11 April 2013

Nigeria: Tapping Nation's Non-Oil Resources


Nigerian has over 34 minerals under its soils, excluding crude. They include widely used ones like coal, limestone, phosphate, iron ore, uranium, gold, zinc and lead. Although exploitation of some of these minerals dates back to pre-independence, in 2010 they contributed only 0.3 per cent to the Gross National Product. This stagnation and decline-in cases like coal and tin-calls for urgent reappraisal and vigorous radical initiatives in policy and action.

Current policies give room for concern, unlike in the colonial era. The establishment of Mineral Survey agencies for Northern and Southern Protectorates took place in 1903 and 1904, respectively. By the 1940s, Nigeria was already a major producer of tin, columbite and coal. Coal replaced local wood as fuel for firing train engines carrying cotton, groundnuts and tin from Kano and Jos to Lagos port for export to British manufacturers.

The discovery of oil in 1956 and the 1967 to 1970 civil war led to the collapse of coal production from a peak of 574,758 tonnes in 1960. Interest of foreign companies in tin shifted away to oil. Government ignored injecting capital to enable local producers benefit from the new open skies. Over 1,100 tin and columbite mines in Plateau State were abandoned, leaving radioactive mine tailings to endanger the health of communities in Jos, Barkin Ladi, Bukuru, Bassa and Riyom.

Urgent and massive budget needs to aid the war effort enhanced the attraction of oil sales, which did not require previous government involvement in exploration, scientific work to support processing, manufacturing, as well as lobbying by local business groups. Moreover, private industrialists were replaced by bureaucratic organisations, such as Nigerian Uranium Mining Company, National Iron Ore Mining Company (established in 1979), a revived Nigerian Coal Corporation charged with mechanisation of production in the 1970s and 1980s. Dipping into budgets for running these parastatals took attention away from productivity, while foreign oil companies and Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) did not link their oil activities with investment in solid minerals production.

The lukewarm attitude, even lip service, to the development of solid minerals as an internal industrializing sector is puzzling given global interest in uranium. Cross River, Adamawa, Taraba, Plateau, Bauchi and Kano states are known to hold uranium deposits. With the high use by the United States, Germany, France and Japan of uranium for generating electricity and other high-end applications, it would be assumed that it would have rubbed off on Nigerian officials when oil wealth began to roll in. The focus on hydro-electric power from River Niger whose water is shared with other countries, remains a severe source of vulnerability.

Officials in charge of solid minerals have also failed to give high visibility to deposits of tantalite used for manufacturing electronic products, including cell phones for which ownership by individuals explodes exponentially in recent years. With over 50 million unemployed youths holding latent intellectual creativity and manufacturing energy, it should be expected that policymakers would inject economic imagination into this raw material; but alas! that's not the case.

The neglect of coal mining has inevitably led to the destruction of trees on an escalating, tragic scale. Lokoja-Abuja and Abuja- Kaduna highways, for example, host stacks of firewood and sacks of charcoal in a backdrop of a depleted savannah. Officials in charge of the environment either do not notice this destruction of trees without evidence of tree-planting, or are not aware of Indonesia's packaging of gas from oil production into small cylinders for free distribution to households for cooking in order to halt this form of deforestation. The divorce between the oil sector and energy needs of rural communities needs not be compounded by also letting the coal sector fail to serve them. It is noteworthy that Poland, one of the most industrialised Central European countries, generates a large part of its power from coal fired stations. For Nigerian therefore, the solid minerals sector is a potentially rich industrial sector waiting to be exploited. The government has no reason to wait a moment longer to do this.

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