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Resource curse and wakeup call

‘The tragedy in Zamfara State is not only a resource curse but a wakeup call,’ writes Uche Igwe. Illegal minerals mining in Nigeria's Zamfara State sheds light on the problems posed by extractive industries in developing countries. While the revenue potential is huge, federal oversight has been weak and international support is ambiguous. More transparency is urgently needed so that the mistakes made in the Niger Delta are not repeated in Zamfara.

The discovery of natural resources worldwide ought to be a blessing. This is because when such natural resources are exploited, it is expected to bring in revenue to contribute to the development of local communities. However, in these communities in developing countries, the reverse is usually the case.

No single event illustrates this more than the recent tragic events in Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria. It was supposed to be the World Environmental Day celebration on 5 June 2010 but the inhabitants of gold-bearing communities Anka and Bukkuyum and local governments in Zamfara State had a different fate in stock for them.

About 335 suspected cases of strange ailments were reported in several hospitals in the locality. It turned out that 163 lives were lost out of which 111 of them were children between the ages of five to ten years old.

Further investigations conducted by Doctors Without Borders, a French aid agency, led to the discovery of an epidemic due to lead poisoning. The epidemic wrought havoc among the communities involved in small-scale mining. Several questions remain unanswered as one examines what appears to have been an avoidable tragedy.


Nigeria is blessed with many commercial deposits of solid minerals, from tantalite to barite, limestone, bitumen and kaoline, to gold, and topaz. The quantity of the deposits in more than 500 locations across nine states in Nigeria suggests that the solid mineral sector, if well harnessed, will compete with the oil and gas sector in Nigeria.

However, most of the mining in Nigeria up until the present is carried out illegally. Illegal mining is a great menace in many of our communities. Indeed the gold deposits in Zamfara State and the tantalite deposits in Kogi State have all been mined illegally. It is usually done by a ‘cartel’ that just shows up in these communities and begins to cart away the minerals in collaboration with ignorant and vulnerable community members.

Some of the illegal mine traders are from South Asian countries, especially China, but they do not perpetrate these criminal actions without the collaboration of some locals. Beyond Zamfara, active illegal mining is going on in Oyo, Kogi, Jigawa, Plateau, Nassarawa and Kwara states today. If you visit the sites, they appear surreal and unconnected to Nigeria due to the beehive of activities occurring in these communities.


The environmental implications of illegal mining are quite diverse. The first is that it destroys farmland and distorts the livelihood of agrarian communities. The trenches dug for these mining activities are abandoned after the mining is over. They therefore become death traps and easy entry points for devastating gully erosions.

As was in the case of the communities in Zamfara State, many of these mines are contaminated with impurities. In this case, gold ash was intermingled with deposits of lead. In a few cases, some of the impurities are even radioactive in nature. Ignorant community members therefore go to these mines and come in contact with contaminants.

An eyewitness account stated that reports of vomiting and stomach pain among children in Zamfara State began to come in a year ago. As is usual in most communities, deaths are attributed to one spirit or another. The death toll continued to rise until the blood samples of patients were taken abroad for adequate tests.

Experts reported that lead poisoning as in the case of Zamfara can persist in the environment for up to 15 years. There are also other long-term health problems such as permanent learning and behavioral problems and brain damage. Lead for instance is known to bio-accumulate and propagate within the ecosystem, giving rise to cancer causing cells popularly called oncogens.


From the death toll in Zamfara State, it was apparent that women and children were the worst-hit by the side effects of small-scale mining. Indeed more than 60 per cent of illegal miners in Nigeria are women. When they come in contact with contaminants, the whole family is affected.

In the case of children, many drop out of school in pursuit of the token pay they receive when they engage in mining. They therefore become victims of child labour and are sometimes forced into premature family life and may be victims of HIV/AIDS.


Even though Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan commissioned a mineral processing plant in Zamfara State a few days before the tragic news, it appeared that no one knew whose responsibility it was to take action on the epidemic. The Ministry of Mines and Steel said they had reminded the state government ten times about the problem – an allegation that the state government promptly denied.

Illegal miners hide under the fact that mining is the exclusive preserve of the federal government and thus victimise our communities due to lax federal oversight. So whose responsibility is it to examine and prohibit the activities of these criminals in our communities?

In the midst of the blame game we have lost more than a hundred citizens. That is, those who were reported, as there must be many more unreported cases daily. The World Bank has been supporting the sustainable mining resources project for more than two years running. What sort of interventions is this support aimed at?


Another aspect of policy inconsistency is that it provides a climate for opacity. Nigeria is currently at the forefront of the global extractive industries transparency initiative (EITI). The EITI movement promotes transparent disclosure of revenue receipts and payments in the extractive industries in resource-rich countries.
EITI as currently implemented in Nigeria captures revenue from the oil and gas industry only. The mining industry receipts have not yet been captured by EITI audits so far. A more organised mining sector will mean that such receipts will be monitored and captured as part of federal government receipts. As Nigeria waits to be voted as an EITI-compliant country, it is time to mainstream transparency into the mining sector as a matter of urgency.


The tragedy in Zamfara State is not only a resource curse but a wakeup call. If Nigeria must diversify her economy beyond oil, then the solid minerals sector is a beckoning alternative.

There is an urgent need for a comprehensive ten-year Marshall Plan. The typical bureaucratic inertia, and complex and unclear interventions can no longer be enough. We need to borrow a leaf from a country like Botswana that became a top African economy by developing diamonds and proving that natural resources can be a blessing to citizens.

Most importantly, the mining sector offers an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the oil sector in our Niger Delta. A proactive approach is the way to go. We do not need another disaster to act. Nigeria cannot continue to be a poster child of the resource curse in Africa. Enough is enough!


* Uche Igwe is a Woodrow Wilson Public Policy scholar and visiting scholar at the Africa Program at Johns Hopkins University.
* This article was originally published by The Nigerian Inquirer
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.