Zamfara on my mind by Henry Agbonika PhD


Sometimes in 2013, I was informed by my then boss that the agency was interested in Nigeria’s mining sector to ensure that growth in this area is sustainable, environmentally sound, and translates into economic and social development, with a particular focus on Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM). From the onset, we knew that the ASM sub sector is one fraught with well-documented negative impacts on health, child welfare, social security, and the environment. As a member of the Stimulating Sustainable Economic Growth (SSEG) team, I was expected to play a critical role in the actualization of this interest.

Henry Agbonika PhD

The team commenced work immediately, identifying all of the stakeholders across board and began series of engagement, including an ASM Roundtable with the then Honourable Minister of Solid Minerals in attendance. The engagement process was revealing and eye popping. I remember a meeting with the then Country Director of one of the leading International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGO) and early responders to the Zamfara lead mining crisis. He spoke extensively about the character of artisanal mining in Zamfara state, particularly the likely health and security implications. He revealed the presence of foreigners in the area, who land with helicopters to mop up gold. I was in total disbelief. Noticing the look on my face, he said ‘Henry, there are pictures that I can’t show you, but trust me, there is a whole lot going on in Zamfara that is not in the open. The cartel extends all the way to France, with vested interested across board.’ He concluded by saying ‘there is an urgent need to formalize the sector, build the capacity of the miners, and also ensure that communities and government benefit from this trade’. I closed from work that day with several thoughts on my mind. How is it possible for helicopters to fly into the Nigerian airspace for illegal businesses? Why has government allowed all of this to happen over the years? Several unanswered questions.

In search for the answers to these questions, I sought approval from my superiors for a scoping mission to artisanal mining locations in Cross River, Plateau, Kano, Zamfara, and Kebbi States. Approval eventually came with one condition, ‘the team travels with an armored vehicle and mobile policemen’ considering the precarious nature of the locations. Safety and security of staff were key considerations for the agency. The gender advisor, myself and a trusted chauffeur hit the road on a very revealing trip across Nigeria. From Cross River, Plateau to Kano, we realized ASM was a thriving source of livelihood for several people. Almost all of the people encountered vowed not to go back to farming, as the returns on investment within a short time was far greater than whatever farming gave them in a year. While mining activities across in Plateau and Cross River were not too far flung, activities in Kano and particularly Zamfara were far flung. In Zamfara State, after visiting Bagega, the team proceeded to a location in the middle of nowhere. Severally I asked the local guide, ‘where the hell are we? Where is the location for God sake?’ Despite travelling in a well secured vehicle, I knew things could go bad in a matter of seconds in illegally controlled resource areas, after an experience in 2011 with oil bunkerers in Cross River.

When we eventually got to the main mining field, we couldn’t see human beings initially, but several holes and pairs of flip flops everywhere. The guide told us, they were all underground scavenging for gold. We proceeded to the mining community itself. I was shocked. I was shell shocked. The full artisanal gold value chain was on ground; from financing, sales of equipment, sourcing of the gold ore, processing, sales etc. Most of the actors across the chain lived in the community with wives and children. Of course, as its common with such locations, they had their own red-light district. It was a bubbling community. We were told they had their own vigilante that secures the area, and a number of the miners came from neighboring African countries. I was told if I wanted a brand new car or anything delivered to me in that location, they could do it. I began to wonder, can inspectors from the Mines Inspectorate division of the Ministry of Solid Minerals ever get to this location? How? Can policemen ever get here? Is this an independent entity within Nigeria? It then occurred to me that we were looking at a very complex sub sector, with huge potentials for rural livelihoods, but with enormous security and health implications if not handled carefully. The visit confirmed all the Country Director had told me. The flow extended all the way to France, with some Francophone countries as conduits.

We left the location at about 6pm. Less than 20 minutes into the journey, my colleague on the wheels said to me ‘Oga, I think the alternator of this armoured is packing up. If you notice the AC isn’t working well. Soon it will be night fall, I doubt if we would have headlights to take us back to Gusau.’ I froze. Since the windows couldn’t be wound down, we broke security protocols by opening and holding the two back doors of the AV, so air could get in. I was scared. Multiple scenarios played through my mind. The worst could happen. By the time we got out of the bush the headlights were gone. How we got to Gusau was God and the experience of my colleague.

Based on the report from the mission, we knew there was need for urgent intervention in the country’s ASM subsector. Even officials of the ministry attested to that. Thus, began another level of engagement to get organizations with the requisite capacity to formalize ASM in Nigeria. Eventually, PACT International came forward with a well-conceived proposal put together by a team with experience working in D.R. Congo. The proposal sought to improve the safety, efficiency, and profitability of ASM in the country with the view to increasing its contribution to local economies, using a two-pronged approach that focuses on the individuals and institutions that comprise the environment in which the sector operates. And we thought that was it. The team was excited, and worked assiduously towards getting it into the system and subsequent approval from HQ. Alas, that was never to be. HQ got back after some months with a no approval. We were shocked. ‘How is it possible not to get an approval on this all-important initiative? What did we do wrong?’ several questions. We were later to know that it wasn’t for anything we didn’t do right, but for some reasons, I won’t talk about here. The politics of international development is however real. Though we were able to secure about $1 million in funding for reforms in the ministry of solid minerals, implemented by the World Bank, it still felt bad that we couldn’t get the much-needed funds for formalization of the ASM sub sector in the country. That perhaps remains one of the lowest moments in my development career.

Several years down the road, the situation in Zamfara has deteriorated. The decision by the Federal Government of Nigeria, asking all foreigners involved in ASM activities in the country to stop operations and leave the country is probably not the best approach to dealing with this monster that has been allowed to gain ground over the years. This could further aggravate the already bad situation. From experiences in DR Congo and other locations, a more strategic and holistic approach involving all of the stakeholders should be adopted. A military solution is no option.

When the government of Zamfara state decided to criminalize artisanal gold mining years ago, the miners started arming themselves in the bush to protect their trade. I know for sure the foreigners wont leave. They won’t stop their activities. Rather, they would go underground, which is even more dangerous. I advise that all stakeholders, including multilateral and bilateral institutions be called together to find a way out of this mess. Note that there is a possibility of this crisis escalating to Kebbi, Kano, Niger and other states where artisanal gold mining is rife.

Pact International is still in Nigeria. They still have teams of experienced professionals in this area that can be pulled in from other locations, to work with our own local team.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.