For a long time, controversy around gold mining in Zamfara State has remained on the front burner. In this interview, the commissioner for environment and solid minerals in the state, Dr Nuraddeen Isah, spoke on the knotty issues and what should be done to properly harness the mineral resources of the state.
Can you give us a background of mineral resources in Zamfara, especially gold?
The geology of the state indicates that it is one of the richest in the federation, in terms of mineral resources. We have widespread mineral distribution in Anka, Maru, Talata Mafara and some parts of Dansadau. Out of almost 36 minerals that have been discovered in commercial quantity in Nigeria, we have almost 32 here. Gold mining dates back to 1902. There were established goldmines in the state, which helped the northern protectorate under the British colonial rule.
A comprehensive survey of the minerals in the state showed that some areas hold large deposits and the biggest reserve in the country, in Anka particularly.
As the first person to be appointed as the director for solid minerals in Zamfara State in 1999, we worked closely with some people and did some comprehensive surveys in the initial stages of 2001 and 2002. Following from that, I advised the government of the day to acquire a license from the federal government since all minerals are under the exclusive list. That is how the state started participating in the mineral sector.
You said that at a point, the state government obtained a licence from the federal government to mine the minerals; who is in charge?
The mineral sector has been neglected for a long time. There is no coherent chart the federal government follows for the development of our mineral resources. At the same time, there is not much geological data from the federal government; you have to acquire data and information from different sources for you to even go to certain sites.
A normal person in any part of the country interested in mining would be required to acquire an exploration licence. It requires looking for a geologist or mining engineer with the wherewithal to conduct a survey.
The exploration licence is not for mining, it is for a tenancy of about three years. When you find mineral in the area, then you look for either the mining lease or small-scale mining licence, according to the number of minerals found in the area. Majority of the people operating, not only in Zamfara but other parts of Nigeria, own these licences. Most people are using the exploration licence for mining, which is illegal.
There are insinuations that a lot of influential Nigerians and foreigners, like the Chinese, have cornered large sites for mining, how true is this?
When I was appointed as the director 20 years ago in Zamfara, I compiled lists of the initial people who acquired licences in the area. To our biggest surprise, out of about 1,600 applications submitted to the federal government, almost 99 per cent were people outside Zamfara State. That was then, and it is the same thing now. Eighty-five per cent of those who acquired licences from the federal government to do mining in the state are not from Zamfara.
That is where the names of influential persons will come in. These people were used to mining elsewhere and saw a haven to acquire licences; and we do not have any control over it. However, there is visibly no presence of the federal government in terms of knowing these areas. People coming from various parts of the world and the country were given licences without contacting the state.
There is no synergy between us and them to know exactly who is coming and what kind of licence they were given. That applies to every state in the country. Imagine coming from Abuja or Abia to invest here and we do not know exactly what you are doing but claim it is the federal government that permitted you to do mining, explore the areas and take whatever you want without the state's participation. But when they have problems, they say it is the state that will take care of it. We need to sit down and work out those areas.
There's an allegation that Chinese miners operate secretly; do they also come with licences?
Initially, what we had in the state were Russians and the Chinese, not only in Zamfara but all over the country. They go through unconventional ways of mining and do not look for further studies. They look for the main mineral carrying body and employ people from various parts of the country to mine. That was how, a couple of months ago in Bukkuyum, they came and hired a house and started mining copper, lead and iron ore. It was the police who arrested them and took them to Abuja for further prosecution. They are being sponsored by people behind the scene. The only time you see their faces is when they are arrested and they start making calls to get themselves out.
Who are the sponsors?
They are definitely politicians all over the country.
Another allegation is that people come with arms in exchange for gold, how prevalent is that?
Wherever there is mining in any part of the world, there are some forms of illegality. Illegal mining activities and gunrunning have been going on in many parts of the country, but have been pervasive and serious in Zamfara.
We discovered some months ago that some people were bringing in guns to buy gold in exchange. This was in a particular part of the state. It was after the rainy season that we discovered that. What the government did was to bring out a temporary solution. We wanted to stop gunrunning by faceless people buying gold from the locals, so we decided to buy the gold instead from those that have it so as to prevent illegalities and break the chain of giving gold for guns. That was what the state did.
There is no law in the country that will stop you from buying gold, provided you have the licence and can show the source and declare the process to the government, as well as pay the charges. But a lot of people think that having gold is illegal; no, it is not.
Dr Nuraddeen Isah
Who are those bringing the guns to exchange for gold?
People from various parts of the world - Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Libya and many other places. Many of them connive with citizens of the state. Nobody can do that kind of thing without the active connivance with the people from the state. Those who don't want peace and cause confusion for the state are also part of them. It was only when we came to power that we discovered a syndicate, and he is trying to fight back. That was when the problem started.
Does it mean that some bandits are taking part in mining?
They are not bandits, per se. If you look at the initial attacks in this state by various bandits, those areas are totally devoid of mining. Where you have the biggest attacks in the state are not mining areas. They are not geological areas that can be looked at as important. This thing can't be linked directly because if 300 people were killed in a village without water or other minerals, how can gold mining be attributed to banditry there?
There is no link between the two. Up till now, there has not been a single significant attack around any of the biggest mines in the state - Zuzzurfa, Mai Kwananga, Kamfani, Kwali and Gidan Madam. Those are the ones that hold the biggest reserve in terms of resources. If there was war going on in those areas, such thoughts of gold influencing banditry could be suggested. However, along the way, you can have issues or links with some people dealing with gold elsewhere trying to recruit bandits. You can have such link, but it is not about gold.
