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Activists vow to continue battle for disclosure of oil agreements

Image: Activists from Kibaale District wait to hear the court ruling

Activists from Kibaale District wait for the court ruling. (Andrew Kaahwe, quoted in article, third from left)

Oil transparency activists were disappointed by a ruling against them yesterday in Nakawa High Court, Kampala, but have vowed to continue a legal battle to require the government of Uganda to publish Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) that it has reached with international oil companies.

Lady Justice Faith Mwhonda rejected an application from the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) and three other civil society organisations for permission to present evidence at an appeal by two journalists against a separate ruling which denied them access to the PSAs.In 2007 the journalists—Charles Mwanguhya and Angelo Izama, reporters for The Daily Monitor—filed a suit under Uganda’s Access to Information Act (2005), asking that the Attorney General disclose the oil agreements. In 2010, Nakawa Magistrates Court dismissed the case, saying that the journalists had failed to prove that disclosure was in the public interest. Mwanguhya and Izama appealed the decision, but their appeal has not yet been heard.

Meanwhile, AFIEGO and partner organisations applied to present their own evidence to the appeal court under a legal principle known as amicus curiae(meaning ‘a friend of the court’ who can help it reach a fair decision.

Justice Mwhonda’s ruling yesterday, read by the Court Registrar to around two dozen activists from the oil exploration areas and their attorneys, rejected the application. Reasons given were that the applicants—AFIEGO,  Navigators for Development Association (NAVODA) from Hoima, World Voices Uganda (WVU) from Kibaale and the Buliisa Initiative for Rural Development (BIRUDA)—had not filed a brief to show that they had relevant knowledge and information to share with the court.  The ruling also found that the groups had not submitted sufficient documentation to show their legal existence and character.

Speaking after the ruling, James Nangwala, the barrister acting on behalf of the civil society orgnisations, clarified that his clients had only been applying for permission to present evidence, and that such an application need not in law be supported by the evidence itself.  “We are considering taking a brief from our client for the constitutional court to address these issues,” Nangwala said.

Dickens Kamugisha, Chief Executive Officer of AFIEGO, commented that “The court is making judgments that are not based on the law, not based on the facts. That tells us that the future of the appeal is not very certain.”

“These guys from up-country are only asking for the court’s indulgence to make their own case, but what they are hearing is that the court does not want to know from them,” Kamugisha added.

The journalists who filed the original lawsuit attended yesterday’s hearing.  Charles Mwanguhya said he was disappointed but not surprised or disheartened by the ruling.  “It would be good to have AFIEGO and others join us in this appeal, but the issues we wanted to raise will still be raised,” he said. “We want to see the Access to Information Act work as a piece of law, not just a piece of paper.”

The journalists’ appeal cannot be scheduled for hearing before September at the earliest, according to James Nangwala, the advocate for AFIEGO, who also teaches Law at Makerere University.  Even then, he added, the date of any hearing would be set by the presiding judge.

Bunyoro activists

Community group representatives, who had travelled from the oil exploration areas to attend the hearing, underlined calls for greater transparency.

“As citizens, we know that we have oil but we don’t know anything else,” said Andrew Kaahwe, who coordinates the Kyaterekera High Level Farmer Development and Training Association in Kibaale District. “Even the media hasn’t come in and told us,” Kaahwe  added.  “The government is not declaring anything, and this may cause unrest because people may think they are downplayed.”

“Our region is poor,” he continued.  “Roads are very poor.  Also, environment-wise, we are now getting fears. Our climate has changed drastically, we have had consecutive episodes of drought, so we are looking at how we can survive economically, environmentally and socially and even in stability.”

Samuel Katunguka had travelled from Hoima District to attend the court hearing on behalf of the Rights and Environment Education and Promotion Association.  He acknowledged that oil exploration has brought some benefits to the District.  “It’s a boost to the economy, there’s an influx of people, the hotels are doing well, hospitals have been renovated as well as the roads infrastructure.”

Yet, he emphasised, “Our main concern is that we hear of ‘confidentiality’ in the agreements, yet we know that oil is a public resource and that the government holds it in trust for the people.”

“We need to know,” he added. “If we don’t know, there will be corruption, and the majority will not benefit.”