Illegal gold mining is a growing problem in Nigeria that is benefiting terrorist groups, causing violence and increasing pollution. Residents of mining areas blame Chinese nationals who set up and oversee mining and refining operations.
Tension continues to rise around these pit mines. Locals accuse Chinese miners of collaborating with extremist militants, corrupting government officials, destroying farmlands and polluting water with mercury and lead.
Omololu Afilaka, the traditional ruler of Atorin-Ijesha in Osun State, said his people are being “conquered” by Chinese miners.
“Before the Chinese came, we had artisanal miners. They could only bite as much as they could chew,” he told NTC News as part of an investigation in 2023. “Then came the big players, the Chinese illegal miners, and they came with excavators.”
A recent report by researchers Oluwole Ojewale of the Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organized Crime (ENACT) project, and Freedom Onuoha, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, revealed how Nigeria’s mining sector is plagued by insecurity and organized crime.
“In the banditry-affected north-west and central areas, loose criminal networks engaged in illegal gold mining have ties to foreign actors and facilitate trafficking,” said the report, which was published on December 13, 2023. “Foreign networks operate like their local counterparts and have repositioned their activities in the criminal value chain through direct involvement in illicit gold mining in remote villages and forests.”
The researchers say that foreign demand drives most of the criminal markets for gold in Nigeria. Nigerian authorities have arrested several Chinese nationals since 2020 for involvement in illegal mining.
“Our mining sector has not been accorded much priority by the nation’s security actors until recently, when illegal mining was linked to rural banditry,” said a Zamfara State senior police officer, who spoke to ENACT on condition of anonymity. “Most of the mining activities are being done by illegal miners because mining sites have been neglected by regulators and security agents. Chinese and other foreigners too are taking advantage of this prolonged neglect by the nation’s mining regulators and security agents. It’s also the reason why bandits are attracted to the sector.”
In April 2023, British newspaper The Times published a stunning report about Chinese companies that gained access to mines by paying Nigerian extremist militant groups, “raising the prospect that Beijing could be indirectly funding terror in Africa’s largest economy.”
SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based analytical group, shared videos with The Times of militant leaders from groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province who boasted that Chinese workers in their territory must pay “rent.”
Chinese mining bosses in Zamfara and Katsina “are perfectly willing to pay off whoever needs to be paid off and have no qualms about it and are allowed to carry out operations,” SBM head of research Ikemesit Effiong told The Times.
The Chinese embassy in Nigeria objected to the report but sought to distance itself from the actions of Chinese individuals.
“The Chinese government, as well as the Chinese Embassy in Nigeria, have always encouraged and urged the Chinese companies and nationals in Nigeria to abide by the laws and regulations of Nigeria, and to implement the local rules and guidance on labor, environment, health and safety, etc., and would continue their efforts in this regard,” it said in a statement on April 17, 2023.
China has a massive footprint in Africa’s mining sector, with billions of dollars invested. Chinese nationals are heavily involved in extractive operations across the continent, mining for gold, other precious metals and valuable minerals such as lithium, cobalt and copper.
In 2019, China imported nearly $10 billion worth of minerals from sub-Saharan Africa, according to The Economic Times newspaper.
Afilaka is among the local leaders who feel that Nigerians are not receiving their fair share. He also questions how many of the Chinese laborers have permits to work in Nigeria, a common refrain in the communities surrounding mining operations.
“There is a lot of darkness in my land,” Afilaka said. “If you’re coming in here and you’re extracting billions of naira worth of gold, I think the people should benefit from it.”
Ojewale and Onuoha called on the Nigerian government to intensify regulation and protection of its burgeoning mining industry.
“In a country contending with diverse forms of criminality, the involvement of foreign criminals in the extractive sector presents a serious security challenge,” they wrote. “These minerals are among the country’s most critical national assets and should be guarded through a coordinated security response.”