Mining and dredging business in Akwa Ibom State is a source of income to the owners of the business, an employer of labour for many and also a major source of raw materials for construction of roads and bridges.
Without dredging and mining activities in the state, it would probably have been difficult for the Akwa Ibom State Government to source for sand, a major raw material used for the building of roads and bridges that litter the state.
Yet, these mining and dredging activities which have helped to boost the outlook and infrastructural development of the state now constitute threats to already existing infrastructure.
They have become a source of danger to the environment as some miners have been illegally dredging sand under bridges and roads, and making farmlands worthless to the owners.
Findings reveal that dredging activities carried out behind the Qua River Hotel in Eket now pose a threat to the bridge linking Onna and Eket on the East West road. In Ikot Ekong, Mkpat Enin Local Government Area, illegal dredging is creating a big artificial river that may gradually sack residents from the community.
These and other mining sites in Eket, Ibesikpo, Nsit Ubium, Etinan, and Mkpat Enin local government areas indicate that unauthorised dredging activities have posed a serious threat to the environment.
The government which has declared these activities as illegal has shown its outrage by clamping down on defaulters with the arrest and charging of 21 miners to court, as well as placing a-stop-work notice at such sites, and even a template to guide the operations of the legal miners.
The position and actions of government have however led to a pitched battle between the Ministry of Environment and the Miners Association in the state.
The Commissioner for Environment and Solid Minerals, Mr Charles Udoh, stated that though mining is in the exclusive list, the government cannot just fold its hands and allow miners destroy infrastructure and the environment in the long run.
Udoh who said the state government has been struggling with environmental-related problems like erosion and flood without the support of the federal government noted that it would be vicious with miners.
“Assistance from the federal government is zero. We wish we had the assistance from the federal government, which is why we are very vicious with illegal sand miners.
“You cannot come and dredge and destroy critical infrastructure we struggled to build and then you walk away because you have a license from Abuja.
“That is why we told the miners to go and get the license from Abuja but when you come back here, the location is my business. I have to know where that location is, that is why the law is protecting us.
“Akwa Ibom State is the highest oil producer in Nigeria. We contribute over 25 percent to the course of Nigeria, so we need help. Calabar-Itu road is almost gone; several other critical locations are almost gone by erosion and flood.
“Initially, I didn’t intend to arrest people, but if you go to some of these locations, you will weep. The Eket-Onna Bridge is gone,” he stated.
However, the State Chairman, Miners Association of Nigeria, Engr. Chris Udofia, has disagreed with the stance of the government, saying the commissioner seems to be carrying out a vendetta on miners.
He wondered why the government was trying to pull down the miners instead of helping to build up the much needed small and medium scale businesses to thrive, adding that the action of the commissioner was causing a lot of damage.
Udofia insisted that some of the miners arrested during the raid on mining sites were not only licensed to operate but the government arrested them unjustly as they were not caught carrying out mining activities when the commissioner led a team of policemen to arrest them and vandalise their vehicles.
He explained that no government infrastructure has so far been affected by the activities of members of the association, as their activities were guided by the scope of their operating licenses.
Though he admitted that there were illegal miners, Udofia revealed that the association in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), carry out raids of those illegal sites on a monthly basis, as the Mining Act empowers NSCDC to take care of any issues relating to arrest, detention and prosecution of miners.
“Government infrastructure is not in any little way affected by what we are doing. Before a license is given out to any miner, all those issues are taken care of and it is not the miners association that issues a license that we would now say it is within the scope of the operators.
“This is done by the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel. They check and issue that license to make sure that the jobs and operations are done within the scope of which the license was issued.
“Mining is in the exclusive list just like Petroleum and Natural Resources. The state has little or nothing to do. This Commissioner for Environment just woke up, ran into the field and began to lock people up. These people are legitimate businessmen; they are not criminals.
“Yes, there are some illegal miners but the people that he is arresting, the particular one that caught our attention is our member. He has a valid five years license issued by the office of mines and steel.
“If the persons arrested were dredging close to Marina near Helen Esuene hotel, Eket, I would not be talking to you now; I would support it. But where the commissioner arrested some of our members is not close to any government infrastructure.
“The commissioner later went to the same axis and arrested tipper drivers, destroyed their vehicles but this is at a different site. The federal government is doing a bypass at the East-West road and they say they need so much sharp sand filling, that is why a lot of dredging is going on in the area but it is not even near any government infrastructure,” he stated.
The Miners Chairman who felt the Ministry of Environment led by the commissioner overstepped its bounds by clamping down on mining activities said the ministry empowered by the constitution should be allowed to oversee the activities of miners as it was more conversant with how the association operates.
He maintained that the group has already been working with the state government during the tenure of the previous Commissioner for Environment before Solid Minerals was moved to the Ministry of Transport, where the activities of miners were vested.
