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Inside Zamfara’s gold fields, where children slave for a pittance

Inside Zamfara’s gold fields, where children slave for a pittance
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The sun is only a backdrop for the inhuman conditions in Kadauri. The heat melts the jelly on the child miners’ necks into liquid necklaces. It’s a furnace out there along the gold belt of the Maru local government area (LGA) of Zamfara State. Inside the mine pits, children write their dreams in shiny beads of sweat—the indelible ink of their brow. It’s the only way that their absence from school could mean something.

Scores of out-of-school kids, mostly boys, litter the dusty tract, digging for gold. A dirt pan assures a full plate for their starving bellies. Thus they defy the heat, obstinate souls accustomed to searing whipping from the sun.

Of the motley crew, Mubaraq Baballe stands out for the passion he brings to the task. Shouldering aplomb like a steel amour, the 11-year-old feverishly digs the earth and shovels sludge every day, hoping to hit paydirt.

Three years after The Nation’s first encounter with him, Baballe still hunts for gold amid the dusty plains of Kadauri. “Sometimes, I travel to Anka with my uncles and cousins to work,” he said.

Every new morning brings another fresh haul through the gold fields. The possibility of finding fragments of the precious metal amid earthcrust and mud piles spurs the 11-year-old to resume work every day at the mine.

The hope of hitting paydirt and earning N500 (less than $1) for his effort is overpowering. It’s a curious thing, however, that the pay has remained stagnant since 2020. Baballe currently earns N700, just a little bit above his earnings when he started out as a child miner three years ago. Sometimes, he gets “lucky” and makes “as much as N1,000 in a day,” he said.

Having dropped out of Class Four at a local madrassah in neighboring Dan Baza, his needs remain simple: to earn a living from the Kadauri gold fields.

Baballe gives his earnings to his parents “to buy food.” But sometimes he saves it to buy things for himself, “like a new kaftan, a t-shirt, or a radio transistor.”

The mineral-rich earth of Zamfara State provides Baballe and several other boys with opportunities to make quick cash. It’s a perilous place, fraught with attacks by armed bandits prowling the region and toxic lead deposits in the soil.

Despite the obvious perils, the dazzle of Kadauri’s gold belt lures the 11-year-old and his friends to turn up every day, armed with a shovel, a can-do spirit and a dirt pan.

Not even the recent threat by the Minister of Solid Minerals, Dele Alake, to crack down on illegal artisanal miners could deter the underage gold prospectors from their routine.

Alake, on September 3, 2023, issued a 30-day ultimatum to artisanal miners engaged in illegal mining across the country to join cooperatives or find another vocation. “On the expiration of the period, the full weight of the law will fall on anyone seen on a mining site without a determinable status.”

Alake’s threat bears no resonance among the child miners of Kadauri. Baballe, for instance, is wary of “the police and government people” who persistently raid the gold belt to arrest illegal miners, but he does not understand the magnitude of his work as an outlaw. Perhaps because he’s only a child.

The child miners’ backstory

A journey through the gold fields manifests like a pilgrimage of sorts; echoes of the child miners unfurl with a rude jolt, like vignettes of the human thirst for survival in a dystopic universe.

Unlike the big, licensed gold prospectors of Zamfara, they do not mine gold for the big bucks. They are not doing it for reverence, glory, or meaning.

Haunted by poverty, Baballe and his crew, work the fields for survival. Ultimately, they seek escape from the drudgery and complexities of their inner lives.

Speaking exclusively to The Nation, each boy recounted the vicissitudes that forced him to become a vulnerable actor in Zamfara’s illicit artisanal gold mining chain. Thirteen-year-old Naziru Aliyu revealed that he ventured into the illegal enterprise in order to support his impoverished family. The Junior Secondary School (JSS) 2 student earns as much as N2,000 daily, mining gold in Kadauri’s open fields.

His namesake and much younger crew member, Naziru, equally does it for survival. The eight-year-old wore his yearning like an expensive brocade over his bony frame. Looking severely malnourished, he dug and pounded through rocks, roots and earth-crust with feeble limbs, his slender arms rising and falling mechanically beside his wiry frame. Naziru belched a story that only hunger could reveal.

His shirtless torso revealed the jarring angles of his ribs, their harsh lines shorn of flesh, contracted in sweaty enterprise. Occasionally, he stood and stretched, his gaunt frame towering above his chosen tract.

The earth unfurled about him carelessly cracked with pits, suffering the underage labourer to foray in and out of their gaping caverns. A few metres away, his peers laboured in extreme poses, like dusty silhouettes carved slipshod across Kadauri’s gold belt.

The cool and indiscriminate glare of sunlight desecrates the fields like a tomb, bathing their sullied frames to extort a stream of accidental shadows.

Closer, their hard noises strike one’s face with momentary clarity but the noiseless undertones of their unspoken narratives pitch like unreal zest made in jest.

