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The scramble for Nigeria’s solid minerals

The Ministry of Solid Minerals Development started as the Mines and Steel Development Ministry in 1985. Until the advent of President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose administration…

The Ministry of Solid Minerals Development started as the Mines and Steel Development Ministry in 1985. Until the advent of President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose administration commissioned a comprehensive geological survey and mapping of the country’s solid minerals, the mining sector had remained inchoate and in abeyance.

Even as it remained inchoate and in limbo, artisanal miners and sundry foreign organisations had a field day, mining Nigeria’s minerals illegally and carting them abroad and denying the country of much-needed revenue. While inaugurating the National Executive Council of Miners Association of Nigeria (MAN) in April this year, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development, Mrs Mary Ogbe, decried the huge losses Nigeria was incurring on account of the illegal activities of artisanal miners. And while speaking on Channels Television in August this year, Femi Falana (SAN), alleged that $9 billion worth of gold was being illegally taken out of the country annually in two private jets. Since then, the country has been awash with tales of illegal mining across Nigeria’s South South, North Central and North West. It is widely speculated that the heightened insecurity in Zamfara and Niger states is being fuelled by the illegal mining of gold.

Until now – when Nigeria’s economy is in dire straits the government had given the short shrift to the solid minerals sector. Thanks to penury, near bankruptcy and the fact that the world is transitioning from fossil fuels and hydro-carbons to alternative energy sources at a dizzying speed, there is a rude awakening. There is now the urgent need to consider alternatives to fossil fuels if the country is to survive and pay its bills.

Heartwarming is the high premium President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s administration is placing on this sector and others in order to augment revenue accruing from the sale of crude oil. The enthusiasm which the Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Dele Alake, is bringing to his job suggests he wants to make a difference and to add value to the country’s income. He told investors, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting last September, that Nigeria was endowed with solid minerals which could readily increase its earnings from oil. He repeated this refrain during the recent official visit of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to Nigeria.

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Chancellor Scholz’s official visit coincided with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Nigeria Solid Minerals Development Fund and GeoScan GmbH of Berlin, Germany, on solid minerals development. In addition to this oft-repeated potential, the Minister has bruited the idea of creating a Nigeria Solid Minerals Corporation, a Joint Venture arrangement with multinationals and a task force to combat illegal mining and smuggling.

These are lofty ideas aimed at repositioning the sector. Mr. Alake’s enthusiasm is encouraging, especially in an environment where people take their responsibilities with levity.  

There is no doubt that the transition from fossil fuels and hydrocarbons to environmentally friendly solid minerals will foster a renewed scramble for them by technologically advanced countries. We have seen how the recourse to lithium to manufacture batteries for Electric Cars (EVs) has occasioned a global scramble for this much sought-after mineral. The MoU between Nigeria and this German firm and other quests for minerals that limit or eschew carbon emission could trigger or mark the climax of this scramble. It is a welcome scramble.

But when you invite such a scramble and an influx of investors who are competing for your minerals, you must beware the visit of dishonourable players.

Already, Bloomberg has reported that the investors who are backing a recent $250 million lithium project in Nasarawa State are copycats and are not affiliated with the China-based companies bearing the same names as the copycat companies. According to Bloomberg, the original company is located in Ningde, Fujian Province, China, and is a significant player on the global battery and energy storage industry. In other words, the bona fides of these investors are suspect. Last week, trucks laden with lithium from Wukari were intercepted by eagle-eyed security agents in Jalingo, the Taraba State capital.

These untoward developments, of illegal mining and several such misadventures, call urgently for our mining sector to be sanitised and structured. Due diligence must be carried out on companies and individuals who hanker after mining licenses. Lessons must be learned from our shambolic adventures in prospecting for tin and columbite on the Jos-Plateau and that of oil in the Niger Delta. Tin mining and extraction of crude oil in these areas left in their wake degradation and devastation of the environment. They also visited grinding poverty on these mineral-bearing areas. In the instance of the Niger Delta, the devastation of the environment and the despair it wrought led to an insurgency which was only halted by the administration of late President Umaru Yar’Adua.

Lessons learned from these deleterious experiences should be quickly factored into the new solid mineral policy. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) should be duly carried out before mining is commenced on a huge or commercial scale. Emphasis should be laid on securing the consent of landowners and state governments. Landowners and communities should be educated about the likely negative impact of mining activities on their environments in their aftermaths. Certain strategic locations, no matter how rich in minerals, should be made sacrosanct. They should be preserved to protect the environment, to provide play grounds, site and services, hospitals, schools and markets. A situation where gaping holes and killer-ponds dot our neighbourhoods as obtains on the Jos-Plateau is unacceptable and should not be allowed.

Even more significant, we must defer to international best practices. We must insist that in the Joint Ventures being envisioned that these solid minerals are not simply extracted and taken out of the country. They should be processed locally so that our people can benefit from the value chain, acquire requisite technological know-how and gain employment. A situation where the extraction of crude oil has, after more than 60 years, remained a myth and voodoo must be exploded and demystified in the solid minerals sector.

And even though some of these investors are bringing cutting-edge technology that makes extraction and confirmation of the locations of these minerals and their quantity seamless, Nigeria must argue for a better bargain. The proceeds of mining must be deployed in the service of national development. They should not be diverted or stolen. Transparency should govern and pervade the mining sector.

Nick Dazang is a former Director at Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

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