Investigation: How illegal gold miners milk FCT of billions in revenues
…We are mining illegally to make quick wealth – Miners …They are licensed – Govt
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WHILE Zamfara State government rakes in billions of naira from its large gold deposits, the Federal Capital Territory Administration(FCTA) loses a large chunk of the mineral resource to illegal miners. Marcus FATUNMOLE reports.
ABUJA, Nigeria’s capital, is currently forfeiting revenue from its gold deposits to illegal miners, findings by The ICIR have shown.
The loss results from the failure of relevant government agencies to prevent unlicensed artisanal miners from plundering the valuable mineral resources.
The revenue haemorrhage has led to the rising calls on government to harness the nation’s resources, especially now that economic condition is worsening amidst COVID-19 pandemic. The call also comes amidst shrinking revenue from crude oil, the mainstay of the country’s economy.
Background to this story
The ICIR investigated activities of the illegal miners in Kundu, Kwali Local Area Council, Abuja, and found that many youths of the community are involved in the artisanal mining.
Kundu, a ward in Kwali area council, has over 5,000 residents, according to Bello Magaji, leader (Aguma) of the community. The ICIR, however, has no means of verifying this claim because the last national census was conducted more than 15 years ago. Kundu is a remote and agrarian village, and it takes about 40 minutes to reach the community from Kwali via motorbike. The only road leading to the settlement is untarred, and motorbike operators charge each passenger between N500 and N700 from Kwali. Only a few vehicles, mostly used for agricultural purposes, ply the rough road.
The locality lacks major basic amenities such as electricity , pipe-borne water, and modern means of communication. Homes in Kundu are mostly made of mud.
Kundu has a public primary school and a primary health centre, but the primary school’s roofs have been blown off by the wind, and the school has been shut down after efforts to get the attention of the government for its repair, failed.
Closure of the school makes it possible for children to spend more time to join the miners at work. Some of the children support their mothers who sell foods to the miners. A few other women in the community also participate in mining.
As rain retreats for the year, farming – the community’s main source of income, winds up. Children, therefore, help their mothers with the chores at home while men ventures out to win bread for their families. Scores of Kundu youths also have found a new trade in mining; they spend most part of each day excavating the earth under the village river for gold.
Miners are from Zamfara, other places, Kundu monarch says
But according to Magaji, (the Aguma), only youths from Zamfara and other parts of the country are involved in the mining. He said the number of miners could grow beyond 5,000 (more than Kundu’s population) at the peak of the dry season.
Given their experience in the business, Zamfara youth are skilled in gold mining and were trooping into his community and environs to help themselves with the gold deposit, he added.
Some of the youth who spoke with our reporter boasted they could become millionaires within weeks. “It is all by luck, we can make up to N500, 000 in one week,” Musa Aliyu said.
“What I can tell you is that no one comes here and chooses to do anything else again until he ‘hammers’ (a local parlance for making huge financial breakthrough).
The ICIR gathered that the miners could go as far as killing one another whenever they find gold that is a finger size, or more. Such discovery could make them swallow the mineral and excrete it much later, in ravenous bid to keep sizeable part of their harvests from others. Up to a million naira could be made from excreted gold, The ICIR gathered.
The mining process
Heaps of gravels surround the mining site. The stones are first excavated before reaching the muddy earth from which the mineral is extracted. The miners have no use for the gravel stones, which though is another source of huge revenue; they only are after the precious stones.
They work in groups. Some persons excavate the earth under the river, separating gravel and other unwanted substances from the soil; about two or three scoops the miry water, and sieve gold from muddy dirt. The person who sieves carefully ensures the tiny yellowish substance finds its way into a small bowl where the mineral is further extracted from dirt. The gold appears, in most cases, as tiny glistening yellowish substance amidst some dirt. It is usually difficult to see it, as it mixes with soil participles, but it glints. Sand around the river also shines under the scorching sun, as it appears to contain a negligible amount of the mineral.
