How illegal gold miners in Nigeria are fueling insecurity

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Illegal gold mining has become a growing problem in Nigeria, with detrimental impacts on the country’s security. Not only is this lucrative industry benefiting terrorist groups, but it is also causing violence and increasing pollution. The blame for this crisis falls on Chinese nationals who have established and overseen mining and refining operations in the country.

Tension continues to rise around these illegal mining pits, as locals accuse Chinese miners of collaborating with extremist militants, corrupting government officials, destroying farmlands, and polluting water sources with hazardous materials such as mercury and lead. The consequences of these actions are devastating for the affected communities.

The traditional ruler of Atorin-Ijesha in Osun State, Omololu Afilaka, laments how his people are being “conquered” by Chinese miners. He highlights how, before the arrival of the Chinese, there were only artisanal miners who could only extract a limited amount of gold. However, with the advent of the Chinese illegal miners, large-scale excavation operations became the norm.

A recent report by researchers Oluwole Ojewale and Freedom Onuoha sheds light on the extent of insecurity and organized crime within Nigeria’s mining sector. The report, published on December 13, 2023, reveals that in the banditry-affected north-west and central areas, criminal networks involved in illegal gold mining have connections to foreign actors and facilitate trafficking. These foreign networks operate similarly to their local counterparts, establishing their presence in remote villages and forests and engaging directly in illicit gold mining.

How illegal gold miners in Nigeria are fueling insecurity
How illegal gold miners in Nigeria are fueling insecurity

The implications of this illegal gold mining are far-reaching. The financial gains from this illicit trade often end up financing terrorist groups, further destabilizing the region. Additionally, conflicts often arise between the local communities and the Chinese miners, leading to violence and a breakdown of social order. The destruction of farmlands not only affects local food production but also displaces communities who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

According to researchers, foreign demand is the driving force behind the criminal markets for gold in Nigeria. In recent years, Nigerian authorities have arrested several Chinese nationals for their involvement in illegal mining activities. The nation’s mining sector has long been overlooked by security actors, only gaining attention when illegal mining was associated with rural banditry. The neglect of mining sites by regulators and security agents has provided an opportunity for illegal miners, as well as Chinese and other foreign individuals, to exploit the sector. This negligence is also believed to be a reason why bandits are attracted to the mining industry.

How illegal gold miners in Nigeria are fueling insecurity
A Chinese miner shovels processed gold dust in Anka village in the northeastern state of Zamfara, Nigeria. REUTERS

In a shocking report published by British newspaper The Times in April 2023, it was revealed that Chinese companies had gained access to mines in Nigeria by making payments to extremist militant groups. This raised concerns that Beijing could be indirectly funding terrorism in Africa’s largest economy. The report included videos shared by Lagos-based analytical group, SBM Intelligence, which showed militant leaders from groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province boasting about Chinese workers in their territories having to pay “rent.”

The Chinese embassy in Nigeria responded to a report expressing their objection to it, but also made it clear that they wanted to distance themselves from the actions of Chinese individuals involved in controversial mining practices. The embassy stated that both the Chinese government and the embassy itself have always encouraged Chinese companies and nationals in Nigeria to follow the laws and regulations of Nigeria. They emphasized the importance of implementing local rules and guidance on labor, environment, health, and safety. The embassy assured that they would continue their efforts in ensuring compliance with these standards.

It is evident that China has a significant presence in Africa’s mining sector, with substantial investments worth billions of dollars. Chinese nationals play a crucial role in extractive operations across the continent, particularly in mining for gold, other precious metals, and valuable minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and copper. The Economic Times newspaper reported that in 2019, China imported minerals worth almost $10 billion from sub-Saharan Africa.

Local leaders, like Afilaka, share the sentiment that Nigerians are not benefiting adequately from these mining activities. Afilaka also raises concerns about the number of Chinese laborers working in Nigeria without proper permits, a common complaint echoed by communities living near mining operations. They believe that if billions of naira worth of gold is being extracted from their land, the people should reap the benefits.

In a country grappling with a multitude of criminal activities, the presence of foreign criminals in the extractive sector poses a significant security threat. Recognizing the inherent value of these minerals as vital national assets, it becomes imperative to establish a unified and coordinated security response to safeguard them. The extractive sector plays a crucial role in the country’s economy, and any disruption or exploitation can have far-reaching consequences.

Moreover, the environmental impact of illegal gold mining is severe. The use of mercury and lead in the refining process not only contaminates water sources but also poses health risks to both miners and the communities living nearby. The contamination of water supplies not only affects human health but also harms aquatic ecosystems, leading to the decline of aquatic species and further exacerbating the ecological imbalance.

To address this growing crisis, it is crucial for the Nigerian government to take swift and decisive action. This should involve intensifying law enforcement efforts to crack down on illegal mining operations, especially those involving foreign actors. Furthermore, stricter regulations and oversight should be implemented to ensure responsible mining practices that prioritize environmental sustainability and the well-being of local communities.

Abubakar Momoh
Abubakar Momoh is a distinguished West African correspondent for Who Owns Africa and an alumnus of the esteemed University of California. With exceptional skills and deep understanding of the socio-political landscape of the West Africa region, Abubakar consistently delivers thought-provoking and insightful reports. His commitment to journalism and his relentless pursuit of truth have earned him a well-deserved reputation as a trusted and influential voice in the field.

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