ARYAMPA BRIGHTON: The reprisals against defenders delaying Uganda’s energy development

As per Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU|), Uganda's Oil and Gas (O&G) sector has transitioned from having only exploration, to new exploration and preparation of the discovered oil fields for production (development).

Just like any country bothered about development concerns, Uganda has been dynamic to beat the temporary times of increased youth and c

Through the ministry of energy and mineral development, the government has made deliberate efforts and commitment contributed to increasing energy production and fully utilization of its natural resources to spur economic development and create jobs for the ever graduating and increasing youth. This magic has been entrusted to the oil and gas sector.

As per Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU|), Uganda’s Oil and Gas (O&G) sector has transitioned from having only exploration, to new exploration and preparation of the discovered oil fields for production (development). The developments also include putting in place infrastructure for both commercialization of the discovered 6.5 billion barrels of Oil and Gas developments in the sector. The Final Investment Decision (FID) for Uganda’s O&G projects approximately worth USD 20Bn was taken in February 2022.

The oil proponents and a few outspoken including but not limited by legal minds Elison Karuhanga, Ali ssekatawa and others in defending the oil activities have often asserted that the oil and gas sector presents potential and benefits to the citizens of Uganda ranging from creation of employment by the oil companies and service providers, supplies of goods and services by Ugandan companies, increased Foreign Direct Investment, training of Ugandans in the sector and these could work in Uganda or out of Uganda, improved infrastructure (some roads have already been upgraded), reduced expenditure on white products importation and raw materials for plastics industry, growth of a petrochemical industry and perhaps others. Some could be true but is it all about that. Doesn’t the development have the bad side? I will mention two that is delaying the oil and gas project in Uganda.

Recently, His Lordship Jesse Byaruhanga Rugyema made a judgment in 4 days threatening the Tilenga Project Affected Persons (paps) vide High Court of Uganda at Hoima Mis. Cause No.24 of 2023 when he gave a decision against 42 PAPS that involved their eviction and other orders without granting a hearing to the PAPs.

Laughable and shocking that in this case, a deceased family are sued with no letters of administration, no mention of the deceased’s estate beneficiaries, and in the extended family set up, the government also sued an entire clan and village populated with close consanguinity. With all these procedural errors but blind to the PAPs for the project, there are other cases on compensation that started a decade of years back involving displacement of people to pave way for the oil refinery and airport construction. This raises questions whether this project respects community rights which are critical in project funding and insurance.

The second reprisal that has been common from day one is about human rights defenders (hrds) or/ and activists. Well, the Human Rights Defenders bill of 2020 that still remains on the floor of parliament defines who a HRD is but anyway it is still not law.

Reprisals started way back with arrests of Atuhura Maxwell who now works with TASHA and others but the spark of the reprisals started after the European Parliament adopted a resolution on violation of human rights abuses linked to the investment of fossil fuels in Uganda and Tanzania. A lot of mixed reactions and comments from both the government representatives and the adopters but the standout with the government action to arrest 9 students marching to the European Union Office in Uganda with a petition supporting the resolution.

In this eyes of a lay person, this not only questioned the practice of freedom of expression under article 29 of the supreme law of Uganda but also whether citizens have a say on the development projects in Uganda. This arrest laid precedent for over other 8 arrests for activists standing up to speak or criticize the project hinging on human rights, environment or Uganda’s climate obligations. The recent arrest happened on the 15th of December 2023 when activists were arrested in front of parliament to petition the speaker and the legislature to speak just transition.

None of the arrests are yet to be justified, over 4 have been dismissed by court, charges dropped for want of prosecution. This raises questions whether the project critiques are being persecuted, harassed and intimated, and also defines the current civic space. I will not go into details of the closure of 54 csos in 2021 and closure of DGF. The far reaching impact of this is on rule of law and how many investors are willing to invest their money.

The government and corporate actors must know that Reprisals send a chilling message to the wider community, curtail the opportunities for participation and engagement, and end up jeopardizing the success of the project itself. To have successful and meaningful development, I urge the government of Uganda and corporate actors to create an environment in which individuals, communities, groups and peoples are able to exercise their fundamental human rights, determining and pursuing their own priorities about their lives, their futures, their lands and natural resources.

Allow them to envision a country where development processes and activities advance the realization of human rights, respond to the needs and priorities of the poorest and marginalized, and promote a safe and enabling environment for public participation and accountability. We need Ugandans who speak the truth to power and fights for the rights of everyone. Development must facilitate collaborations and co-develop strategies with and among communities hosting it. We must as Ugandans work together not to achieve economic development and create jobs without harming host communities and other sectors. Community development leads to sustainable economic development, and it’s achievable when we all have spaces to contribute.

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court and Chief Executive Officer, Youth for Green Communities (YGC).

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