Dissent over EACOP should not be hostile

In the case of Charles Onyango Obbo & Andrew Mwenda Vs Attorney General (Constitutional Appeal No. 2 of 2002), Justice Mulenga (as he then was) is remembered in legal circles for holding, in his judgment, that the move to use Section 50 of the Penal Code Act to limit press freedom for two renown journalists was akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. Twenty years later, contrary opinion on the suitability of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) has been muzzled and gagged effectively. Recent public discourse around EACOP has created an unnecessary divisive rift pitting those in support of the project against those opposed to it. Naturally, civil society has been caught in this crossfire owing to the actions of some organisations that have come out to speak about the negative side to the project.

Civil society derives its mandate from various provisions of the 1995 Constitution (as amended) specifically Article 38 which guarantees every Ugandan the right to participate in peaceful activities in order to influence the policies of government through civic organisations. In furtherance to this, objective II of the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, civic organisations are guaranteed autonomy in pursuit of their declared objectives. In light of the above, it is not proper for government agencies and bodies to attempt to bulldoze civil society into accepting particular positions regarding EACOP without questioning their veracity. Civil Society cannot be expected to accept official reports that paint a glamorous picture when the realities on ground portray a different picture, neither is civil society mandated to oppose every government programme just for the sake of it.

With regard to developments and investments in the oil and gas sector, there have been several concerns from host communities regarding social, environmental and economic impacts of these developments. Rather than provide the right information and a much needed ear, some government officials have been quick to dismiss these concerns and blackmail those that speak out. According to The Independent magazine, by May, only 41 percent of the total 3,648 EACOP project affected persons (PAPs) had been compensated. Consistent inquiries from civil society have yielded disclosures that the delay is due to a flurry of reasons such as absence of national identity cards for the PAPs as well as delays in processing letters of administration in some instances.

According to Map for Environment- an open map data source, there is potential loss of forest cover due to the EACOP with some estimating a potential negative disruption of nearly 2,000 square kilometres of wildlife habitats. In responding to these concerns, government officials have encouraged anyone with environmental concerns to read the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report. We all know how inaccessible and complicated these reports can be, especially for the ordinary Ugandan.  The discourse then should be around how civil society can work with government to ensure that this report is easier to understand by those who are likely to be impacted by EACOP.

In trying to push for reforms, civil society is not blind to the developmental agenda of the country and neither does it seek to frustrate efforts aimed at improving the livelihoods of Ugandans. Civil society is merely making the case that development has to be complimented with other aspects such as favourable environmental considerations as well as observance of human rights. Let us communicate better for such developments to create a sense of ownership and have social licence. Dissent should not translate to mean bitter disagreement.

Jordan Tumwesigye, Program Manager - Global Rights Alert

Article as Published in the Daily Monitor on June 27, 2022