The gold-inspired violence in Zamfara and the North-West is a multi-layered problem that combines issues of the economy, insecurity, border control, regional hegemony and politics. Any government response must factor in each of these issues for it to be robust and efficient.
In the past couple of months, Zamfara State and most of the North-West have been in the news for distressing reasons. Killings, kidnappings and destruction of property have been going on in the region for some years, and the violence has now reached a level at which the government can no longer soft pedal in its response to the mayhem. The bandits responsible for the killings have been linked to the lucrative trade in gold that has somehow thrived quietly in the North-West for decades, especially in Zamfara. In the ensuing outrage over the insecurity now prevalent in Zamfara and the North-West, some of the criticisms have highlighted the opportunity for GDP growth and development of the region that have been lost to the largely underground trade in gold.
On October 1, 1996, the late General Sani Abacha effected a placatory creation of states to stem criticisms of the military government during his regime, thereby adding six states to Nigeria’s total of thirty at the time. One of the six states created was Zamfara, carved out of the already existing Sokoto State (formerly part of the old “Northwestern State”), in which the mining of minerals had been taking place since the early 1900s. The Second World War interrupted the mining activities of the colonialists in northern Nigeria, and the industry was further crippled by the discovery of oil. Thus, the exploration of mineral resources in the then new state quickly took a back bench, especially when oil prices began to rise in early 2000s, during the commodities boom.
As oil prices peaked sometime in 2008 and began to drop, the demand for gold and other solid minerals went on the rise. When word got out, the mostly farming communities in Zamfara State and around the North-West, who had been involved in some artisanal mining, began to drop their farming tools for small-scale mining instruments. Artisanal gold mining in Zamfara and other states picked up at a frantic pace, with renewed government interest also reflected in the Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act of 2007. Small players in the international gold trade, like Australian Mines and Savannah Gold, were also on ground to cash in.
But what triggered this violence in the region? Although the occurrence of gold and solid minerals in the North-West had not (and still has not) been properly mapped, new mining licenses and activities were impeded by newer settlements along formerly identified gold-rich areas. The transmission of landed interest from traditional systems of ownership also posed a threat that was not properly handled by the government. Therefore, the artisanal gold miners formed themselves into cooperatives that sought to dominate mining activities in each area.
The interests of the cooperatives soon clashed with that of legal and illegal local and foreign players in the gold mining industry, and government reaction remained almost non-existent. As such, as in all things where a vacuum of authority exists, private and ruthless players soon emerged to fill the void, infiltrating the cooperatives and other groups and encouraging the saturation of arms. Hence, the violence relating to gold mining began.
The violence in Zamfara and the North-West increased in the past two years, coinciding with the resurgence of the activities of insurgents in the North-East and the new spread of bloody attacks between well-armed cattle herdsmen and farming communities. Some have made connections between these security threats and banditry.
While the activity was getting increasingly dangerous, the frenzy of amateur mining by former farmers looking for a big score, without proper instruments and training, also led to another unintended consequence – the outbreak of lead poisoning, especially amongst children below the age of five years. The outbreak, which was most severe in Bagega, Zamfara State, was considered the worst outbreak of lead poisoning in modern history. It took the intervention of international agencies and civil society for funds running into millions of dollars to slowly reach communities and health professionals in fighting the outbreak. By the time any real help reached the communities, about 500 children had died between 2009-2013, with about 3500 more in danger.
Even with the growing violence, and after surviving a lead poisoning epidemic, mining operations in Zamfara and its northwestern neighbours did not receive enough government attention. The efforts of the government to attract more investors was frustrated by the relatively low proven deposits of gold, in relation to those in neighouring African countries like Ghana, whose proven deposits are said to be 10 times the size of Nigeria’s. Other limiting circumstances include the insurgency in the North, which discourages investors. The oil industry’s domination of the economy and the media also ensured that the rest of the country, with the exception of those in the business of mineral resources and commodities generally, were largely ignorant of the dangerous but thriving trade in gold in Zamfara and the North-West.
The violence in Zamfara and the North-West increased in the past two years, coinciding with the resurgence of the activities of insurgents in the North-East and the new spread of bloody attacks between well-armed cattle herdsmen and farming communities. Some have made connections between these security threats and banditry. The so-called bandits have razed villages, probably to free potential mining spots, while cattle rustling, especially in Zamfara, also increased. According to reports, illegally mined gold is draped around the rustled cattle and passed through mostly unrestricted borders into neighbouring countries like Niger Republic, where they are traded, for onward transmission to end markets like the United Arab Emirates. Nigeria gains nothing in this underground trade.
The economic loss inherent in the violent illegal mining of gold has been a major concern for some, alongside the loss of lives and property. The economic discontent mostly comes from southern Nigeria, which has often decried the poor contribution of the north to the economy. For instance, the lucrative cattle trade which has caused widespread violence across Nigeria is said to be so poorly monitored and taxed that the huge profits are lost to the northern shadow economy that is controlled by the North’s elites. It now appears that gold mining falls in the same category, even as other regions bear the strain of the national economy.
With emerging reports of collaboration between the bandits and traditional rulers in the North-West, which includes reports of social interaction with known bandits at celebrations hosted by some traditional rulers in that region, the picture of how the illegal trade has been sustained for so long is becoming clearer.
In response to the increased violence in the North-West and elsewhere in the country, all mining activities have now been suspended, and Mohammed Adamu, the inspector general of Police, has announced the activation of “Operation Puff Adder” in the country, to combat banditry and kidnapping all over the country. The military has also stepped up its offensive in the North-West, hinting at the connivance of traditional rulers in the mayhem that has gripped the region. The veiled accusation by the military led to counter-accusations, by some traditional rulers, of civilian deaths after a military air-raid, only for the traditional rulers to recant their claims in suspicious and unclear terms.
What to do? With emerging reports of collaboration between the bandits and traditional rulers in the North-West, which includes reports of social interaction with known bandits at celebrations hosted by some traditional rulers in that region, the picture of how the illegal trade has been sustained for so long is becoming clearer. Rumours of the alleged involvement of influential northern elites have also been rife, in explaining the downplaying of the violence that has gripped Zamfara and other places for so long.
If the rumours and reports are true, about high level complicity in the mayhem tearing through the North-West, then the innocents in that region and the country as a whole have been dealt a wicked hand by the greedy masterminds of the terror. The gold-inspired violence in Zamfara and the North-West is a multi-layered problem that combines issues of the economy, insecurity, border control, regional hegemony and politics. Any government response must factor in each of these issues for it to be robust and efficient. The government must also act fast, as there is a danger that the gold-rustling bandits may spread to other gold-rich areas outside the North-West, like Osun State.
Nigeria’s non-oil mineral resources are a vast treasure trove of potential economic activity that can bring real returns if given the attention that oil and gas enjoys today. The creation of an Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) equivalent for solid minerals, which has been canvassed in the past, may not be a bad place to start. As always, the ball is in the hands of the government, and one hopes it does not drop the ball as it has done on security all over the country.
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