East African Crude Oil Pipeline project (EACOP) is one of the largest fossil fuel infrastructure projects currently under development globally. Uganda’s oil development, if completed, will include hundreds of wells, roads, and a 1443-kilometer pipeline – the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world – connecting Western Uganda’s oilfields with the Tanzanian coast.
Environmental defenders in Uganda have heavily criticized the project because of the risks it poses to the environment, local communities, and its contribution to climate change. Anti-EACOP and climate activists in Uganda have criticized the Ugandan government for approving the project, as well as Ugandan and international companies potentially involved in its finance, insurance, construction, or operation. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is a staunch backer of Uganda’s oil sector and has warned he will not “allow anybody to play around… [with his] oil.”
This report is based on interviews with 31 people in Uganda between March and September 2023, including 21 anti-EACOP activists in Uganda.
Human rights defenders (HRDs) including civil society organizations raising concerns and providing support to affected communities about the oil projects describe being subjected to a steady barrage of harassment, arrests, and threats in Uganda. At least 30 protesters and HRDs, many of them students, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021, when the government heightened a crackdown on environmental and human rights organizations, suspending 54 organizations on the basis of vague language in the 2016 NGO Law.
Many interviewees told Human Rights Watch that police detained them for several days in police stations or unknown places before releasing them without charge. At time of writing, there are several cases against protesters before the courts on the spurious charge of “common nuisance” under the Penal Code. Police in 2021 raided the offices of some civil society organizations who work on EACOP, in the capital, Kampala, and in the two towns closest to the oilfields, Hoima and Buliisa. Such raids often involve police confiscating computers, taking registration documents, closing offices, and threatening staff.
Staff at these NGOs described the impact these actions have on their ability to effectively carry out important monitoring and documentation work. They told Human Rights Watch of difficulties in communicating with the media, staff retention, having to be less public in their advocacy, and softening messages to avoid harassment. One staff member described how his organization was branded as “anti-government” and “anti-development” by security and government officials for raising concerns about EACOP, while other organizations described a growing difficulty in securing funding or other forms of support for their activities.
With limited options to influence government policy, some Ugandan NGOs have partnered with French organizations to challenge EACOP in France where TotalEnergies, the majority owner and operator of the project, is headquartered. Two Ugandan activists who travelled to France for a court hearing in December 2019 said they have experienced regular harassment by Ugandan security and government officials since their return.
In July 2023, Human Rights Watch reported human rights violations associated with EACOP’s land acquisition project including inadequate compensation, and constant pressure from officials, threats of court action and threats from local government and security officials for those who have rejected compensation offers. Many displaced people told Human Rights Watch that local NGOs have become invaluable in helping understand the compensation process and the different avenues open to them to secure fair compensation. Many of these same NGOs told Human Rights Watch that they faced numerous threats from local government and security officials, explaining that it was now more difficult to provide support to those negatively impacted by the oil projects.
This crackdown has created a chilling environment that stifles free expression related to concerns about one of the most controversial fossil fuel projects in the world. The Ugandan government should immediately end the crackdown on human rights defenders, anti-EACOP activists, and protesters, and TotalEnergies should reiterate to the government of Uganda that it will not tolerate threats of any type to human rights defenders working on oil issues and lay out measures it will take should such threats exist.
This report is based on interviews with 31 people undertaken between March and September 2023. This included 21 human rights defenders, who have received threats or harassment for their role in raising concerns about oil projects. Interviews were in person or via secure phone interviews. We also interviewed a further 10 people with contextual understanding of the threats to oil sector human rights defenders in Uganda, including local councils, journalists, NGO representatives, and other human rights defenders, in addition to reviewing various NGO and media reports, social media posts and oil project documents.
No interviewee was offered any form of compensation. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to end the interview at any point, and gave informed consent to be interviewed. Due to fears for reprisals from proponents of the oil project, some interviewees asked to remain anonymous and some identifying information is being withheld.
Human Rights Watch wrote letters to TotalEnergies on October 6 and to the government of Uganda on October 12 and 13. TotalEnergies responded on October 23, 2023. These communications are included in the annex.
While this report documents the human rights risks that human rights defenders in Uganda face opposing oil development there, it comes amidst a shrinking space for climate protest and activism worldwide and a proliferation of critical infrastructure laws and other restrictions on demonstrations and civil society activism more generally.
To the Government of Uganda
- Drop all criminal charges against climate activists, human rights defenders and others expressing concern over EACOP who have been charged for exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression, including the students detained on October 22, 2022 and September 15, 2023.
- End arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of human rights defenders, anti-EACOP activists, and peaceful protesters.