Buyers come from outside the community, but only on appointment, the miners said. They are however always open to highest bidders. So, there is no permanent client.
The Kundu River
The Kundu river flows through Gwagwa community (before Jiwa) to Bassa, Zamani, Nuwalege through Sauka, linking Gwagwalada and Pai in Kwali before rushing through Kundu. The river heads towards Kogi and Niger states where River Niger, one of Nigeria’s most famous rivers, has its bed before forming a confluence with River Benue in Lokoja, Kogi state.
While most communities where the river flows through has a specific name for it, the river is called “Suma” by Kundu people.
A lot of fishing and little of gold mining activities take place in these communities during the dry season, but none of the villages has the size of people with mining acumen as Kundu. The river is very wide in Pai and Kundu because of large excavations that have opened up banks of the river; exposing a mass of small rocks beneath and around the water. Canoes are used in Pai to ferry people across the river.
How mining affects community
Speaking on environmental hazards caused by mining in the village, Aguma of Kundu said the business is making the river to become wider and that the activity affects farming in the area because of increased erosion.
Magaji said there had been no sickness associated with mining in his village, but the fishes in the river were dying. According to him, the river is the community’s only source of water and it is facing increasing pollution.
The chief appealed to the government to intervene and stop illegal mining in the area. He also sought help for potable water in Kundu from the government.
The 40-year-old leader noted that mining activities are usually low during the raining season but increase during the dry season because the water level would have reduced to allow for increased excavation.
He said some of the miners sleep in the river because they don’t have accommodation in Abuja. “They come from Kano, Zamfara and other states. Any time a car comes to the village, it is the buyers that bring food to them or come to buy the gold,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Magaji later admitted that some of his subjects had been trained by the “foreigners” to engage in the trade.
He said the mining had been on for over 10 years, stressing that only a few people were coming to mine when the business was introduced to the village. The mining, which appears to be done in the crudest form, is done both day and night, he said.
He added: “The mining is done at different locations and all the locations are around Kundu village. We could have engaged the police if they are close to us. The nearest police station is the Kwali Divisional Police Headquarters.”
“The community is not benefitting anything from the mining. They just come to the village and do their work without any commission or benefit for us; neither are the villages around this place getting anything in return from the activities,” the Aguma told our reporter.
Similarly, Idris Mohammed, head of public health centre in Kundu, confirmed to The ICIR that the river is the main source of water for the settlement. He said diseases such as cholera and dysentery are very common in the community.
He also told The ICIR that schistosomiasis – a major neglected tropical disease (NTD) contractable from water – is very common in the village. Mohammed, who has been working in Kundu since 2013, however, said though they are water-borne, none of the diseases is directly linked to mining in the community.
The world of miners
The ICIR met scores of youth who grouped at different ends of the river, after walking through the river with a village guide. Unlike Pai community, there is no canoe to ferry people through the river at Kundu. The miners smartly carry out their business at the other end of the river, so they could not be located easily by outsiders. They either have to swim or walk through the breadth of the river, which is about 700 meters. They help themselves with dozens of wraps of Indian hemp, cigarettes and other “energy-boosting” substances.
“We don’t allow anyone to come here without prior notice because what we are doing here is illegal. We did not get anybody’s permission to be here. We know those we transact with. But if you are here to offer higher bid, we’ll sell the gold for you,” one of the miners said as his group took our reporter through the process of the mining.
Another miner said: “Don’t look at us as illiterates. Even though we didn’t go to school much, we are big boys on our own. We can make in short time all the money that those of you who went to school very well would make in your offices, depending on the luck we have here.”
From their look, the miners are largely between age 18 and 40. Despite claims they could make fortunes within days if luck smiles on them, the miners looked haggard. But, they were ambitious and agile.
Meanwhile, Mr Vitalis Obiano, the Divisional Police Officer, Kwali, who was alleged to be conspiring with the miners by a source, vehemently denied having knowledge of gold mining in the area.
He told The ICIR during a visit to his office that the government should be able to explore the resource as a good source of income to boost its gross domestic product.
