Uganda stops climate activists

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Uganda stops climate activists

Lauren Crosby Medlicott speaks to students facing trial for protesting against an oil pipeline.

In Uganda, a group of student climate activists are in court on 7 February 2024. They face charges of inciting violence as the government is stopping all environmental activists.

On 24 November, 20 university students were walking in the streets of the capital, Kampala. They wanted to give a petition to Uganda’s parliament. The police stopped them and beat them. Over 50 students signed the petition about problems with the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). It is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel projects to carry oil 1,443 kilometres from Western Uganda’s oilfields to Tanzania.

Abello (not his real name), is 20 years old and one of the protesters and a member of the group Students4Climate Justice. He told New Internationalist, ‘The pipeline is associated with terrible effects like global warming, wildlife destruction, and moving people away from their homes without help.’

The big French oil company, Total, supports the pipeline. Human Rights Watch said the planned oil pipeline already ‘destroyed thousands of people’s ways of life in Uganda and will make the global climate crisis worse’.

Abello and the protestors carried posters saying #stopEACOP when the police stopped them outside parliament.

Abello said, ‘I told one police officer that we wanted to take the petition to the Speaker of Parliament, Anita Among. The police called soldiers and they beat our backs with guns. They threw one of my friends to the ground and beat him badly.’ They told Abello and another activist they would take them into parliament, but they threw them into a prison cell and questioned them.

‘We said we were only activists and we care about our planet and want to talk about why we should stop the deadly EACOP project,’ Abello said. ‘They grabbed us, hit me, put us onto a police vehicle, and drove us to the central police station.’ They told the students they would keep them in prison for trying to incite violence.

‘A non-violent protest was never a crime,’ said Abello.


They held seven of the 20 protestors at the police station for five days and then they sent them to Luzira prison, the only maximum security prison in Uganda for criminals on death row.

‘We suffered many different diseases because of the poor hygiene in the prison,’ Abello said. ‘Some of the other prisoners tortured us.’

Abello said that ‘agents’ from Total visited them in prison and said, ‘Stop the fight against EACOP or you will not leave prison.’

This isn’t the first time Total was involved in the state’s treatment of anti-pipeline activists. In December, Global Witness said it found that Total may have given information about activists to state officials before their arrest, and intimidated communities affected by the EACOP project.

New Internationalist contacted Total. They did not talk directly about the 24 November arrests, but they showed us a letter addressed to Human Rights Watch in October 2023. The letter said Total works to ‘make sure that they respect the human rights of the arrested protestors’.

In the past, Total said they never intimidated people affected by the project.

Finally, on 19 December, they set the activists free. The students told the judge that they were missing exams and graduations. But that was not the end to their problems.

Abello says the activists still receive threats. Someone broke into and raided the homes of some activists. Three of the young activists spent many weeks in hospital after prison because of injuries they got in prison. Other activists lost their homes because they could not pay the rent. Abello is now living with a friend.

‘I feel bad about giving my friend problems, but I have nothing,’ he says. ‘Last week, I had to borrow money for medical treatment. Even paying for food is a problem. We have no support or help from our universities.’ The group are also finding it difficult to get part-time work.

‘Our names are ruined to our parents,’ Abello says. ‘We can’t get jobs. We have no money. I try to give my friends hope. I always tell them not to feel sorry about what they did because it is just the beginning. We have to protect our planet.’ As Abello waits for his court date on 7 February, he and his friends are worried about their futures.

Abello also worries that it could have a bad effect on student climate activism.

‘The judge said that if we are found guilty, we will be an example to other students trying to stop the EACOP project.’ But Abello says, ‘I continue to work to get students to take non-violent action against EACOP because it is a way we can fight for ourselves.’

‘Silencing our voices’

Twenty-five-year-old Nyombi Morris was at a regular Friday climate justice protest with his brother in March 2021 when a police car stopped near them.

‘They took my brother and hit us,’ he told New Internationalist. ‘They took away our phones and our posters and threw us into the back of a police van. My brother was crying and people asked why the police stopped us. The police said they would put me in jail if they found me again.’

Arrests like these are becoming more common in Uganda, says Morris. He feels that they are treating activists like criminals. Human Rights Watch says the police have arrested at least 30 environmental protesters, many of them students, in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021.

Morris says we may see more voices remaining silent. ‘The government don't want people to protest against something that makes them money - even if the idea doesn’t work or the citizens aren’t happy with it. You have no right to protest or give your opinion.’


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)