According to Udofia, a modus operandi was being drawn up by both parties to regulate the operations of miners in the state, noting that some miners have already paid the agreed sum for registration to the consultant hired by government before the arrangement was abruptly cut short also by government when the commissioner was changed.
He blamed the government for cutting short the registration process it started for miners, saying the Commissioner of Environment, Mr Charles Udoh, had no inkling of the efforts the association had made by drawing up a working template in conjunction with government, but just bulldozed his way into an issue that was out of his job description.
In fact, he alleged that many of the illegal mining and dredging activities in the state were carried out by persons within government, and urged the commissioner to start the clampdown on those persons.
He said, “In the whole of this country, there is no state that does not have illegal mining. But they should allow the ministry empowered by the constitution or they work hand in hand with the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel.
“If the government of this state were to follow due process, they would have partnered with the association and the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel to get rid of illegal mining.
“We have already been engaging with the government for the past years and have not had issues like these. When the former commissioner, Dr Iniobong Essien, was in charge of the Ministry of Environment, it was my association that approached the ministry about six years ago and developed what we call a template for anyone who wants to be involved in dredging.
“I am from Akwa Ibom, I cannot dredge to destroy an environment where I know my children and children’s children would come to inherit. We had to partner with the Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources then, so we discussed with the commissioner; had a series of meetings with him.
“Then we came up with a template such that the state was exposed that there should be something like Mineral and Environmental Management Committee with a chairman from the state, so that they can interface with the Federal Minister of Mines and Steel on issues relating to the environment in the person of Obong Bassey Inwaneyen, a technocrat.
“The man came on board in late 2019, when the Ministry of Solid Minerals was transferred from Environment to Transport. There, a Technical Committee was formed to harness the different taxes into one so that at least, the state would benefit from it.
“We sat down to develop a template that cut across the Ministry of Works, Ministry of Transport, Federal Ministry of Environment, Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel, and National Inland Waterways and Authority among others.
“It was agreed that registration would go through a one-stop shop so that assessment would be carried out for anyone who wanted to be involved in mining, and the amount was pegged at about N500,000 for everything including license.
“Instead of them starting on a clean note, the government brought in a revenue consultant, resulting in a clash with the Federal Ministry of Mines which has exclusive jurisdiction. The ministry now said if the state wants to participate, they should come directly since the miners association was part of the tripartite union. Unfortunately, the whole arrangement ended in a serious problem.
“The State Ministry of Transport, in December 2020, terminated the contract of the revenue agent after collecting so much money from people they couldn’t even account for. After the termination, we, the practitioners, were trying to revive the arrangement before the rampage by the Ministry of Environment.
“Before a miner is given a license, the federal government carries out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Since dredging is not a big scope, the government came up with the idea that it should come through an Environmental Management Plan. No agency does the Environmental Management Plan without accessing the facility before giving out the license.
“Infact that is one of the conditions you must meet before getting a license. Normally, the Federal Ministry of Environment and the State Ministry come up with a consultant registered with the two bodies. It is that consultant that does the EIA.
“If you want a license to dredge, you come to the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel, and you are asked to go and acquire a place, have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the community, arrange with the community and open up access road; clear the site so that when the office goes there for inspection, they are not stocked in the forest.
“The site must be demarcated, so when the ministry goes for inspection, they can give you an EIA. After the EIA is passed, it is brought to the office of Mines and Steel which gives you a license to dredge,” he explained.
The Commissioner of Environment who countered the position of the miners’ body that the government’s clampdown on miners was a vendetta said any illegal miner arrested would be prosecuted according to the law, no matter the person involved.
He revealed that a bank manager was among those arrested and detained, adding that he was forced to give the manager a concession to save his job by exchanging him with his son as surety.
Udoh said, “Let me reassure you that what we are doing is ‘no respecter of persons’. We have apprehended persons; we are purely doing this objectively; there is no vendetta.
“In Eket marina that we outlawed dredging, we would not have done that. When we got there, I called them and said this is a major threat. Security wise, that is one of the entrances into Akwa Ibom. If we don’t know who is here and don’t have a database of who is here, it is a security threat.
“People can come with arms and, in the dead of the night, pretend to dredge and then attack us, so we need to know you. I called them three times, they didn’t answer me. So I issued a press statement outlawing dredging, but they continued, so I picked them up.
“It purely wasn’t meant to hound anybody or stop people from doing their business. It is just that there are laws that have to be respected whether you are government officials or not. If you don’t follow the law, it is my place to pick you up and the law would take its course,” he stated.
The state government recently returned the department of solid minerals to the Ministry of Environment. It is hoped that this decision would douse the embers of discord between the Ministry of Environment and the Miners Association, as both parties would now be forced to work together for a common good and a safe environment.