He said if the mining is found to be an illegal activity, the community should inform the police.
“Is there a complaint? Let them bring up the complaint. Once the community brings the issue up, we’ll put an end to it; we’ll raid the place because such an economic resource should be for the state.
Please, whenever the community wants us to come in, we’ll be available; provided it (the mining) is illegal,” he vowed.
Kwali Council Chairman fails to comment
Danladi Chiya, chairman, Kwali local council area, turned down the request to speak on the development with The ICIR. After waiting in his office for hours, our reporter approached him to speak on the illegal mining, he headed straight in a waiting car and was driven off in the company of his gun-wielding security aides.
Nigerian government controversially defends miners
Backing the miners, Eng. Frank Odoom, Acting Director, Mines, Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, said he had 98 percent assurance that there is no illegal mining activity in the FCT. “I am telling you the truth because of the coverage. We have a very strong collaboration with the DSS. We have informal mining. Some of them have small scale mining. You might look at them as illegal because of the way they are working. Their operation is quite informal.
“They are not organized, they are crude in nature, but they might be under the artisanal mining. You don’t say they are illegal, but they are not formal. Government is trying to bring them into the formal sector because most of them were pushed into it because of poverty. We’ll try to accommodate them and try to bring them in and try to train them on safe mining and the likes.”
Similarly, Mohammed Bature, Federal Mines Officer for the nation’s capital in the ministry, said the government was aware of the existence of the mineral resource in the FCT, but noted that quantifying the reserve was very difficult for him.
He said nobody could go into mining without acquiring a licence in the city.
“These people have a licence. They are the operators; they have the licence. They have the mineral title,” he said.
When confronted that the miners claimed they didn’t have the title, he insisted they had it.
“Most of these people have mineral titles. If you have a mineral title over land, anybody can come and do the work. Maybe those people are working under a licence because you cannot issue two licence in one place. A man has the title over that place, maybe the people are working under him,” he said.
Asked if it means that all the locations in the communities have been given out legally for mining, he answered emphatically in the affirmative. “They are not working illegally. There is the mineral title over there,” he said with an air of finality.
He said the mineral title holders pay a royalty to the Federal Government, but failed to state how much had been paid and the modality for payment.
He also explained that there is a task force comprising operatives of most of the nation’s security agencies working to ensure the laws guiding mining in the country are obeyed.
Gold mining hazards, not health ministry’s priority – spokesperson
Olujimi Oyetomi, Director of Information and Head, Media and Public Relations Unit in the ministry, rebuffed The ICIR’s efforts to get a reaction of the Federal Ministry of Health on this report.
He said coming to the ministry for such an “insignificant” issue as illegal gold mining was a misplaced priority for The ICIR.
Oyetomi said with the issue of COVID-19, communicable and non-communicable diseases in the country, the ministry had no time to respond to issue of illegal gold mining.
He mentioned two directors in the ministry who had turned down media requests for the position of the ministry on issues they thought were of no importance to the government.
Dangers of illegal mining, by WHO, CDC
Illegal and artisanal mining can be very detrimental to human and livestock health. In May 2019, the World Health Organization said no less than 850,690 people in Nigeria were at risk of mercury poisoning. Mercury is a chemical used by artisanal and small-scale gold miners.
The WHO noted that artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the main source of the largest release of mercury emissions around the world.
WHO had listed 12 states in Nigeria as high-risk places where gold mining could trigger health crisis.
The states (which have gold deposit in Nigeria) are FCT, Niger, Osun, Zamfara, Kebbi, Katsina, Kaduna, Kwara, Borno, Kaduna, Jigawa, and Yobe.
Similarly, responding to a national tragedy and historic poisoning and deaths from lead in Zamfara in 2010, the US Centre for Disease Control joined the Federal Ministry of Health and other leading global health institutions to warn against illegal and unsafe mining.
It said gold ore could produce lead and the lead could pose a serious risk to the health of people and animals in neighbourhoods where mining takes place.
