On 5 June 2013, 169 Chinese miners were arrested in Ghana's gold-mining Ashanti region. These arrests followed Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama's decision to put an end to illegal mining by foreigners.
Illegal mining is the driving factor behind a raft of problems in Ghana: it pits citizens against one another and against Chinese miners, results in an economic shortfall for the government and deprives citizens of a possible source of income. Most importantly, it could have a negative impact on peace and social cohesion, as currently witnessed in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Ghana, the second largest gold producer in Africa after South Africa, has in recent years recorded a large influx of migrants from various countries in search of raw materials, especially gold. Thousands of Chinese have left their villages in China, searching for better opportunities in gold-rich African countries like Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana. Now these Chinese migrants have set their sights on the Ghanaian galamsey (artisanal gold miner). According to the South China Morning Post, nearly 50 000 illegal prospectors have left China for Ghana since 2005. According to the Ghana Immigration Service, these migrants use tourist visas to enter Ghana via neighbouring countries.
While many foreigners have taken advantage of the laxity and corruption in national and local government structures, the Ghanaian government seems to be targeting Chinese nationals, who have been the subject of much criticism in the country. They are accused of looting natural resources, destroying the environment and failing to comply with local laws. The recent arrests illustrate the government's decision to take action against them.
The Chinese government, through its spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Ghana, Yue Jie, expressed its sympathy with the miners and called on the Ghanaian authorities to respect the rights of detainees, while urging miners to abide by local norms.
Illegal mining in West African countries is often made possible by corruption in government, the weakness of legal frameworks and the existence of informal channels. In 1989, Ghana put in place a legal framework regarding gold mining, which was reviewed in 2006. Two pieces of legislation, namely the law on small-scale mining and the law on the promotion of investment, are significant in this regard. The law on small-scale gold mining gives priority to local people to conduct small-scale mining with artisanal tools. The law on the promotion of investment makes provision for foreign investors and grants them the right to the industrial exploitation of raw materials.
Despite this legal framework, mining is a serious headache for the Ghanaian government, which has to deal with a disorganised mining sector and various illegal practices.
Aggravating the situation, illegal Chinese miners have started to compete with the local Ghanaian small-scale miners. Taking advantage of the government's inability to regulate this sector, Chinese miners use heavy machinery to extract gold, causing deforestation and water pollution. A recent study by a Ghanaian academic reveals that 147 of the 160 rivers in Obuasi (in the Ashanti region) and 117 others running through Tarkwa are highly polluted due to the mining activities in these two largest mining areas.
This thorny issue highlights the perpetual security and social challenges faced by West African states that are endowed with natural and mineral resources. In early 1990s, the region experienced a succession of bloody conflicts; all closely linked to natural resources. The exploitation of these resources has caused a destructive instability in the region, as evidenced in Liberia and Sierra Leone, instead of benefiting the impoverished citizens.
Today, there is a general agreement that the exploitation of mineral and natural resources should not undermine the internal security of African states. The recent events leading to the arrest and death of Chinese illegal miners in Ghana reveal three key issues.
Firstly, China as an emerging power and Africa's main economic partner is on a perpetual quest to reposition itself and influence the continent. However, it is also engaged in a determined search for new resources to exploit. At the same time, African governments often still fail protect to their national interests. Secondly, Chinese migrants' exploitation of African resources is starting to generate widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, which is likely to lead to violence against them and the state. Finally, the influx of Chinese miners into Ghana through neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso highlights the dangers of Africa's porous borders. Without effective border controls, illegal activities such as arms and gold trafficking flourish. This situation is likely to encourage organised crime and to generate either inter-communal violence or conflict between Ghanaian citizens and foreign miners.
It is clear that governments have a shared responsibility in this situation. Ghana should take into account the national and sub-regional security environment when drawing up mineral and natural resources policies. Fair, open and sustainable strategies, followed by effective action, are necessary to ensure that resources are exploited for the exclusive benefit of the Ghanaian people. These measures can help to curb the violence associated with the illegal Chinese mining, and contribute to national security by alleviating poverty and youth unemployment.
In view of the unfortunate incidents that recently occurred in Ghana, the government should focus on the ethical governance of resources while ensuring integrity, sustainability and environmental balance. This ethical governance will only be effective if local community leaders and the owners of small Ghanaian mines are made aware of the risks and sanctions involved in illegal gold mining. Impunity and corruption are among the main causes of the increase in this phenomenon. In West Africa, security threats have linkages: illegal mining can lead to arms trafficking and other kinds of trafficking (drugs, fake medicine, etc.). Not acting on illegal mining activities (one national security issue) could undermine the entire country's security.
Mouhamadou Kane is a junior fellow in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS.