This Day (Lagos)

22 November 2012

Nigeria: Deaths in the Gold Mines

Many illegal miners in Zamfara State are endangering their lives, and others

Evidently, repeated scenes of funerals and the vulnerability of the living in many communities in Zamfara State due to illegal mining activities, have not acted as deterrence. Perhaps because of familiarity, the people are either impervious to the growing tragedy or simply living in denial. Only recently nine illegal miners of gold were buried beneath the earth when a mine pit collapsed on them at Dogon Daji village in Maru Local Government Area of the state. There would have been no trace of them except for the fact that there was a lone survivor who was partly buried and had to be subsequently rescued.

Yet even more worrisome is the growing feeling that there is no solution in sight. Many of the people engaged in these activities vowed they would return to the fields because it is their only source of livelihood. The latest accident happened amid reports that the government was put in the know of the activities of the miners and even reportedly sent in plain clothes policemen to protect the area.

Zamfara State is a haven for illegal mining. The state is rich in iron, gold and copper, minerals which Governor Abdulaziz Yari Abubakar said are of high quality and could even sustain the state if put to effective use. Ironically, these valuable minerals have become agents of death. In the absence of any strict mining regulations, many of the inhabitants often pour into the fields to help themselves and in so doing, endanger their lives and others, particularly children. "The memory of the lead poisoning menace is still fresh in our minds and while the ministry is tackling this challenge, we are now confronted with yet another mines mishap in the state," said Idris Umar, director, Mines Inspectorate.

Indeed the menace of lead poisoning, especially in Zamfara State, due principally to the activities of illegal miners had been headlined many times over. Last year, no fewer than 400 children under five died from lead poisoning. This year, more deaths have been reported and many others are braced for the worst.

This point was driven home by Mary Jean Brown, the Chief, Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, USA, when she said lead poisoning was closer to every home in Nigeria than realised. She was in Nigeria to assess the extent of lead contamination. She said there was so much lead in the air, on water and at homes. More troubling is the disclosure that most of the miners are themselves carriers of death. Some of the miners take home their dusty clothes and shoes which are contaminated with lead, which their innocent children inhale to their peril.

Lead is colourless and odourless, making it an insidious killer. Besides death, the short-term effects of lead poisoning include acute fever, convulsion, loss of consciousness and blindness, while the long-term effects include anaemia, renal failure and brain damage in children, who are often the main victims. Many of them are left with severe handicaps like some form of paralysis while others are afflicted with severe mental retardation.

Last week, the ministry of mines and steel development set up a panel to investigate the accident and to recommend measures to prevent future occurrence. But if past experiences are of any value, it will not make much difference. A remediation work started by TerraGraphics, a US-based engineering firm was halted long time ago when it ran out of funds, which was in the first place donated by some foreign agencies. The company targeted 15 contaminated villages for remediation and had cleaned up seven. The money promised by our governments, for months, is still stuck in the pipeline. Meanwhile, more communities are getting infected as more miners are digging their own graves.

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