- Respect and protect the rights of all human rights defenders and civil society organizations in Uganda to exercise freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, in accordance with international human rights norms.
- Send clear, unequivocal, and public messaging to government ministries, security forces, and companies operating in Uganda to uphold constitutional guarantees on freedom of assembly, expression and association. Make clear that any person found threatening, intimidating, or otherwise restricting human rights defenders, civil society organizations, protesters, or others from peacefully expressing views on oil development or any other government policy will be held to account, including under the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act.
- Cease use of the NGO Act and the Public Order Management Act to stifle legitimate operations of civil society organizations.
- Hold regular meetings with civil society organizations doing activism around the oil sector.
- Communicate, in public and private, to the government of Uganda that it will not tolerate threats of any type to human rights defenders working on oil issues and urge the government to drop spurious charges against human rights defenders, climate activists, and others expressing concern over EACOP who have been charged for exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression.
To Financial Institutions and Insurance Companies Considering Providing Support for Fossil Fuel Development in Uganda
- Publicly commit to not providing finance, insurance, and other forms of support for the development of EACOP or associated projects.
Uganda’s Civil Society Environment
Uganda’s government limits the space for independent voices, increasingly imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The authorities routinely place restrictions on media, online communication, and social media while state agents harass, intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, and unlawfully detain journalists. Civil society organizations and human rights defenders regularly report being threatened, harassed, and subjected to politically motivated criminal charges for their legitimate human rights work.
These threats were particularly pronounced in the year leading up to the 2021 elections in an effort to restrict the space for political opposition. Subjects considered off-limits, in so far as they will trigger retaliation, include statements and other actions that support LGBTQI rights, or critique the military or oil development. The right to peaceful assembly is persistently curtailed, with authorities blocking protests and gatherings and security forces using disproportionate force to break up demonstrations including arresting, beating, and threatening protestors. This is despite the Constitutional Court twice striking down provisions of the Public Order Management Act (POMA), 2013, that criminalize unauthorized public meetings and demonstrations.
Uganda’s Non-Governmental Organisations Act of 2016 heavily restricts the activism space by giving broad powers to the National Non-Governmental Organisations Bureau, the state regulator body for NGOs, to suspend, blacklist, or revoke the licenses of organizations under the guise that they are engaging in activities “threatening national security” or “prejudicial to the security, interests or dignity of the people of Uganda.” The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years for failing to “produce to the [NGO] Bureau a certificate, permit, constitution, charter or other relevant document or information.”
On February 6, 2023, the government announced it was not extending the mandate of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda, among the largest stand-alone UN human rights offices in Africa.  This has served to further heighten concerns about the shrinking space for human rights defenders.
In 2019, Uganda procured $126 million worth of closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) surveillance technology from Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, and in July 2021, announced that it had entered an agreement with a Russian company to set up an “Intelligent Transport Monitoring System,” which is a vehicle surveillance system involving the registration of vehicles with tracking devices embedded in them.
Although Uganda has a data protection law and related regulations, the law has large loopholes. The Data Protection and Privacy Act of 2019 provides that under the pretext of “national security” personal data can be collected. The Regulation of Interception of Communications Act of 2010 also provides for “lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Uganda.”
The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP)
Globally, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project is one of the most significant fossil fuel infrastructure projects under development. Uganda’s oil development, if completed, will include hundreds of wells, hundreds of kilometers of roads, camps, and other infrastructure and a 1443-kilometer pipeline, the longest heated pipeline in the world, connecting western Uganda’s oilfields to the Tanzanian coast. The first commercial wells were drilled in the Tilenga oilfields in June 2023. Infrastructure development is underway and compensation under the land acquisition project along the pipeline corridor is 96 percent complete as of September 2023.
The oilfields lie in one of the most sensitive and ecologically diverse areas of the world, at the crossroads of Lake Albert, Africa’s seventh largest lake and the headwaters of Africa’s main basins for the Nile and Congo rivers. Over 400 kilometers of the pipeline runs alongside Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria — a primary water source for more than 40 million people.
EACOP comes at a time when the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and other experts warn that if the international community is to reach the goals stated in the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, no new fossil fuel projects can be built. 
Human rights defenders and climate activists have focused their messaging on EACOP’s potential greenhouse gas emissions, its current and future harms to local communities, and the environmental sensitivity of the ecosystems the pipeline will traverse. They have criticized the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments for their support of the project and Ugandan and international companies potentially involved in its finance, insurance, construction, or operation. Ugandan civil society has played a critical role in ensuring that the oil developments respect people’s rights through educating project-affected persons about their rights, successfully advocating for the increase of district compensation rates, assisting communities in understanding the compensation process and assisting them to resolve grievances with oil company representatives.
