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For 40-year-old Surajo Baba, who lives in the midst of Darata gold mining fields in Zamfara state, poverty remains a daily reality.
But Nigeria as one of the world’s richest solid minerals deposits, besides the oil wealth, the country’s majority has no reason living in abject poverty.
“Here in Darata village, the gold wealth has not helped in any way to change our lives for the better, but rather for the worse as we have strayed further into poverty,” said Surajo.
That tells a story of how Nigeria is rich in mineral resources, yet its majority may have to wait a long time before they benefit from it, due largely to the mismanagement of the sector by the state vested with the responsibility to manage it on behalf of the people.
Today, across the length and breadth of this country, illegal mining is widespread, with the Chinese and Indian operators, in collaboration with local communities sabotaging the economy, while the authorities who supposedly in charge to are regulate and supervise the sector look the other way.
This has been blamed, partly on the weak federal regulation and in violation of the 1999 Constitution, which has made illegal mining thrives since some state and local governments illegally issue permits to artisans that do not have the expertise in mining.
This was the cause of the estimated 400 children that were reported to have died, and 30,000 others poisoned in Zamfara state, in the world’s worst recorded outbreak of lead poisoning in March 2009.
It could be recalled that the source of the outbreak began after the price of gold shot up and villagers realized they could make more money from exploiting local gold deposits than from farming. Pronto, young and old began to dig metal ore from nearby mines and process it in their homes in the search for gold.
But they were unknowingly mining lead, and the dust from the processing contaminated their houses, as children play in the dust around water wells, ignorant of the danger.
They were actually poisoned by dust released by gold miners breaking open rocks near their homes, as contaminated soil dumped in water sources as rain further spread pollutants.
Do we have to blame the local miners who did not know the health implications of their mining activity? The authorities charged with the responsibility to regulate and supervise the mineral resources sector should carry the burden of guilt.
Considering the enormous potential for economic growth if the mining sector is formalized, experts believe that soon Nigeria would be dominating the list of one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and would have slowly shed its image as a development burden.
But without a clear policy, and with government folding its arms watching helplessly, while foreign operators with their local collaborators go on plundering the sector, it will be a long night.
Sadly is the claim by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Solid Minerals Development (MMSD), Linus Awute, at a forum in Abuja sometime ago, that the amount of unprocessed gold that has left the country through neighboring countries, Ghana in particular, is being processed in Ashanti (Ghana) is enormous.
And again, his admission that the activities of illegal gold miners had gone “beyond control,” bordered on crass incompetence, to say the obvious.
The claim also that Nigeria lost $50 billion to her neighbors through illegal gold mining, coupled with the negative economic, environmental and health impact on the country, shows that our solid minerals sector remained unregulated or at best haphazardly.
That underhand dealing in the mining of gold and other rich minerals in the country has fuelled poverty with its attendant environmental problems, is an understatement, as Nigeria will first have to rein in its corrupt officials before its resources can enrich its own people.
Without dealing with the cancer of corruption blighting the country, and robbing it of revenue from mineral resources through corrupt officials receiving bribes from these illegal mining operators, the country shall continue to have the worst poverty indices globally.
It is unimaginable that a country that depends on oil and gas exports for 92 per cent of her external revenues, failed to seize the opportunity to diversify her earnings by exploiting available abundant minerals.
It’s unfathomable that till date, we are yet to see the reforms of the solid minerals sector which begun since Obasanjo administration that were poised to attract investors from around the world to exploit the more than 34 mineral types available in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, both federal and state governments who are the gate-keepers in this sector have been irresponsibly reluctant to confront the menace of unregulated mining and smuggling.
While Economic analysts say that Nigeria’s best economic years are yet to come, it remains to be seen if the billions of dollars Nigeria has in natural resources will trickle down to people like Surajo.