A group of Ugandan student climate activists are due in court on 7 February where they face charges of inciting violence amid a heightened government crackdown on environmental defenders in the country.
On 24 November, a group of 20 university students were walking the streets of the capital, Kampala, to deliver a petition to Uganda’s parliament when they were stopped and beaten by police. The petition, signed by over 50 students, outlined concerns and demands over the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) – one of the world’s largest fossil fuel infrastructure projects that will transport oil 1,443 kilometres from Western Uganda’s oilfields to Tanzania.
‘The pipeline is associated with disastrous effects like global warming, wildlife destruction and displacement of civilians without compensation,’ Abello*, one of the protesters and a member of the group Students4Climate Justice, told New Internationalist.
Human Rights Watch has warned that the planned oil pipeline, backed by French oil giant Total, has already ‘devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda and will exacerbate the global climate crisis’.
Abello and his fellow protestors were carrying posters that read #stopEACOP when they were stopped by police outside the gates of parliament.
‘I explained to one officer that we had come to bring the petition to [Speaker of Parliament] Anita Among,’ the 20 year old said. ‘The police called soldiers who beat our backs with guns. One of my friends was thrown to the ground and beaten badly.’
Abello and another activist were told they would be taken into parliament, but were instead thrown into a cell where they were interrogated.
‘We said we were just activists who really care about our planet and wanted to express why we should stop the deadly EACOP project,’ Abello said. ‘They grabbed us, slapped me, loaded us onto a police vehicle, and drove us to the central police station.’
The students were told they were being detained for trying to incite violence.
‘A non-violent protest has never been a crime,’ said Abello.
Seven of the 20 original protestors were held at the station for five days before they were sent to Luzira prison, the only maximum security jail in Uganda which houses death row inmates.
‘We suffered many different diseases due to the poor hygiene [in the prison],’ Abello recalls. ‘We were tortured by some [fellow] prisoners.’
The activist claims that ‘agents’ from Total visited them while they were inside and threatened them. ‘They told us to stop the fight against EACOP or we shall not leave prison.’
This isn’t the first time the company has been accused of playing a role in the state’s intimidation of anti-pipeline activists. In December, Global Witness said it had uncovered evidence suggesting the oil giant may have shared information about specific activists with state officials before their arrest, and had been party to intimidation of communities affected by the EACOP project.
'A non-violent protest has never been a crime.'
New Internationalist contacted Total who did not comment directly on the 24 November arrests, but instead pointed to a letter addressed to Human Rights Watch in October 2023 which said they work to ‘ … ensure that the human rights of the arrested protestors are respected’.
The company has previously denied allegations that they have intimidated anyone affected by the project.
It wasn’t until 19 December, after pleading to the judge that they were missing exams and graduations, that the group was granted bail and released from Luzira. But their ordeal was far from over.
Abello says the activists have continued to receive threats, while some have had their homes broken into and raided. Three of the young activists spent several weeks in hospital after their release due to the injuries sustained in jail. Others have lost their homes because they were no longer able to pay the rent. Abello has been living with a friend since his release.
‘I feel ashamed to burden my friend, 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 not had any support or help from our universities.’
The group are also struggling to find part-time work.
‘Our names are ruined to our parents,’ Abello says. ‘We can’t get jobs. We have no funds. I keep trying to give my friends hope. I always tell them not to regret what they did because it is just the beginning. We have to protect our planet.’
As Abello awaits his court date on 7 February, in which the five defendants are pleading not guilty, he and his friends are worried about their futures.
But the activist’s fears extend beyond the personal consequences to himself. More widely, he worries a negative outcome could create a chilling effect on student climate activism.
‘The judge had said [that if we are found guilty] we shall act as an example to other students who try to stop the EACOP project.’ Nonetheless Abello remains defiant: ‘I continue to work to mobilize students to take non-violent action against EACOP because it is a way we fight for ourselves.’
'I always tell them not to regret what they did because it is just the beginning. We have to protect our planet.'
‘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 pulled over.
‘They seized my brother and slapped us,’ he told New Internationalist. ‘They took away our phones and cardboard [signs] and threw us into the back of a police van. While my brother was sobbing, onlookers asked why we were being detained. The police threatened to put me in jail if they ever found me [again].’
Arrests like these are becoming more commonplace in Uganda, says Morris, who feels that climate activists are increasingly being ‘treated like criminals’. At least 30 environmental defenders, many of them students, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021, according to Human Rights Watch.
‘Because of the widespread brutality, intimidation and unnecessary arrests, as well as the regime's opposition to anyone who identifies as an activist, we may see more voices falling silent,’ Morris warns. ‘[The government] don't want anyone to protest against anything that makes them money; even if the idea doesn’t work or the citizens aren’t happy with it.
‘You have no right to question it or voice your opinion.’
*This name has been changed to protect their identity