In 2018 Jealousy Mugisha drew up a list of ten goals for his family over the next ten years. He wanted to rear goats and pigs on his farm in Uganda’s Buliisa district, a rural region bordering Lake Albert. He hoped to send his children to a good school. At the same time plans for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which will extend for some nine hundred miles from western Uganda to the Tanzanian coast (see map below), were also being drawn up.
The oil wells that will supply EACOP are a short distance from Mugisha’s home. From them a series of feeder pipelines will carry crude oil to a government-run refinery in the neighboring district of Hoima, which will produce some oil for local markets. EACOP will begin at this refinery and run underground—executives say this will minimize the disturbance it causes—to a facility near the Tanzanian port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean, where crude oil will be pumped into tankers for export. Construction is expected to begin in early 2023, and by 2025 hundreds of thousands of barrels will flow through the pipeline daily. The French company TotalEnergies holds a majority stake of 62 percent in the project, and the state-owned Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation holds 8 percent. The Ugandan and Tanzanian governments have agreed to split the remaining shares, while Uganda will operate the Hoima refinery. The enormous project is a financial boon the likes of which the two countries have never seen.
EACOP will pass through ten Ugandan districts and 178 villages; more than three thousand Ugandan households will lose at least part of their property to make way for it. Rural families along the route have complained of intimidation by oil workers and claimed that the money the companies have offered to compensate them for their lost land is inadequate. Activists working alongside these communities say they have been detained and threatened by Ugandan security forces. Over the course of a year, I traced the pipeline’s path from the shores of Lake Albert to the Tanzanian border to document reports of human rights violations in Uganda, guided by pipeline opponents who feared that their lives were in danger.
Mugisha’s family home in Kasenyi village sits on land set aside for the Tilenga project, a drilling field and central processing facility at the heart of Uganda’s oil operations. Because he shared his house with relatives, employees of TotalEnergies and its regional subcontractor, Atacama, designated him the secondary owner and thus eligible to be compensated only for the surrounding farm. He refused the money, demanded to be resettled in a new house, and claimed that the $950 he was offered would not be enough to replace his thirteen lost acres.
In 2019, with the aid of a local activist group, the frustrated farmer decided to take his concerns to Paris, where the French branch of the NGO Friends of the Earth was leading a suit against TotalEnergies over its EACOP project. Mugisha was a witness in that case, speaking about the home that oil had taken from him. Upon his return to Uganda, he was detained at Entebbe Airport, where officials held him for nine hours and interrogated him about his opposition to oil projects.
In 2020 the Ugandan attorney general placed the money being offered by TotalEnergies in a court account and summoned Mugisha and seven other Buliisa families alleging unfair compensation to the regional high court in Masindi to plead their case. This court soon ruled against the Buliisa residents and in favor of TotalEnergies and its government backers, declaring that the compensation was sufficient and telling the residents to accept it. Meanwhile, it became difficult for Mugisha to afford food and to send his children to school. “We are suffering in the family,” he wrote in a letter to TotalEnergies. His appeal has dragged on for more than a year with no fixed hearing date, he told me. The Paris case against TotalEnergies also stalled, shunted between different courtrooms in procedural battles and delayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mugisha’s land was fenced off in preparation for construction, and he and his wife had to move in with their adult daughter. The family shares one room divided by a curtain thick with dust. “Before oil, I was planning for my sons,” Mugisha said when I first visited him in Buliisa in 2021. “We are now very worried this oil will leave us poor, poor people.”
Work on the Tilenga project’s processing facility has been a new source of woe. Machines clearing the land in preparation for construction send a fine whirl of dust into the air, which is inhaled by the villagers and settles on cassava left to dry in the sun. In the spring of 2022 three hundred Buliisa residents petitioned Uganda’s Ministry of Health, claiming that the dust made children ill and caused accidents. In a separate letter to TotalEnergies, Mugisha also complained that dust was leading to health problems.
Rains began in late July, and flooding combined with runoff from the facility destroyed a shared garden in which local residents were growing watermelons and mangoes. The community erected a fence of thorns to prevent children and animals from wandering into the flooded area; the brown water has a foul smell. “It could cause accidents, a child could die,” Mugisha fretted in September. A letter sent by Mugisha and other Buliisa residents in August to TotalEnergies in Uganda complained of damaged crops and floods unlike any they’d seen before. In another appeal to the company, Mugisha complained that he and his community members had lost an important source of income. When I queried the company in October, it promised that it would compensate farmers for their lost crops, but the money has yet to arrive, Mugisha said when reached by telephone in November. According to one estimate, 643 Buliisa residents will be affected by the project, and his frustrations are typical of those in its path.
