CAPPA – Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

For a Ugandan Community, Crude Oil Discovery is a Curse

Obiora Ikoku

The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline Project which is being built to pump crude oil from landlocked Uganda to the World Market by 2025 receives heavy knocks as Coalition found TotalEnergies guilty of land grab amidst other violations and abuses

When in 2018 Asiimwe Julius and others in Kasenyi village saw officials of the French multinational energy and petroleum company, TotalEnergies, come to their community to carry out oil exploration and extraction activities, they were overfilled with joy. Five years later, Julius has lost his house, his land, and three acres of crop, all without compensation.

“We thought the presence of TotalEnergies in our community was a blessing, but we were wrong. It turned out to be a curse” an indignant Julius recently told jurors at a tribunal looking into the plight of victims of extractivism in Uganda.

‘The Peoples Tribunal for Justice and Reconciliation’ is the latest in the series of actions taken by “The Make Big Polluters Pay (MBPP), a coalition of partner organizations in Uganda, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and South Africa, to defend communities on the pathway of the massive East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). Held on 6th May 2023 at the Kasinyi community in Buliisa district, the mock trial of twelve observers and five jurors received testimonies from ten community members impacted by oil exploration activities in Uganda.

Revelations at the trial alongside damning evidence of collusion of political actors with oil corporations to commit egregious abuses have cast new light on the negative human and environmental impact of EACOP and the Tilenga oil well drilling projects. Both projects are being constructed by TotalEnergies together with a number of state and corporate interests including China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Tanzania state oil companies.

TotalEnergies came into the Buliisa District of Western Uganda around the year 2017 to prospect for crude oil in villages such as Kasinyi, Kigoya, Kirama, Kiyere, Kigwera among others. The district which is part of the Lake Albert region of Uganda has major oil and gas resources, estimated at over one billion barrels which the President Yoweri Museveni government is keen on commercializing. According to sources close to the project, oil from the $4 billion Tilenga well operated by TotalEnergies will be transported via the $5 billion EACOP – a 1.443-kilometer-long heated pipeline stretching from the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. At completion, this project will give Uganda an opportunity to begin extracting its own oil in 2025 with a capacity to export at least 246,000 barrels of crude per day to world markets.

But the project which passes through multiple ecologically sensitive areas in Uganda and requires land acquisition covering some 6, 400 hectares has faced heavy criticism by environmental activists and rights groups fearing it would displace communities, endanger wildlife, and tip the world closer to catastrophic climate change.

On Friday 14 July 2023, MBPP partner organization, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) organized a press conference in Lagos Nigeria to publicize the tribunal’s finding. Although a mock trial, the tribunal “has helped highlight the nefarious activities of big oil in Africa”, Aderonke Ige, said while speaking at the press conference. “Our target is transnational corporations, especially the fossil industry, and other polluters. The intention is to establish liability by confronting them, challenging them, ensuring they don’t keep shortchanging our people” – She added. 

Ms. Ige, a lawyer and associate director at CAPPA, served as the secretary of the tribunal and worked with other jurors like the tribunal’s Chairman Nnimmo Bassey, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Kwami Kpondzo, executive director of Center for Environmental Justice, as well as Kabonesa Sophia and Bamuturaki William, both representatives of affected communities to unearth damning evidence of human rights violations and environmental abuses against TotalEnergies.

Findings

Victims, some nearly in tears, recounted their losses to a spellbound audience at the tribunal. Kigwabya Jackson, 65, from Kisansya West village had his livestock which comprised of ten cows, fifteen goats, and countless chickens swept away by floods caused by TotalEnergies Central Processing Facility. “My pit latrine and urinary shelter were destroyed by floods. My passion fruit plants were destroyed in floods. My house was also submerged in the flood”. It was a similar tale of woe from Byensi Robert from Kigwera South West village. “Floods destroyed a quarter of an acre of my sweet potatoes and 140 of my musizi trees. When it floods, the community borehole gets submerged in water and is inaccessible”.

But TotalEnergies is not acting alone. When Nyakato Magreat, a single mother and others from kasinyi village, objected to the amount of compensation they were given, the state-backed TotalEnergies. “The Hon. Minister for lands came to our community with many soldiers who were carrying guns and most of us accepted the compensation amount of UGX 3,500,000 (Three million and five hundred thousand shillings) per acre which we had earlier rejected out of fear. Total then gave me a small one-bedroomed house on a small plot of land despite my large family” Magreat told the Tribunal.

