Illegal gold mining has become routine in Nigeria and both compatriots and foreigners are neck-deep in stealing the country’s highly valued mineral, yet Nigeria wallows in foreign debts, TUNDE AJAJA writes
The dark of the night was gradually yielding dominance to the first light of dawn when 75-year-old Yemi Oluwole, a pensioner, took a spot on his veranda.
He sat quietly on a sofa, watching forlornly as the youthful strangers, armed with hand diggers, shovels and buckets hung on their shoulders, stumped along the dusty road that snaked through his frontage to the sites they have forcefully taken and converted to gold mining fields in his Itagunmodi village in Osun State.
Oluwole’s expansive farm is one of the hijacked sites, and according to him, the once quiet community has since lost its tranquility to the invasion by the armed artisanal miners, comprising persons from different parts of the country and foreigners alike, including Chinese, Malians and Nigerien nationals.
“Those boys have violated our land and it’s so bad that our traditional ruler was kidnapped and beaten by the criminals before he could escape, yet the government folds its hands and watches them steal our assets,” said Oluwole, who retired into farming about 15 years ago.
“When I retired as a civil servant in a ministry in Osogbo, I went into farming to feed my family because my meagre monthly pension is irregular, yet I have a family to feed. But everything has gone now; the miners have turned our farms to mining fields,” the distressed septuagenarian added in an interview with our correspondent.
Oluwole is not the only person affected by the illegal mining, many others in the community and similar ones have lost their land and livelihoods to the miners.
Meanwhile, the inability to pay pensioners promptly is one of the state’s economic challenges, despite its enviable gold deposit. The state, like many others endowed with solid minerals, has been enmeshed in huge debts.
As of June 30, 2021, records from the Debt Management Office showed that the Osun State owed N133.36bn in domestic debt while in external debt, it owed $90.38m as of June 30, 2020.
About two months ago, the state governor, Adegboyega Oyetola, disclosed that the state had no money to finance infrastructure and his administration had to prioritise payment of salaries and pensions. Sadly, the latter has not even been paid up to date. Yet, migrants are stealing the state’s treasure that, ordinarily, should potentially turn its fortune around.
Globally, gold is a treasured, high-priced mineral. In the international market, an ounce of gold, as of Thursday, was about $1,806. According to the 2016 Mining Growth Roadmap by the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Nigeria has an untapped 200 million ounces of gold, scattered across about 13 states, Osun inclusive. The Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, affirmed this figure at a forum in June 2020.
Thus, gold alone could fetch Nigeria trillions in dollars, even when the cost of production is deducted.
But for years, government abandoned it and other solid minerals, making it an all-comers affair for illegal and artisanal miners who remit almost nothing to it, while the country battles incredibly low revenue, compelling it to unashamedly borrow nonstop, to the tune of N35tn at the moment with plans to borrow even more –about N6.2tn in 2o22 to finance the budget.
The International Monetary Fund, the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed and the Chairman of Economic Advisory Council, Dr Doyin Salami, stressed at various times that Nigeria was facing revenue problems. Beyond the revenue loss, illegal mining has caused severe environmental degradation; farmers have been abruptly sent packing from their farms; their water, like the Osun River, polluted, and life made difficult for the dwellers.
Illegal mining, a national embarrassment
From Itagunmodi to Igun, Iyere, Igila and other poor, gold-bearing communities in Osun State and Kwali, Daki Takwas, Zugu, Wawan Icce, Yan Kaura and other gold-bearing communities in Zamfara State, and some other states, illegal mining is rife and appears to have come to stay.
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Olamilekan Adegbite, Governors Oyetola of Osun State and Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State and others have condemned the prevalence it and the involvement of foreigners but nothing changed.
In addition to those who do it for survival and other economic considerations, some of the miners were believed to be working for top monarchs and government officials, while some security agents protect them on the mining fields. The Oluwo of Iwo in Osun State, Oba Abdulrosheed Akanbi, blamed politicians and traditional rulers as the sponsors of the miners.
To solve the problem, the President in October 2020 set up a mining police, comprising the Inspector-General of Police, Chief of Army Staff, National Security Adviser and others, but one year after, the illicit act continued unabated.
Even when the President banned mining activities in Zamfara State and declared the state as “no fly zone” due to worsening insecurity, the illegal miners simply relocated to Osun State to continue their illegal activity.
Instructively, after the ban, two Chinese were arrested for illegal mining. Adegbite later revealed that the miners were working for “Nigerians in high positions of authority” who were mounting pressure on the government to release them.
So far, hundreds of illegal gold miners have been arrested, including some Chinese nationals, but the activity festers like a bad sore.
On May 4, 2020 alone, 17 Chinese, 10 locals and one community leader were arrested in Ilesa and Ife areas by the Amotekun corps.
“The Chinese are the main culprits. Taking gold out of Nigeria illegally is economic sabotage because if you look at the quantum, the value is huge,” he added.
With the huge revenue the country was losing, Minister of State in the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Uche Ogah, advocated capital punishment for the culprits. He lamented that private jet owners were aiding gold smuggling.
Sadly, despite the volume of activities on the mining fields and the increasing number of miners, the revenue from the sector has remained a paltry sum. Between January and August 2021, the finance minister revealed that Nigeria earned only N2.44bn as minerals and mining revenue, which is less than one per cent of the N754.16bn received as oil revenue within the same period.
Similarly, in 2019, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative said in its report that royalties received from 39 minerals was N2.50bn, with limestone contributing 37.68 per cent, granite 31.31 per cent and gold 0.26 per cent, despite the volume of mining activities by illegal miners.
The Federal Government revealed that the country loses $9bn to illegal mining annually, with the little revenue in the sector coming from the three per cent royalty paid by the few licensed miners.
Why artisanal miners and not big investors dominate
Findings by our correspondent revealed that the dearth of licensed investors in the sector is largely due to the absence of a gold policy and lack of detailed geoscience data that could promote the country’s resource potential, drive investment and help investors make informed decisions.
While many countries, including Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea Bissau and Asian countries like China and European countries like Russia, have attracted big investors to mine their gold and generating sizeable revenue from the value chain, Nigeria only begun the process of coming up with the all-important geoscience data few years ago.
The Director-General of the Nigerian Geological Survey Agency, the agency saddled with the responsibility of…