Albertine Watchdog: “In case our identities were discovered, the risks include assassinations”

Clara Zid, December 2019

The person speaking is a member of Albertine Watchdog, a group of four anonymous persons fighting against the oil and gas exploration in the Lake Albert region (Uganda) and its consequences on the population. In the last three months alone, they and their network members have experienced firsthand intimidation, death threats, equipment confiscation, violence, surveillance, blackmail and imprisonment”.

Albertine Watchdog is an NGO providing training to activists that fight against human rights abuse and environmental degradation as a result of the oil and gas exploration, called the Tilenga project, by the French company Total and Chinese CNOOC, with governmental support. Tens of thousands of people and more than 500 species of animals, including some threatened, will be affected. The Tilenga project aims to develop six fields oil tankers: Total plans to drill 419 wells spread over 34 platforms, mainly within the protected natural area of the Murchison Falls, to achieve a production of approximately 200,000 barrels per day.

French and Ugandan campaign groups including Friends of the Earth have filed a legal notification with Total, claiming it has failed to address the human and environmental impact of its Ugandan operations as required by French law.

The disastrous consequences of the Tilenga Project are forced evictions, land grabbing, intimidation and violence against activists, low compensation of properties and extrajudicial killings. In order to address these challenges, the Albertine Watchdog focuses its work on providing security training to a wide network of activist groups and indigenous communities across the Albertine region, covering digital and physical threats as well as legal security and emergency support.

There is a growing demand for safety strategies among the activists in the region, explains Albertine. “The working security environment for those in Uganda is challenging”. There is widespread surveillance, and the government has a lot of influence over the country’s Internet infrastructure. As a result, activist’s groups have been forced to become seriously engaged on the risks that may arise from insecure communications.

“Albertine Watchdog has provided support to more than 250 activists from different civil society organizations in Eastern Africa”

Tilega Project’s drilling rig

Albertine Watchdog has directly supported more than 250 individual activists, from different civil society organizations in Eastern Africa, with training in digital security focusing on email encryption, secure mobile apps, malware, VPNs, Tor and antivirus. The physical training focuses on monitoring, legal frameworks, public demonstration tactics, solidarity building and emergency communication.

The activists face a lot of threats, attacks and killings, with a fourfold increase since 2002. “These attacks are unquestionably linked to the actions of extractive industries, agribusiness, hydroelectric power, and other large-scale development projects and the cooperation of governments and their security and military institutions”, explains Albertine.

Since 2016, the leadership of Albertine Watchdog has been arrested more than five times, beaten and tortured at several occasion. Sometimes the threats are directed to family members, relatives, and friends. That’s the reason they went anonymous in 2017. This decision has enabled the group to express their opinions freely online, without the fear of repercussions.

But anonymity is not an easy situation: “Sometimes we have to change the work style, take temporary relocation outside home town and change contacts in order to avoid being tracked”. And there’s one large drawback: you can’t get funding as anonymous.

“We have lost dozens of funding opportunties from large donors simply because we did not have a bank account in the name of Albertine Watch”, says Albertine, although “the good thing is that we have always been in touch with human rights groups including Qurium Media Foundation, whose support has enabled us to continue publishing anonymously and has introduced us to individuals and organizations that care about our security”.

Lake Albert

There are many public ongoing investigations taking place behind Albertine Watchdog about wanting to know the real individuals or organizations behind the website. The Oil company Total and security in charge of oil and gas unit alleged that the Albertine Watch is publishing false information aimed at tarnishing the image of the government and oil companies and also they alleged that it’s inciting the community to oppose the oil exploration and drilling project. In case Albertine Watchdog identities were discovered, “the risks include assassinations, arrest, imprisonment, and torture; apparently there are many public ongoing investigations taking place behind us”, Albertine says.

Meanwhile, he adds, “as the oil exploration progresses, there are incidents of human rights violations scattered around the region and the battle to expose these violations and their perpetrators lies with a small group of ill-equipped individuals, lacking skills and tools to protect their work and most especially their lives”.

Albertine loves activism because, he says, “I have the passion to protect human rights of people” but it scares him that there are few organizations protecting activism: “If I’m arrested nobody will help me”. There’s a need of an activism network in Africa, where “most organizations are living in capital city, for example Civil Rights Defenders are in Sweden and they respond to the challenges from Sweden, the regional organizations don’t respond. That scares me because maybe I will be left in danger because nobody won’t protect me”.

In order not to jeopardize the confidentiality of Albertine Watchdog’s identities, Qurium is hosting their website pro-bono to avoid financial links to the team.

“There are few organizations protecting activism. If I’m arrested, nobody will help me”