As EACOP development pushes ahead amidst global frustration over inadequate government actions to limit fossil fuel development, so too have protests in Uganda, largely in its capital, Kampala. Uganda has emerged as an important country in Africa for climate activism including the global Fridays for Future movement.
While most EACOP activism has taken place in Uganda where impacts are likely to be most acute and in France where EACOP’s majority owner and operator TotalEnergies is headquartered, concerns over this project’s contribution to climate change have spread globally and it has become one of the lightning rods for the global anti-fossil fuel movement.
The European Parliament and various UN Special Rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment have raised concerns. Legal challenges in Uganda, France and at the East African Court of Justice, some of which are still ongoing, have added to the project’s uncertainty. Demonstrations and other direct actions have taken place in France, Germany, the UK, South Africa and other countries around the world in an attempt to influence potential funders and insurers to steer clear of this project.
Arrests and Threats against Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders
Human rights defenders, civil society staff and climate activists in Uganda described to Human Rights Watch a variety of arbitrary arrests, threats, office raids, and intimidation against individuals who raised concerns about EACOP and other oil developments. Uganda’s government uses its laws, courts, and security forces to harass, intimidate and pressure human rights defenders, civil society, and other protesters into silence.
Since October 2021, at least 30 separate politically motivated arrests against individuals protesting or trying to address the risks of the oil projects have taken place while civil society that continue to work on oil do so under intense pressure from government and security officials who press them via phone and in person to halt their oil sector activities.
Civil society organizations operating in the towns of Buliisa, Kikuube, and Hoima are at particular risk given they are located near Uganda’s two oilfields, Kingfisher and Tilenga. One civil society organization board member explained:
There are no embassies here, we have little independent national and international media [here], there are no lawyers or big NGOs here, the UN isn’t here and no one here respects the law…it’s a small area – everyone knows who we are. So we are very vulnerable.
Many of these organizations have closed or greatly restricted their projects related to oil in face of the threats.
The Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association (OGHRA) is a community-based organization that was formed to defend the rights of people impacted by the Tilenga oil project as frustrations grew about inadequate compensation paid for land acquisition. Joss Kaheero Mugisa, 66, OGHRA’s then chair, was arrested in October 2021 following months of threats and pressure from local security and government officials who told him to “stop working on the oil project.” Mugisa was arrested several times following spurious accusations that he had threatened violence and engaged in verbal abuse against his family members. He spent seven months in prison amidst serious due process concerns and was finally released in March 2023 but is no longer active as a human rights defender. OGHRA too has curtailed many of its activities. Mugisa told Human Rights Watch that his health, including his eyesight, has deteriorated because of appalling detention conditions.
There have also been threats to civil society organizations working along the pipeline corridor where construction is yet to begin but land acquisition is nearing completion. Kayinga Muddu Yisito, network coordinator of the Community Transformation Foundation Network (COTFONE), said their Masaka offices were raided on February 26, 2022 and September 28, 2022 by unknown armed people, and that laptops and phones were stolen. He described numerous phone threats from local security forces and unknown people telling him to stop his work against EACOP and said that his neighbors were questioned by security forces about his activities. He said he now maintains a low profile, spends little time in Masaka, and has curtailed many of his activities on advocating for improved compensation along the EACOP corridor.
Another human rights defender along the proposed pipeline corridor in Kyotera district told Human Rights Watch he was detained after consistently raising concerns about inadequate compensation being offered for land set to be acquired for the pipeline through his village. He said the local District Police Commissioner told him in October 2021: “You should take it easy. It’s a government project. They will end you if you keep doing what you are doing.”
In October 2021, the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) was targeted by government security forces. AFIEGO is one of Uganda’s most influential environmental NGOs and has continuously raised concerns about some of the impacts on farmers and the environmental risks associated with the EACOP project. Armed security forces raided AFIEGO’s field offices in Hoima and Buliisa on October 7, 2021.
In Buliisa, one of the employees present at the raid described a litany of verbal abuse by local security officials before they confiscated their registration documents: “You are trying to sabotage government programs. We don’t want this office to exist. Leave the work you are doing unless you value it more than your life.”
AFIEGO’s offices in Hoima and Buliisa also hosted several other organizations working on the oil sector including OGHRA and the Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA). Police closed both offices on October 7, 2021 and soldiers forcibly removed the signs of these organizations one week later, according to neighbors. Both remain closed at time of writing.