There has been speculation about oil deposits beneath Uganda’s Lake Albert since the colonial period, with petroleum potential first documented by the British in 1925. Early drilling by the Africa–European Investment Company stretched from the 1930s through the 1950s. Efforts to find commercially viable oil were not successful until 2006, however, when the wildcat exploration company Hardman Resources at last discovered it near Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of an estimated six billion barrels in Uganda, some 1.4 billion have been deemed recoverable.
Acquisition of land for EACOP began in 2018, with the Ugandan subcontractor NewPlan working for TotalEnergies, while the government-controlled Petroleum Authority of Uganda supervised the process. Oil executives established a cutoff date: farmers were told that they would not be compensated for any crops planted after a final survey four years ago. As it became pointless to cultivate the perennials on which they had once relied, such as coffee, cassava, and eucalyptus, farmers were relegated to raising seasonal crops, which take only three months to grow and fetch a lower price. Dozens of villagers I interviewed described being unable to farm as they once did or to afford basic necessities.
Edward Kazibwo is a farmer and father of six living in Ssembable village in Masaka, one of the ten districts that will be torn apart by EACOP. He told me he struggles to feed his children and send them to school as a result of payment delays. His wife died in childbirth while waiting for oil money. “What if I also die without receiving anything?” Kazibwo asked in August 2021. When I returned to Masaka about a year later, he wondered again when he would be paid. “I stopped growing everything, expecting to get the money,” he told me. We walked to his coffee farm, now untended and overgrown. A wooden stake marking EACOP’s path poked out from among the leafy bushes.
TotalEnergies says it began compensating people in the spring of 2021 and attributed the long wait to the coronavirus pandemic and negotiations over funding with the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments. It claims that more than half the people who stand to be affected by the pipeline have now been paid. The company also says it added a 30 percent disturbance fee to promised payments, plus an additional 15 percent for two of the years people spent waiting, in hopes of plugging any income gaps.
But farmers like Kazibwo, who finally received his money in October, say that it is still not enough to buy new land. Compensation rates were set by TotalEnergies in 2018 and 2019, and since then the price of land in Uganda has soared, as has the cost of living. Kayinga Muddu Yisito—who runs the Masaka-based Community Transformation Foundation Network (COTFONE) and advocates on behalf of communities affected by oil—told me that the residents of Kazibwo’s village received just half the market rate for land in the area. Kazibwo, for his part, is resigned to taking whatever he can get. “Even if I complain, nothing changes,” he said during our last meeting.
His resignation is understandable. Multiple farmers hinted that they had been intimidated by oil workers into accepting compensation they viewed as inadequate and told that pipeline construction would go on whether they wanted it to or not. One man described a TotalEnergies employee mocking him during a meeting in Buliisa district after he asked about compensation; a Hoima resident said that oil workers threatened to withhold the money if he protested compensation rates. Villagers alluded to being told that opposing the project would make them enemies of Ugandan progress, and one Masaka woman said she was nervous to speak about EACOP for fear of government reprisal. But most people affected by the project were unable or unwilling to name specific employees of TotalEnergies or its subcontractors and government partners, making it difficult to verify these allegations.
Claims of harassment in communities affected by oil are consistent, however, with a 2020 report compiled by Friends of the Earth and the French NGO Survie and submitted as evidence in the Paris court case.1 The organizations claimed that farmers had been pressured into giving up their land, noting that TotalEnergies and its subcontractors often move through villages accompanied by Ugandan security forces. In April 2021 Ugandan civil society organizations also convened a series of community gatherings to discuss reported intimidation.
At a café in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, I met Martin Tiffin, a TotalEnergies employee and general manager of EACOP, and Mary Begg-Saffar, the NGO coordinator and human rights manager for TotalEnergies in Uganda. Tiffin dismissed claims that people had been insufficiently compensated and praised the amount of money being offered to Ugandan farmers. “In some respects, it’s a kind of ‘windfall,’ as many of these people do not have access to regular income,” he explained.
But when pressed on issues of possible intimidation during the compensation process, TotalEnergies said it could not comment without being provided the names of aggrieved parties. “We can only respond to and investigate allegations if we know what the allegation is actually about,” Tiffin wrote me in a subsequent e-mail. “Only facts can be investigated. We do have grievance mechanisms, and these are there to be used,” he added, seeming to hint that people with complaints could come directly to the company.
