The main driver of the illegal activities that are the bane of the sector is the fact that the products of illegal mining activities keep finding access to both the local and international markets. Therefore, the dealers – both the traders and exporters of the products of illicit mining activities – constitute the most influential enablers of illegal mining.

A Crucial Sector’s Persistent Travails

Despite the resolute attempts at reform, the mining sector is still plagued by serious concerns including extensive instances of illegal mining, informal artisanal mining and different manifestations of institutional lapses, among other ills.

Common forms of illegal mining comprise mineral extraction without the proper, or an expired, license or permit; mining in lands designated for special purposes, such as for military operations or in reserved areas; and mining beyond the approved cadastre units or encroaching in another miner’s location. Also, mining without environmental impact assessment reports/feasibility studies, and without fulfilling the statutory environmental obligations, etc.

The main driver of the illegal activities that are the bane of the sector is the fact that the products of illegal mining activities keep finding access to both the local and international markets. Therefore, the dealers – both the traders and exporters of the products of illicit mining activities – constitute the most influential enablers of illegal mining. As sponsors and patrons of this illegal activity, they form the backbone of illicit practices and are the executive producers of all artisanal mining productions in Nigeria.

Moreover, miners often find ways of circumventing regulations to avoid following the due process. They are noted as regularly taking advantage of every opportunity to short-change government, their workers and host communities. The argument is also out there, that miners and government officials connive to perpetrate underhand practices, which coupled with a faltering institutional structure, combine to slow development in the sector down.

One of the critical afflictions of the mining sector in many African countries, relates to the lack of transparency and accountability in the administration of mineral titles, which has greatly hindered genuine participation in the sector, consequent upon the activities of speculators. However, in Nigeria, with reforms has come the computerisation of the procedures of the Mines Cadastral Office (MCO), the principal public institution tasked with managing mineral titles in the country and maintaining registers that provide information on mining activities to investors and the public.

The mining cadastral is meant to guarantee a secure mineral rights system by recording geographical locations, ownership, types of mineral rights and validity periods, compliance with environmental obligations and social agreements, and the payment of required fees. The system captures all the transactions that take place during the lifetime of a mine, from the application for its operation through to the granting of licences, the processing of fees payable, tracking of annual reports, potential changes in ownership, and finally, possible relinquishment or revocation of title.

While getting any of the different categories of mining licences or permits – whether the Reconnaissance Permit, Exploration Licence or Small-Scale Mining Lease, etc. – or receiving feedback on applications for mineral titles, or even renewing existing licences or permits, used to be extremely difficult, if not impossible processes in the past, things eased to certain extents with the reformation.

Yet, one of the significant challenges of the MCO pertains to the abundance of redundant licences, evolving from the earlier alluded to activities of speculators, many of who secure mining licences without having the technical or financial capability to utilise this. While the system at the MCO endeavours to prevent this problem, however because the requirements for the issuance of mineral titles are not stringently followed, speculators keep managing to game the system.

Another critical concern relates to the influx of illegal miners from other African and also Eastern countries, such as Lebanon, China and India, coming to exploit the security gaps in the sector, as well as in the wider national environment which still make possible the operation of illicit mines, and the smuggling and trafficking of mineral commodities, without any significant tracking of their activities.

…what we need to do urgently is to resolve as a nation, commitment to a more transparent and accountable mining sector where the discovery and extraction of our natural resources work for citizens, communities, and governments at the various levels, through a broad-based philosophy of development.

As such, there is a huge under-declaration of the volumes of minerals produced across many mines and the evasion of appropriate royalty payments by this category of operators. The challenges of the inspectorate services of the Mines Inspectorate Department of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development is central to the persistence of this problem.

While the Mines Inspectorate Department understandably has a limited workforce to monitor illegal mining activities and regulate the sector, huge underhand dealings also go on in the sector through criminal alliances involving natives and rulers of mineral holding domains, and politicians and local officials, who connive with mine operators to short-change government of revenue.

As the African Mining Vision and the Natural Resource Charter both make clear, in any situation where developments like this occur, the cumulative result is that production volumes of the operators are under-declared in terms of royalties and other fiscal obligations and the government is badly short changed.

Sadly, this is a huge challenge in the African mining environment particularly in countries with broad and expansive borders like Nigerian, Congo DRC, Angola, and others. Thus, with no proper inventory of business activities, porous national borders through which minerals are exported devoid of scrutiny, and a general lack of due diligence around mineral production activities, the sector invariably becomes a buccaneers’ paradise, like the situation that led government to take drastic measures in Zamfara State recently.

