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Students in Kampala have been beaten and arrested for marching against a 900-mile pipeline co-owned by a French company

In mid-September, four dozen university students marched through Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, to deliver a petition to parliament calling on the government to end fossil fuel investments and scrap the 900-mile east Africa crude oil pipeline (Eacop).

Dorothy Mbabazi
The young climate activists were led by 29-year-old Abduh Twaib Magambo, an environmental science student, who carried the two-page typewritten petition that said: “As students and young people of this country, we are the direct and major victims of [the] climate crisis living in a country that is among the most affected by climate change yet one of the least prepared to respond and tackle its effects.

“Parliament should put people over profit for our survival and future to rely on a healthy planet free from fossil fuels.”

Police officers refused to let them enter parliament. Most were chased away, but four male students were corralled under a table near the main entrance, where they say police kicked and punched them, and beat them with wood.

After the beatings, the students were handcuffed and taken to a police station, where they say officers accused them of having been paid to protest against the pipeline. The four students spent the weekend in one of the city’s most notorious and overcrowded prisons, before being charged with public nuisance and released on bail.

“Young people are the majority in our country and we are the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. But anyone rising up against Eacop is facing the brutal wrath of the regime,” said Magambo, who suffered a dislocated ankle and damage to his left eardrum.

“It is a laughable case, but they want to keep us busy in court so that we can’t organize and protest. But we have to join the global community’s fight against fossil fuels,” he said.

A group of young Africans dressed casually and holding signs above their heads and a banner that says #StopEacop march on what appears to be a sunlit brown road.
Environmental activists protest in front of the Ugandan parliament against the east Africa crude oil pipeline (Eacop), in Kampala on 15 September. Photograph: Badru Katumba/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, condemned the arrests as “very disturbing”.

The French fossil fuel company TotalEnergies, which owns almost two-thirds of Eacop, told the Guardian it was unaware of “any allegations by human rights and environmental defenders of threats or retaliation made by its subsidiary, contractors or employees in Uganda or Tanzania”.

Last month’s arrests were the latest in a wave of criminal charges and other judicial harassment against activists and organizations, raising concerns about the environmental and social impacts of the east African pipeline – which is one of the largest fossil fuel projects under construction in the world.

If completed, Eacop will include dozens of well pads, hundreds of miles of roads, and camps, in addition to the pipeline connecting oilfields in western Uganda with the Port of Tanga in eastern Tanzania. The oil will be transported to overseas refineries, and over 25 years will lead to almost 380m tons of additional planet-warming greenhouse gasses – the equivalent of France’s total national emissions in 2020, according to the Climate Accountability Institute.

Eacop’s backers claim that the pipeline will bring benefits for people in Uganda and Tanzania including tax revenue, jobs, infrastructure and skills and technology transfer.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that if completed, Eacop also will displace more than 100,000 people and has already devastated thousands of livelihoods, caused food insecurity and household debt, and decreased school attendance – in addition to exacerbating the climate crisis. Compensation to displaced people is too low, and take years to arrive, according to HRW.

A TotalEnergies spokesperson said: “The figure of 100,000 refers to all people who own an asset – farmland or animal grazing land – on the pipeline route, either because they are located on permanent rights-of-way or for the duration of the construction works. In the vast majority of cases, the owner of the land will be able to use it after the works.”

Transnational corporations have long exploited natural resources including oil, gas and minerals against the wishes of local communities, but in recent years civil lawsuits and criminal charges have been increasingly used to silence and discredit those challenging environmentally destructive projects.

Taken from street level, three overlapping columns of a windowed skyscraper reflect so much sun the rest of the image is darkened.
A view of the TotalEnergies building in Paris, France. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In Uganda, the government crackdown on climate and environmental activists dates back to about 2010, in response to community opposition to an oil refinery being built on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It led to new anti-protest legislation requiring police approval for any gathering over three people and the 2016 NGO Act, which placed cumbersome requirements on non-profits. “By the time Eacop was being discussed in 2018, the government had already created a hostile environment. Now, anyone organizing is suppressed,” said Dickens Kamugisha of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (Afiego), a research and advocacy non-governmental organization that helps communities affected by Eacop and other large projects.

As the campaign against Eacop has grown locally and internationally, activists say the crackdown has intensified.

In 2021, the government deregistered 54 non-profits working on human rights, environmental and climate issues and anti-corruption efforts – including Afiego and its community partners, for alleged noncompliance with the NGO Act. The move was condemned by rights experts.

Afiego says its staff have been harassed and arrested and that several face spurious criminal charges.

In January 2022, a group of UN experts wrote to the Ugandan government about the “arrests, acts of intimidation and judicial harassment against human rights defenders and NGOs [including Afiego] working in the oil and gas sector in Uganda, which appear to be directly related to their legitimate human rights activities”.

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