Illegal mining in Ghana has taken a new turn with hordes of Chinese appearing in the Adansi and Amansie West districts of the country. As Ghanaians express their resentment towards the newcomers in violent ways, some Chinese miners are reaching for weapons to defend their operations. In other words, the former Gold Coast is hardly glittering above ground.
"It looks like Ghana has become Africa's latest El Dorado," says Frank Agyekum, spokesman of former Ghanaian President John Kufuor and his recent companion on a trip to China to attend an Africa forum. "On my latest flight from Shanghai, there were many Chinese...coming to Ghana. When l asked many of them what they were coming to do, their response was they were going to Obuasi - and we all know what that means."
The appearance of Chinese miners in Obuasi corresponds with an increased spate of illegal activities in the area. The town, located in the Adansi district bordering Amansie, is home to the country's biggest mine, which is operated by mining giant AngloGold Ashanti (AGA). There are reports of high numbers of illegal miners, whom the government is struggling to control - albeit unsuccessfully.
AGA officials who declined to speak on record told RNW that Chinese activities have dire consequences for their own operations. "[The Chinese] have teamed up with locals, and use sophisticated machines on our concessions, and have even provided security guards to protect their workers from arrest by the AGA security," says an official.
Besides Obuasi and its surrounding villages, the new wave of miners also have a presence in Manso Nkwanta. "The Chinese invasion of the district is worrying," says Amansie West district's political head, Charles Oti-Prempeh.
On 19 July, things got so heated between the Chinese and the locals that Manso Nkwanta police had to step in, curbing a potentially violent clash. Shots could be heard around the town. Many residents fled for fear of being attacked by the enraged miners.
According to Amansie West district police commander Stephen Kwakye, the Chinese had fired guns to disperse a group of town youth attempting to stop their illegal mining activities. Kwakye reported retrieving one pump-action rifle and two single-barrel guns from the Chinese. He added that a "number of the Chinese have been arrested and are being investigated to find out how they got the land and the mining licenses to operate in the area."
Speaking to RNW, Chinese miner Li Wen says: "How can they say we are operating illegally? We have bought the land and have the required permit to mine. Everything we do here is proper and it is not true that we are criminals." Pressed to show the permits, he retorts: "We are ready to show it to the appropriate authorities."
Back in June, some seven Chinese were arrested for illegal mining in Amansie West. According to Kwakye, they were sent to the city of Kumasi "for further investigations but they were granted bail".
The incident came after a group of armed robbers attacked Chinese individuals in Manso Nkwanta and allegedly killed one of them. Police said the robbers stole cash, mobile phones as well as some gold nuggets. A similar incident was reported in neighboring Fiankoba.
Some Ghanaians detest the newcomers for their conspicuous wealth, obviously derived from mining local gold. "The people have targeted the Chinese...for the wealth they exhibit. They drive very expensive, cars," explains Adu Yeboah, a youth activist in Manso Nkwanta.
Locals also worry about the environmental destruction being caused by the mining. Some activists feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.
But Yeboah points out that others may also be complicit. "We are worried because [the Chinese] do not just come to settle in this area, which is far from the capital. They were led in by our people, and there is also some collaboration between them and the chiefs who sell the lands to them," he says. "It is the same chiefs who seem to be providing them with protection to engage in the illegal act."
Meanwhile, the Ghanaian government seems to have turned a blind eye to the situation. Critics attribute the predicament to a recent 2.4-billion euro loan that the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) granted to Ghana.
When RNW approached the ministry of land and natural resources, officials declined to give a formal comment. Some simply said the issue is now "above the ministry".