The tribunal also established evidence of underhand dealings by the oil giant. For instance, it found that TotalEnergies employed intimidation; including the presence of armed men, to force hesitant community members to sign off their lands. Also, some of the displaced persons were poorly compensated while others were not compensated at all. TotalEnergies fenced off the premises of some community members, resulting in isolation, loss of livelihood and insecurity. Some community members claim to have developed health complications because of the dust generated from the company’s activities such as clearing, grading and levelling the acquired land. In addition, community members have continued to experience a loss of livelihood since their farmlands were taken away. Some testified that local buildings have begun to experience cracks, following the use of heavy machines while regular flooding from the company’s facility continues to endanger human lives, livestock and farmlands.

The company also deliberately undervalued land and crop values in order to cheat the community people. This was the experience of Oloya Edgar, a 44-year-old male farmer from Buliisa District. “I am a typical farmer. On 18 February 2018 when the oil project started, a TOTAL consultant, called Atacama found me in the garden where I had dug very many crops which helped me pay fees for my children. They said this day is a cutoff date and that they considered my land to now be government land. They come and assessed the land where I had watermelon, and cassava among other crops which I used to sell and pay school fees. The assessment was not done to my satisfaction because they did not count each watermelon head”, Edgar told jurors at the tribunal.

Although a mock trial, these findings are no less damaging to the corporate reputation of TotalEnergies which prides itself as a responsible operator. Commenting on the findings, Dickens Kamugisha, said “The testimonies from affected communities reflect growing impacts that the discovery of commercial oil reserves in Uganda has caused. The alleged cases of land grabs, illegal displacements and environmental degradation portend grave danger to local communities and their voices must be heard”. Kamugisha is the Chief Executive Officer of Africa Institute for Energy Governance.

Guilty as Charged

On the strength of the oral testimonies of affected persons, study of numerous documents and on-site assessments, the tribunal concluded that TotalEnergies has cases to answer for its alleged human rights and environmental abuses and other abuses linked to its oil extraction activities in Kasinyi and other nearby villages. Particularly, the tribunal found that TotalEnergies is in breach of Article 26 of the Constitution of Uganda which upholds the human right protecting individuals from the deprivation of property. Furthermore, the Tribunal determined that TotalEnergies has not met even the barest minimum of compliance regarding the situation of dangerous facilities within acceptable perimeters from homes, farmlands, and public facilities. It concluded that “various violations of rights registered in the 10 cases presented by the project’s affected persons are instances of systemic and systematic repression, undue influence, degradation of the quality of life of communities and peoples who appear helpless in the face of a system that has failed and is still failing to protect them”.

The tribunal went ahead to recommend a number of immediate remediation steps to respect the full rights of the peoples to a safe environment, improve their lives and safeguard their health and culture. This includes setting up support systems for women and children affected by the projects. The tribunal charged the oil giant to establish a Women’s Development Program to rehabilitate women affected by the project and a program for children and students whose education was disrupted as a result of the project.  It also recommends that relevant government agencies, including the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, should investigate and assess the community’s claims for the purpose of reparation and restitution.

Long Road to Justice

Although it has made no direct comment on the tribunal’s findings yet, TotalEnergies is known to always claim it has done no wrong. On its website, the company says it attaches the utmost importance to compliance with human rights in the implementation of the projects.  “Right from the design phase of these projects, special attention has been paid to information, consultation and consensus-building with all stakeholders. Discussions have been initiated with several NGOs, laying the foundation for a sustainable collaboration process aimed at capitalizing on their expertise and driving continuous improvement”.

But CAPPA insists the oil giant, one of the world’s seven oil super majors, is guilty of causing historical and long-term damage to livelihood and the environment bringing into focus the deal struck at COP 27 last year where a Loss and Damage facility was agreed upon, after years of campaign by environmental activists. “Africa happens to be the continent that contributes the least to global warming but at the same time, it bears the largest brunt of the climate crisis. This is because we have weak resilience in terms of adaptation and mitigation of the impact of climate change. That is the reason for this campaign” Ms. Ige explained.

For affected persons however, it has been a long road to being heard let alone justice. They had for years sought justice within a multitude of avenues including filing cases in local courts of law, reporting to local authorities, and filing complaints with the grievance handling groups but all have been in vain. The mock tribunal would be the first time their voices are heard loud and clear. It is, however, yet to be seen what would come of it.

Asked what is next, Ms. Ige said the tribunal’s verdict will be shared with the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights and the Uganda Human Rights Commission.

“We will not stop until we bring TotalEnergies to justice to serve as deterrence” She added.

Obiora Ikoku is a freelance journalist and activist from Lagos, Nigeria. He writes about social movements and the geopolitics of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

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