The recent arrest of some Chinese and other foreign nationals for their involvement in illegal mining in the country has once again exposed the soft underbelly of the Nigerian security set-up, which easily lends itself to exploitation by foreigners to harm the country’s economy. It is also an indictment of the managers of the economy, who have tended to overlook the array of solid mineral resources available for the development of the country in apparent preference for oil.
No fewer than 27 foreign nationals, 17 of them Chinese, were arrested in Osun State recently while illegally exploiting gold. The furore was yet to die down when two other Chinese were apprehended for the same offence in Zamfara State, another part of the country with a long and ugly history of illegal mining. Aside from some Nigerians, other nationals arrested alongside the Chinese for unauthorised mining of the country’s precious minerals were Senegalese and Burkinabes.
This seriously undermines the authority of the government. It portrays the country as a weak and ungoverned territory. The government has to erase that impression by acting fast and decisively in bringing these common criminals to justice.
Chinese are notorious for illegal mining in Africa. China has more than six million artisanal miners, which is well over half of the artisanal miners in the world. In China, just like in any serious country, foreigners who flout the law are subjected to the country’s stringent justice system. As of two years ago, 600 Nigerians were believed to be serving various prison terms in China for offences ranging from drug trafficking to overstaying the period allowed by their visas, according to a News Agency of Nigeria report quoting the Nigerian Consul General in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, the same sternness is not applied by the Nigerian authorities when dealing with criminals from that country.
In response to the arrest of the Chinese miners, the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Olamilekan Adegbite, complained of immense pressure being mounted by some Nigerians in “high positions of authority,” apparently their collaborators, to ensure that they are let off the hook. “We are going to present all the facts to them (the Chinese Embassy) so that it will not appear as if we are targeting them unfairly,” Adegbite said.
To say the least, this kid-gloves approach portrays Nigeria as weak, feckless and incapable of enforcing her own laws. If indeed these Chinese have been caught in the act, the minister does not need to explain to the Chinese Embassy before allowing the law to take its course. This servile and pandering attitude will not serve as a deterrent but will only encourage other foreigners to commit crimes in the country, knowing that they will be treated with kid gloves.
There is no doubt that the country is losing so much to illegal mining. Resource-hungry China is providing diplomatic cover to its nationals involved in illegal mining in Africa by shielding them from prosecution. The Communist country always arranges for deportation of its citizens accused of illegal mining in Africa, which should stop.
Africa is now a laughing stock owing to Chinese illegal mining activities on the continent. This can be measured not only in monetary terms, but also in the human toll. In August 2010, a BBC report claimed that at least 30 children died of lead poisoning associated with illegal and artisanal mining in one month in the northern state of Zamfara. The children were victims of lead-contaminated waste from illegal gold mining. An investigation that year by the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found out that there were unusually high levels of lead in the blood of children in the mining areas, just as there was also high level of the poison in the water ingested by the people.
Unfortunately, the government has not paid enough attention to the problem by properly regulating the mining sector and ensuring that only licensed miners, working in accordance with international best practices, are allowed to carry out mining activities. This lack of interest in properly regulating the solid mineral sector is responsible for the loss of interest in tin and coal mining in Plateau and Enugu states respectively. Before the advent of oil, these minerals partly sustained the Nigerian economy.
By becoming unduly fixated on oil, however, Nigeria has neglected other areas of the economy, including agriculture that formed the backbone of the pre-oil era of the economy. This is not surprising because oil now fetches close to 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. While the Niger Delta creeks are swarming with security agents seeking to prevent illegal oil bunkering and illegal refineries, the country’s solid minerals, 34 different types of which have been identified and certified ready in commercial quantity for mining, have been abandoned for illegal miners.
If only the country understands the value of gold in the international market, especially now that oil prices have crashed to almost unprecedented levels, then she would have paid greater attention to the exploitation and harnessing of her gold to prop up the flagging economy. According to the World Gold Council, gold mining is a major economic driver of many countries. It does not only bring foreign direct investment but is also a source of direct and indirect job creation, foreign exchange and tax revenues. This also applies to other solid minerals.
Nigeria should, therefore, shake off her apathy and start giving mining and trading in gold the attention they rightly deserve. There should be a new approach to curbing illegal mining. The plan to create special courts in the regions to prosecute illegal miners is just a starting point. There is no doubt that illegal mining barons are protected by the state. In 2018, the Federal Government withdrew a suit against a Nigerian politician, 16 Chinese nationals and nine other Nigerians who were charged with illegal mining of lead and zinc. The critical factor is that the law should be enforced.