In Zamfara, over 400 children were reported dead, alongside animals and birds between March and June 2010. But for late response from government and lack of needed enlightenment, the tragedy would have been averted.
Nigerian experts speak on illegal gold mining
Dele Ayanleke, an engineer and secretary, Miners Association of Nigeria told The ICIR that the miners are only looking for their daily bread and are not licensed.
He said artisanal miners are not professionals and would not be directly engaged by licensees as professionals.
Similarly, Sani Shehu, another engineer and immediate past president of the association, said illegal mining is criminal and that government should view it in that prism. He decried the dimension which illegal mining is taking in the country as worrisome.
He said government officials in charge of mining and extraction of mineral resources in the nation hardly know what happens in remote communities because they would not be willing to go far into those communities to monitor mining and extractive works, as according to him, most of the illegal mining activities take place in distant communities from where government offices are located.
He said the reason illegal mining is booming in the country is that people do what they like in areas where no one could challenge them.
He also decried huge loss of revenues to illegal miners by the nation, amidst dwindling revenues to government.
He said rather than making arrests, government should engage traditional leaders in communities where the activity takes place to engage the miners on how to stop the practice.
Gold mining licensees in Abuja
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Mining Cadastral Office, an agency of the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development in charge of licensing mining and extraction of mineral resources in the country, made available to The ICIR a list of mining licensees in the FCT.
As at 30th November 2020, there were 66 mining licensees in the nation’s capital whose operations cover gold, copper, columbite, lead, zinc, tin, niobium, tantalum manganese, lithium, marble aggregates, among others.
Only seven of them were permitted to mine gold within the Kwali Area Council. They are Gamla Nigeria Limited; Cypress Logistics and Construction Limited; Jordan Plains & Minerals International Limited; Sky Digital Mineral Nig. Ltd; Zicorp Limited; Morris Forte Limited, and Resident Investment Limited.
Gamla Nigeria Limited told The ICIR through its Business Development Manager, Obinna Ihebon, that it hadn’t started operation in the area and had not requested anyone to work on its behalf.
Similarly, Henry Oti, who spoke with our reporter on behalf of Cypress Logistics And Construction Limited said nobody mines for the firm in the area. “Anybody you see there went there on his own,” he stated.
Efforts by The ICIR to get the reaction of Jordan Plains & Minerals International Limited; Sky Digital Mineral Nig. Ltd; Zicorp Limited; Morris Forte Limited, and Resident Investment Limited proved abortive, as the phone numbers they provided to the Cadastral Office could not be reached.
For over two weeks, the companies also failed to respond to emails sent by The ICIR to get their reactions to this report.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on July 16, 2020, decried loss over three billion dollars to illegal gold mining in the country between 2012 and 2018. Buhari said this when he received locally-mined gold bars from the Presidential Artisanal Gold Mining Development Initiative (PAGMDI) in Abuja.
His administration launched the initiative in 2019 as a way of diversifying the country’s economy, creating jobs and blocking the conduit through which revenues from gold is plundered.
The Central Bank of Nigeria presented a cheque of N268 million for a 12.5kg gold bar at the event, the first time the nation would officially refine its own gold through artisanal mining.
The Federal Government had in 2018 established a Federal Gold Reserve Scheme to support its economic diversification programme and as part of the implementation of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) of the Buhari’s government.
With the scheme, the government would purchase gold from local refineries, subject to international standards such as the London Bullion Market Association.
Nigeria only could export 63,250 dollars worth of gold (unwrought or in semi-manufactured forms, or in powder form) in 2018, according to UN Comtrade. The ICIR could not find any official data on gold deposit and market in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, according to the report of the Auditor General of the Federation, total mining rents that accrued to the FG in 2014 was 1.5 billion naira. It came down to 889 million naira in 2017. That is a far cry from revenue generated from gold mining by other countries such as South Africa.
The total revenue generated by the South African mining industry for the year ended 30 June 2019 was R529 billion. That is over 13 trillion naira.