Reached by telephone, Ali Ssekatawa, director of legal and corporate affairs at the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), which regulates the fuel sector, also brushed off allegations of intimidation and unfair payment. “Even if you spend six hours explaining to someone, he has come with one mindset,” Ssekatawa complained of journalists covering oil. Peter Muliisa, the head of legal and corporate affairs at the Uganda National Oil Corporation (UNOC), also praised the project’s success when asked about reported gaps in compensation. “They are much happier. Their situation is better,” Muliisa said of communities along the pipeline route, assuring me that the land had been valued fairly and that people being resettled would soon enjoy a higher standard of living.
The enthusiasm of Ugandan officials and oil executives can perhaps be explained by the projected revenues from EACOP, which are staggeringly high: nearly $70 billion over the project’s approximately twenty-five-year life span. The PAU estimates that the government will receive roughly $1 billion annually from oil, while activity around the projects could generate another $15 billion in investments, some 40 percent of which officials hope will go directly to Ugandan companies.
Meanwhile, the EACOP website describes the oil project as “unlocking East Africa’s potential,” and billboards promoting the pipeline dot the streets of Kampala. TotalEnergies also promises to create some 80,000 jobs in oil and related sectors. According to Uganda’s Ministry of Energy, five thousand people have already been employed in the oil sector, the vast majority of whom are Ugandans. Oil will “take peasants from the class that they occupy now to another class,” Angelo Izama, a self-declared oil optimist on the board of the Uganda Investment Authority, boasted in an interview.
But at the same time the oil project has been highly personalized, especially at the uppermost levels of the Ugandan government. President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power for nearly four decades, has even described the petroleum that will soon flow through EACOP as “my oil.” Activists say bold promises of wealth have little bearing on the lives of ordinary Ugandans. “Development has to be done in a way that supports the citizens and local people in this area and makes their lives better,” said Omar Elmawi, head of the Stop EACOP campaign, a coalition of some two hundred NGOs. “If you just look at this project, it doesn’t, in any shred of the imagination, make the lives of these farmers, fishermen, and other local people better.”
Oil development has also been accompanied by the arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders. Security around Uganda’s oil region has increased as development accelerates, including the establishment of a shadowy “oil and gas police” that now patrols the project area. “This sector is highly militarized,” Maxwell Atuhura, an activist and founder of the Tasha Research Institute, told me as we sped on his motorcycle through Hoima, where construction of new hotels and roads in anticipation of oil wealth is already underway. The goal, he explained, is to create a sense of constant unease. Atuhura was jailed in May 2021 while guiding the Italian journalist Federica Marsi through Buliisa to interview farmers about the Tilenga project. As he was being arrested, Atuhura says, a police officer told him that TotalEnergies had been asking about him and warned him that he would rot in a cell because of his work. Security forces then took his phone, recorder, and notebook and locked him up for two days. Upon his release he was charged with unlawful assembly and ordered to report monthly to the police.
That detention frightened Atuhura. “I am most likely to be poisoned,” he told me in a Hoima bar one night.2 We were speaking in whispers to avoid being overheard, with a recorder hidden beneath my plate. Other times he worries a hired truck will run him over as he rushes from place to place. “If I die, I fear I will have failed to defend my people,” Atuhura added. He comes from the region where oil will soon be produced, and vividly recalls how proceeds from his family’s crops provided for his education. “That was the only way out,” Atuhura said. “The land is the only resource we have, as a poor people…. The land is a sign of independence to our community. It is a source of identity.”
In August 2021, a few months after Atuhura’s arrest, the Ugandan government closed dozens of nonprofits, accusing them of a range of missteps, including failing to comply with regulations. Among the shuttered organizations was the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), a prominent environmental group with connections across the country. Its director, Dickens Kamugisha, insists that the accusations leveled against AFIEGO are baseless, but six staff members were arrested in October 2021, detained for “illegal oil sector operations,” and charged with operating without a permit. “The issue is not the law,” Kamugisha told me of the arrests. “The issue is that they do not want our work to continue.”
When Kamugisha went to negotiate his employees’ release, he too was thrown into a cell, where he spent three nights. It was cramped inside and difficult to sleep. “Even if they don’t torture you, to spend even one hour in those cells is the worst thing you can imagine,” he recalled. “You feel very betrayed by your own country.” Low-level harassment has continued, according to Kamugisha. AFIEGO workers are sometimes forced to spend a day at the police station and then released without documentation, making it difficult to follow up on claims of abuse. His fears for his own safety echo Atuhura’s. “These guys can kill you,” he said of Ugandan security operatives. “There is no doubt about it.”