Equally, the lack of capacity, in terms of manpower, field equipment such as vehicles, low staff motivation, poor remuneration, etc. are noted as constituting factors that undermine the capacity of the of African governments to regulate the artisanal mining sector, which adversely affect mining communities and provide them with no benefit from the mining activities, even while statutorily stipulated.

Even in its own, artisanal mining portends a lot of dangers for both the operators and the host communities that they practice in: from issues of conflict evolving from the uneasy relations between existing miners, the new influx of mine workers and indigenous populations, to concerns around sanitation and basic health. More so, many in ASM areas are known to be victims of alcoholism and drug abuse, while communicable diseases spread unhindered in these communities. Women and children regularly involved in ASM activities are also highly susceptible to physical and psychological health concerns.

In addition, the workers in the informal ASM sector are prone to severe occupational hazards due to the lack of formal training on the proper requirements of the vocation, poor ventilation, lack of safety equipment, improper use of chemicals, and obsolete equipment. In fact, artisanal and small-scale mining is very dangerous and regularly leads to the loss of numerous lives.

ASM communities are most liable to environmental degradation, as there are serious instances of the pollution of waterways by effluents like mercury, the build-up of silt, and acid rock drainage coming with the improper mine closure and the lack of reclamation, etc. Quite regrettably, the monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations are hampered by informality, the remote location of mine operations, and the lack of adequate budgetary provisions for such responsibilities by the relevant government agencies.

Many African countries are slow in response to this important challenge but in Nigeria, a recent crucial level of reform in the mining sector, involving the earlier mentioned formalisation of the sector, of which the ASM department of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development has been charged, has led to the registering of artisanal miners into cooperatives. While the department has formalised about 1000 cooperatives, the next important challenge is how to still bring the huge lot outside these mining collectives under the big tent.

While much of the foregoing are significant and cogent, they are all captured in the African Mining Vision of 2009 and the Natural Resource Charter of 2011. What is needed as always is the right political will and the faithful implementation of the letters and spirit of those documents.

The criticism is rife that most of them accepted to be registered as a mere requirement for accessing the micro grant disbursed by the concluded Sustainable Management of Mineral Resources Project, and the more recently one being granted by the Bank of Industry. However, the empowerment of the ASM department to conduct proper due diligence by going to the field to confirm their operational existence will be the strong tonic needed to give this ambitious and important process a positive outcome.

Equally, the ASM department which is also statutorily mandated to provide extension services to the formalised artisanal miners as a way of helping them improve their activities, including concerns around safety, health and the environment, will need support to execute these goals appropriately.

If these reforms are effected, at the extension service levels of the department, the reach will be direct to the real artisanal miners in the field, rather than to a selected elite who pose as representatives of the actual miners. Furthermore, the department will then be also able to address its challenges with data on artisanal mining in Nigeria.

A most significant shortcoming of the mining sector appears in the difficulty of regulators in ensuring compliance with environmental protection, as many operators carry on their activities without due consideration of its impacts on the environment.

Apparently, the yet-to-be-fully-effective regulation of the sector has led to environmental pollution, devastated lands and forests, with grave implications for the livelihoods of host communities, mainly in terms of agriculture, whether farming, hunting or animal husbandry. The fallout of environmental degradation has been the emergence of conflict situations between miners and their host communities.

The Mines Environmental Compliant Department in the Ministry has had issues in this regard, because of the lack of requisite equipment to monitor the mines, with compliance and standards not having been fully achieved over time. Happily, the Ministry has sought to revive the Mineral Resources Management Committee, mandated to properly carry out oversight of mining activities to help control environmental damages and ensure fitting mining company/host community relationships.

While much of the foregoing are significant and cogent, they are all captured in the African Mining Vision of 2009 and the Natural Resource Charter of 2011. What is needed, as always, is the right political will and the faithful implementation of the letters and spirit of those documents. The good news here too is that Nigeria has welcomed and endorsed these two development instruments.

The gains and blessings of the mining sector is yet to come but what we need to do urgently is to resolve as a nation, commitment to a more transparent and accountable mining sector where the discovery and extraction of our natural resources work for citizens, communities, and governments at the various levels, through a broad-based philosophy of development.

Fatima Ibrahim Maikore, a geologist, is one of the ambassadors for promotion of best Mine Closures Management in Africa. She can be reached via maikoreif@yahoo.com.

Picture credit: The Guardian NG.