In Kampala, police raided AFIEGO’s office on October 13, 2021, confiscating computers and arresting six members of AFIEGO’s staff. On October 22, AFIEGO’s six staff, five of whom had been detained nine days earlier, were arrested again and only released on October 25 on bond. During the raid, local police accused AFIEGO of operating without a required permit under the NGO Law. AFIEGO strongly refuted the allegation, stating on October 29: “no request to produce any documents were made by the NGO Bureau or any government entity prior to the arrest.”
The Role of TotalEnergies
TotalEnergies, through its Ugandan subsidiary TotalEnergies EP Uganda, owns 62 percent of EACOP, and 56.67 percent of the Tilenga oilfields. It is the operator of both the Tilenga oil project and EACOP. Other shareholders include the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC), Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC), and China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC).
The report of the UN working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises “urge businesses to consult human rights defenders as an important expert resource as part of their human rights due diligence, as defenders have a key role as watchdogs, advocates and voice for affected stakeholders.” The UN’s guidance on ensuring respect for human rights defenders under the UNGPs underscore that businesses should build and exercise their leverage to address impacts on human rights defenders and that business should support HRDs, publicly and privately.
TotalEnergies has stated that it does “not tolerate any attack or threats against those who peacefully and lawfully promote Human Rights in relations to its activities” and “where appropriate as recommended by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Total seeks to exert its leverage to influence others to respect these principles.” In previous communications it has outlined some steps it took to address some specific incidents. In its response to the allegations in this report, TotalEnergies underscored its commitment to the “…defense of Human Rights in their activities,” adding that TotalEnergies recognizes “the importance of protecting Human Rights Defenders and do not tolerate any attacks or threats against those who peacefully and lawfully promote Human Rights in relations to their activities.” They also described steps they took to monitor protests “against the Tilenga and EACOP projects.” TotalEnergies full response can be found in the annex.
Maxwell Atahura, an AFIEGO staff present at the Buliisa raids, had previously been arrested in Buliisa in May 2021 with an Italian freelance journalist while investigating a story about the oil sector. He told Human Rights Watch: “[The police] were asking me questions about oil…at a certain point they were calling me a terrorist, saboteur of government programs… At the end they wrote on the police bond unlawful assembly.” Over two years later he still had not appeared in court.
In Buliisa, Hoima, and Kampala, most human rights defenders Human Rights Watch interviewed described receiving phone calls from security personnel, government officials, or unknown individuals warning them to “stop working on oil,” “stop working against the government,” or “stop your EACOP work.” They described being routinely branded as “anti-government” or “anti-development.” One human rights defender said: “The arrests get the attention, but most of us limit our work because of pressure and threats from our local officials. We fear arrest and losing our livelihood.”
One human rights defender in Hoima told Human Rights Watch: “Once you are labeled ‘anti-development’ it becomes very difficult to operate. You fear arrest, you are always watching over your shoulder, moving around to different locations, our staff don’t last long, media don’t want to work with you, and you end up becoming ostracized in your community.”
Other human rights defenders described having difficulty registering their civil society organizations at the district level, being quickly referred to the District Internal Security Office (DISO). One human rights defender, who has yet to secure his organization’s registration, described being told by Buliisa’s DISO: “We know you. You are against the oil project. We will refer this to Kampala and go through every line [of the organization’s Constitution]. We are watching you.”
Another human rights defender described: “It’s constant. They don’t stop calling. ‘You need to stop that work. You need to stop the work around project affected persons. You need to stop fighting government.’ I don’t pick up the phone anymore if I don’t know the number.”
Civil society organizations described to Human Rights Watch how these threats made it more difficult to provide these services and ensure that farmers in their communities, many of them illiterate, understood the compensation process.
The 2019 Legal Challenge in France
In October 2019, six French and Ugandan groups filed a legal challenge in France alleging TotalEnergies had failed to address the human and environmental impacts of its Tilenga operations as required by France’s Corporate Duty of Vigilance law. In December, two of the people displaced in the Tilenga oilfields, Jealousy Mugisha and Fred Mwesigwa, travelled to France for one of the court hearings. They were both active in Buliisa raising concerns about inadequate compensation. Upon his return from France, Mugisha was detained at Uganda’s Entebbe airport for over eight hours and interrogated about his role in the court case. He told Human Rights Watch that government security agents at the airport warned him: “You are not supposed to witness in France again. If you go again, you will lose your life.”
Since his return, he said he has faced a series of threats from security officials, and break-ins at his house. The other individual, Mwesigwa, told Human Rights Watch about threats, harassment and intimidation he had faced since his return from local security officials, the oil and gas police, soldiers, and unknown people warning him to “stop working with the muzungus [white people] on oil.”