Who are those that take the guns, and what do they do with it?
There are bandits already in the state who have been here for over 10 years. Some have been stopped from conducting attacks, so it is in the process that they end up using some of the available sites around to mine illegally and get gold to buy food and ammunition. That is the only link. It is not that before then there was a fight for gold, just like what happened in Sierra Leone and other countries in Africa. It is a different thing entirely.
But when this government came, it tried as much as it could to cut off supplies of their food and resources while still asking them to come for negotiation. Some of them confessed to the governor that they couldn't eat bread for a long time, and were happy to come out of the bush. They were caught off from civilisation and other supplies.
There is no other link to say that it is gold that is fuelling these attacks.
People allege that some helicopters come into Zamfara to take gold and drop arms, do you have any information on that?
As far as I am concerned, as a commissioner, I have never heard or seen anything like that. It is simply ridiculous for anybody to make such a spurious allegation against the state because we are not in a banana republic. Are you telling me that in a country like Nigeria, planes can go to any part of the country to land, pick things and get out? Is our sovereignty and integrity as a country being breached? Are you saying there is no record on the number of planes that flew in Nigeria for the past 20 years, the starting and ending point of those helicopters? Are you telling me that the government does not know the number of planes flying over Zamfara in the last three years? Have we been compromised as a country and reached a state where we accept the fact that a plane can land in a part of this country without the federal government knowing? Is this not a serious indictment on our security and integrity as a country?
The state doesn't have an airport or airstrip. We only use a helipad where those coming from Abuja land, and it is within the city. I can tell you that in the last one year, it was used just five times, and all were from people from the presidency, who visited the state; they were not going to the bush.
The picture and plane I saw being circulated allegedly from the state is somewhere in Guatemala. You can look at the trees and surroundings and know it is a rainforest. Do we have a rainforest in northern Nigeria or a mountainous area? It is absolutely ridiculous for anybody to think that planes can land there. Where do you think a plane can land without us knowing? We have to be careful because these are things we really need to work out. If you can't give this information, that means our integrity has been compromised. You can't tell me that a plane gets into the country, in the midst of northern Nigeria where there is no airport.
Do you think the decision of the federal government to stop mining in the state would bring an end to banditry?
No. I don't think that is a good idea. The situation of the state is of backwardness in resources and generating revenue. There are so many things the government can do to help this state move forward. If you have some level of economic activities, that can help the people of the state, especially those in the rural areas. When mining is banned, nothing is being stopped because this has been ongoing. The ban may not have full effect because the state can't be manned entirely. In fact, it will only attract more illegalities.
If you stop the legal ones from working on their sites, the locals would rush there and start using their equipment to mine illegally. So you would still have mining going on; but if you have a controlled and organised environment, the locals would not do the work haphazardly. Illegal mining is always started by the locals and not big companies. The companies need to get someone who will point out the areas where there are mineral deposits. I don't think the ban would stop illegality or banditry because there is no direct correlation between them.
You said ban on mining activities would not end banditry, what do you think is the solution?
The cause of banditry is not mining. I want people to understand that there was no serious mining when the whole thing started. We inherited this problem. It is just showing its head now because government is trying to stop certain things in the state. In actual sense, it has existed for a very long time. We are only trying to stop it because we had relative peace in the first eight months of our regime. There was no issue of illegality. Some of them became afraid after the governor took over and left.
Now, some people are trying to come back. Don't forget that these people can't be uprooted in just a year. The governor said he wanted to sanitise the system and was honest to take some gold bars to the president and showed him what the state owns. That's why some people said he was carrying gold that belongs to the state. We are just trying to make a point that we can move the state forward by helping the federal government get revenue from those places.
In the long term, how do you think these things would impact on the economy and peace of the state?
You can never have economic activities in a country without security and peace; that is what we are battling. This governor is doing it all alone because people are not interested in seeing this state flourish and peace restored. They are after power. When kidnapping and other things happen, nobody calls or contributes to solving the issues. I was expecting a huge gathering of Zamfara State indigenes in Abuja, Kaduna or Lagos, trying to give solutions to the government, their political differences notwithstanding; there was none. This is the situation we are in. But I know the governor is working very hard to ensure we stabilise this region and the state in particular. He has been working tirelessly with some state governors and security operatives. Dr Bello Matawalle never sleeps, just to ensure that this state is stable, but some people are not happy with this.
How do you think mining in Zamfara State can be sanitised and managed properly?
Some of the things we can do are through the federal government because if there is honesty of purpose and strong participation, we can sit down and tell them what we need to do as a state. There are some companies that were given licences, we can work closely with them and have a plan on what minerals we should concentrate on, and the economic value of these minerals to the country in general.
We don't have comprehensive details of the mineral distribution in the state, except the one we did in 2001. I was thinking that by now, after 20 years, the federal government would have finished reserve evaluation and estimation of all the goldmines, controlling those mines and publishing them in the dailies for interested people to see. Geological investigation conducted in the state is very scanty, so how can you build a good economy base or mining companies without having such data and information?
Where can the state government come in?
Since the minerals are under the exclusive list, the only thing we can do is to acquire our own licence under a registered company controlled by the state. We have the Zamfara State Mining Company, which was registered as far back as 2001. I did the registration.
Is it functioning?
Yes. With that, we can acquire areas and put them under the company to work on and do the business part of bringing in investors. Already, there are investors from China and Russia who are interested in partnering with the state government on this. But the basic thing is that if you do not have accurate data and geological information, which is capital extensive, you cannot have any meaningful mining activity anywhere in the country, except you want to go behind the scenes.