Then, in late February 2022, the home office of Yisito—the head of the Masaka-based COTFONE—was ransacked in a predawn raid. According to Yisito, the intruders, who have not been identified, wore camouflage jackets, carried guns, and resembled security operatives. They took four laptops, two electronic tablets, and a file of important documents. Following the break-in, TotalEnergies employees called Yisito several times to check on him. In a March 2022 e-mail, Begg-Saffar, the NGO coordinator, connected him with a European Union human rights officer in Kampala, who she thought might be able to offer expertise. Yisito, who says he’d raised concerns about his safety with the oil company ahead of the break-in, was unmoved. “I didn’t even reply to their e-mail,” he said. “It was just nonsense to me.”
The company has worked closely with the same security organizations accused of harassing activists and makes no secret of those relationships. TotalEnergies representatives told me that they coordinate with the oil and gas police daily, following recommendations made in an independent evaluation by former UN special rapporteur on human rights Michel Forst. An April 2022 company bulletin boasts of police training sessions but provides few details on what they actually entail.
Employees of TotalEnergies have also indicated that the oil giant can leverage its close relationship with Ugandan officials and security services to help protect human rights defenders, explaining in our meeting in Kampala that if the company hears of possible demonstrations in the oil region it will encourage protesters to remain calm and counsel police not to intervene. And TotalEnergies says it frequently raises “Respect for Human Rights and freedom of expression” in conversations with Ugandan officials. CEO Patrick Pouyanné even wrote directly to President Museveni to express concern about Atuhura’s arrest.
TotalEnergies, however, maintains that to intervene directly in cases of alleged abuse or unlawful arrest would be a violation of Uganda’s sovereignty. The company “does not tolerate any threats, intimidation, harassment, or violence against those who peacefully and lawfully promote Human Rights in relation to our activities,” it said in a recent brief on the safety of human rights defenders. In October 2022 TotalEnergies in Uganda released a one-page policy focused on protecting human rights defenders, but it remains unclear what steps the company will take to put it into action.
“The question is, would these people be arrested and prosecuted if it wasn’t for Total’s project?” asked Romain Ravet, the regional head of Avocats Sans Frontières, which monitors abuses in the oil region. “The fact that there is an oil project on the ground creates an incentive for the closing of the civic space, for cases of human rights defenders being harassed or arrested.” Atuhura is also unconvinced of how much the company actually does to protect activists like him. “To say they are working to help, to rescue me, I don’t know,” he said. “What I know is they are the reason behind all of our suffering.”
The same month that Yisito’s home office was ransacked, Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities and international oil executives signed a long-awaited $10 billion final investment decision (FID), confirming their EACOP agreement and paving the way for construction to begin. At a ceremony in Kampala, Museveni brushed off activists concerned about oil development. “We hear some NGOs criticizing the government that we are trying to stop them from visiting oil areas, he said. “Allow them to go there, let them go with their mattresses and sleep in the bush.” He added that their interference was spoiling Uganda’s relationship with its allies.
Meanwhile, TotalEnergies celebrated the signing with much fanfare; Pouyanné called it a “day of happiness.” Praising Museveni, he also described private conversations he had had with the president in November 2019. “Both of us, alone, decided that we would reach this FID, whatever it cost,” Pouyanné said, underscoring the close nature of his relationship with the Ugandan leader.
But oil continues to spark fierce domestic and international debate, as concerns raised by activists and the affected communities remain unanswered. In September 2022, the European Parliament issued a resolution calling for the project to be delayed for a year so reports of human rights violations could be addressed. “They cannot live in dignity anymore,” Malte Gallée, a young German politician who traveled to Uganda and helped sponsor the resolution, said of communities affected by oil development. “It was quite hard to hear the stories.”
TotalEnergies has expressed annoyance about the EU resolution. The Ugandan government is furious. Speaking at the country’s annual oil and gas summit, Museveni dismissed the European Parliament members as arrogant children. “Some of these people are insufferable, you need to control yourself not to explode,” he said to a smattering of applause, while calling for the project to continue. “They are so shallow, so egocentric, so wrong…they think they know everything and they want to broadcast their ignorance all over the place.”