One said: “We are not all against the pipeline, we just need to make sure people understand their rights and receive the compensation they are entitled to...the attacks against us make it more difficult for communities to receive fair compensation.” Many others described practicing self-censorship, refraining from posting on social media, and being less public in their EACOP-related activities following threats.
Misuse of the NGO Act
The government also uses laws to undermine organizations working on politically sensitive issues such as oil. On August 20 2021, two months before the AFIEGO arrests, an NGO Bureau directive ordered 54 NGOs to halt their work citing noncompliance with the controversial 2016 NGO Act. Some of the suspended NGOs were working on the oil sector and other environmental issues. Some of these groups are now closed while other groups told Human Rights Watch they have difficulties securing funding following the reputational damage and unclear legal status caused by the suspension. At least one human rights NGO - Chapter Four - was reinstated in May 2022 following a lengthy court battle against what was widely seen as a politically motivated deregistration. As of August 7, 2023 the NGO Bureau’s Updated National NGO Register lists 36 of the NGOs that had been previously suspended but does not list key organizations working on the oil sector including AFIEGO and Youth for Green Communities.
Many student climate activists protesting EACOP have been arrested and charged with various offences in Kampala since 2021. These protests have been largely peaceful and usually small in scale. Protests that focus exclusively on global inaction on climate change take place without incident, while protests that express opposition to EACOP are regularly met with excessive force and arbitrary arrest from security forces. While Uganda’s constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, the arbitrary arrests of those publicly and lawfully expressing opposition to EACOP underscores the lack of space available to oppose oil development in Uganda.
Since 2021, there have been at least 22 arrests, largely of students, at anti-EACOP protests in Kampala. Nine students were arrested in October 2022 after demonstrating support for the European Parliament resolution on EACOP and charged with “common nuisance.” Although released on bond, their case continues. Another four protesters were arrested on December 9, 2022 as they marched to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to demand a re-evaluation of the environmental damage caused by EACOP. One of the detainees was kept at an unknown location until the morning of December 12 when all four were released.
Another protesting student was arrested in Kampala on June 27, 2023, after trying to deliver a petition to the Speaker of the House of Uganda’s parliament. He told Human Rights Watch he was taken to a “safe house” with his hands tied behind his back, questioned by plain-clothed security officials about who was providing the funding for the protests, before he was knocked to the floor. He said he awoke two days later in hospital with serious injuries. On July 11, 2023, the day after Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the human rights abuses associated with EACOP’s land acquisition program, five individuals were arrested after protesting EACOP in downtown Kampala.
On September 15, 2023, four student protesters were arrested after a “Fridays for Future” and “StopEACOP” joint protest at the Ugandan parliament as part of the “Global Fight to End Fossil Fuels,” a global mobilization and day of action. They were released on bond five days later and have been charged with “common nuisance.” One of the students described to Human Rights Watch being held in a room inside parliament and beaten by uniformed parliamentary security officials and others in civilian clothes with “batons, gun butts, and using their boots to step on our heads” before being taken to Kampala’s Central Police Station (CPS). At the CPS he described plainclothes intelligence officers asking: “Who are you leaders? Among us, who is your leader? How many are you? Who are your leaders in different universities? Who is managing your social media accounts?” They then described being beaten further in CPS cells by other prisoners, one of whom said “we have order from above to discipline you. You need to stop working on EACOP.”
Each of these incidents involved arrests of young people lawfully expressing concern over EACOP’s contribution to climate change and the impact this would have on their future. As one protesting student defiantly described to Human Rights Watch:
They arrest us because they want to create fear. They don’t want others to join us. But we won’t stop…Our future is being ruined, the impacts of climate change are all around us and it will get worse. When we protest against EACOP, we are speaking up for our future and for the children of the farmers losing their livelihoods for a pipeline our generation doesn’t want. We won’t stop.
This report was researched and written by Felix Horne, senior researcher in the Environment and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch. Oryem Nyeko, Uganda and Tanzania researcher in the Africa division reviewed and provided additional research. The report was reviewed by Richard Pearshouse, director of the Environment and Human Rights division; Jim Wormington, senior researcher in the Economic Justice and Rights division; Juliane Kippenberg, associate director in the Children’s Rights division; Amanda Leavell, researcher in the Children’s Rights division; Skye Wheeler, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Divisions. Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director, provided legal and program review for Human Rights Watch.
Additional review was provided by Diana Nabiruma, senior communications officer, Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).
The report was prepared for publication by Travis Carr, publications officer. Hellen Huang, associate in the Environment and Human Rights division, provided research and production assistance and support.
Human Rights Watch is deeply grateful to all the courageous community members who so generously shared their stories with us and our invaluable local partners.