Opinion in Uganda about the pipeline is often split along party lines, with the pop star and opposition leader Bobi Wine, who ran for president against Museveni in the 2021 election, publicly opposing it. Wine has suffered his share of abuses at the hands of the Ugandan state. By the government’s own count, some fifty people were gunned down in November 2020, after protests erupted in Kampala over Wine’s detention at a campaign rally. In the months that followed, more than one hundred of his supporters and friends were arrested, while Wine campaigned under a cloud of tear gas. Museveni clinched a blood-soaked victory in January 2021, amid allegations of ballot stuffing. This was followed by grim reports of young opposition supporters disappearing from the streets; they were plucked from markets and their places of work by security officers, shoved into unmarked vans, and driven to safehouses and prisons around Kampala. Those who reappeared spoke of torture.
Nearly two years later, a quiet fear still permeates the Ugandan capital. Wine says that some twenty of his supporters are missing, and many more are in prison. The October day I met TotalEnergies executives in Kampala, the families of the disappeared gathered at Wine’s headquarters for a press conference at which they begged to see their loved ones again. In an interview at his compound on the outskirts of the city, Wine praised the EU resolution. “The EU Parliament has taken concern with human rights violations in Uganda. For us, it shows us that at least our cry has been heard,” he said.
In the weeks after the European Parliament released its resolution, secondary school students took to the streets to express their support for EACOP. “Leave our oil!” they shouted over and over, before delivering a petition to the EU delegation office. As I ran to photograph the demonstration, a bystander called out that it was government-sponsored. Police marched calmly alongside the youngsters, a rare occurrence in Uganda, where protests are often broken up with bullets, beatings, and detention. Five days later, a march against the pipeline was quickly shut down. I watched as nine students were roughed up by armed police officers, arrested, and charged with being a “common nuisance.”
When European Parliament member Pierre Larrouturou shared concerns about their arrest on Twitter, TotalEnergies dismissed his worries. “We would like to remind you that we always place dialogue and respect for everyone’s points of view at the heart of the realization of the projects for which we are responsible and that we do not tolerate any violence,” the company wrote in a Twitter reply to Larrouturou, at the same time failing to directly acknowledge the harm inflicted on the students. When called before the European Parliament a few days later to discuss the human rights violations reported in its resolution and its request to delay the project, Pouyanné refused, despite previous promises of dialogue. “He just decided not to take the invitation,” Gallée said. “It clearly shows that he doesn’t like to be as transparent as he always claims.” Meanwhile, brutality in connection to the project continues: four Kampala students protesting EACOP were arrested by the police in December.
The pipeline has also been criticized by environmentalists, who fear the effects of fossil fuel development in a country already suffering the ravages of climate change. In the past year Uganda has been subject to erratic seasonal changes and devastating landslides that killed fifteen people in September. International opposition to the pipeline is also increasing. The US-based Climate Accountability Institute has decried the project, saying in an October report that it will emit some 379 million metric tons of carbon over its life span. In December protesters took to the streets of Paris to condemn TotalEnergies, carrying an empty coffin embossed with African landscapes. The long-awaited Paris court case in which Mugisha was a plaintiff nearly three years ago has also started up again. His complaints about unfair compensation continue. “Before I was a very poor guy, like now,” Mugisha told me when I visited him in Buliisa in September. “But I wasn’t blaming anyone. I thought if it was God’s plan, it was fine.” Now oil development has plunged him deeper into poverty.
As new oil rigs climb toward the sky and construction equipment arrives in the country, families in the pipeline’s path prepare to vacate their homes and land. Activists say the danger they face is likely to increase. In late September unknown thugs again ransacked Kayinga Muddu Yisito’s Masaka home, taking sensitive documents with them. A housekeeper who witnessed the break-in was so badly beaten that she was hospitalized. “I should not die with my message,” Yisito told me by telephone afterward, his usually loud voice quiet with exhaustion. “I want to protect other human rights defenders.” Maxwell Atuhura moves constantly from place to place out of fear, never sleeping in a single location for too long. He says he can no longer trust his friends and misses his young children.
Still, Ugandan activists say there is nothing to do but continue to fight. “All we are struggling for is a bright future,” Atuhura said. “Nothing else. Nothing else.”
—December 22, 2022
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
January 19, 2023
When Diversity Matters
“A Nightmare Named Total: An Alarming Rise in Human Rights Violations in Uganda and Tanzania,” available at amisdelaterre.org. ↩
There have been numerous allegations that Ugandan military officers and lawmakers have been poisoned. See Helen Epstein, “Murder in Uganda,” The New York Review, April 3, 2014. ↩