Child miners quench thirst with muddy water

Life is hard in the gold fields. The fear of sleeping on an empty stomach motivates underage miners, like Baballe, every day. While hunger is unbearable, Baballe finds it even more difficult to deal with thirst.

To soothe his parched throat, the 11-year-old would drink from the stagnant puddle he used to wash gold dust. It seemed too horrid to be true the first time The Nation caught Baballe drinking from the begrimed pond.

That hot Saturday afternoon, the 11-year-old paused from washing his pile of gold dust and picked his way across the craters and mine ponds to a corner of the fields, where he and his crew kept their personal effects.

He whipped out a green plastic cup and dipped it into a puddle with a flurry, filling the cup to its quarter. Then he raised it to his lips and drank copiously.

Afterwards, he tossed the cup and simply resumed foraging for gold amid the minefields. The sparse dialogue of his peers and the clangour of shovels and steel basins against the stony terrain resonated with crushing symbolism. Still, none was as distressing as the imagery of the little boy quenching his thirst with a cup of muddy water.

There is a backstory to each boy’s presence in the Kadauri gold field. The recurrent strain recounts how poverty and hunger render them vulnerable to older associates and paymasters in Zamfara’s illicit network of artisanal miners.

The latter use them as mules and errand boys in an illicit network that cost Nigeria about $2 billion annually and over N353 billion in losses in gold smuggled out of the country between 2016 and 2018, according to the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) audits and reports from international sources.

Economics of using underage miners

In Maru LGA of Zamfara, where the Kadauri gold field is located, there is a ready market for gold mined by minors as older prospectors buy the gold off them, and in turn, sell it to local middlemen and dealers from neighbouring countries who flood the mining sites.

“The little boys can’t get the gold to Gusau. They don’t deal with the big players because they are like termites on the distribution chain. But they are useful termites…I buy it from them. When they hit gold, they sell it to me right at the mining field or they call my number if I am not in town, then I tell them to hold on to it till I come back,” said Mohammed, 34, a gold prospector working of Maru.

The initial buyer, like Mohammed, who lives in the mining village, is often the local representative of a bigger trader, who finances and mandates buyers, sometimes over a number of mining sites in the region.

Hussein Magazu, 51, owns gold processing factories in Anka and Maru local councils, and he runs an informal but extensive operation for which he recruited local boys, minors and adolescents in particular, to supply him gold dust.

At the peak of his operations, he had 37 boys working for him but since the federal government outlawed artisanal mining in the state, and armed bandits struck Bindim village in Maru on November 8, 2016, killing 45 artisanal miners, 11 of Magazu’s boys have been withdrawn by their parents. The bandits, who arrived numbering about 50, cordoned off the entire area before ransacking the mines, demanding gold and other valuables from the miners before hacking them dead.

Magazu rued his losses in the wake of the attack stressing that, “I miss my boys. They are cheaper to manage and control. They listen to instructions and brought me sand regularly to grind at my factories.”

According to him, the child miners are less greedy. “They accept N500, N700, and N1,000. They don’t request more. Some of them double as water vendors in my factories. I pay them an additional N100 or N200 depending on their hard work.”

Further investigations revealed that most of the child miners belonged to farming families that had lost their livelihood in the wake of armed banditry in the state. Left with no means of livelihood, many kids joined their parents to mine for gold illegally.

In Kadauri, Bindim and other parts of Maru, Anka, and Bagega, groups of boys set out to mine for gold across established and dormant gold fields. Banking on street smarts, they prospect for gold as independent miners or at the behest of a local middleman or contractor to whom they supply excavated

Sand or gold dust for a stipend.

The boys often supply the sand with little idea about the quantity of gold lodged in the pile. Where they are working for themselves, they take the sand to contractors like Magazu, who process it for them – by grinding and washing it – to extract the gold. Afterwards, they summon their street smarts to negotiate a fair price with the contractor cum owner of the processing plant.

“Many of them do not possess the stamina and expertise to haggle with me hence they often sell the dust to me for a paltry fee of N500 to N1,000,” said Magazu.

Chinese, Africans in Zamfara’s gold smuggling ring

Five years ago, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) seized gold worth about $3.13 million (about N1.13 billion) being allegedly exported to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) illegally. It named one Abba Ali Yahaya as the brain behind the deal.

Apart from impounding his passport, about €112,000 undeclared by Abba, was also seized for alleged violation of the nation’s Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act. The suspect was caught following a tip-off after he had managed to pass through all the screening machines without being caught.

The contraband was reportedly handed over to the suspect by a syndicate of illegal miners operating in Zamfara State.

One group that has also received a significant amount of attention is Chinese nationals. Critical to their ability to operate are partnerships with local actors who provide the social capital necessary to operate.

Further findings revealed that some regional chiefs and community leaders have working agreements with foreign partners which ‘permit’ the latter to exploit gold deposits in exchange for a percentage of the gold production.

In a bid to curb such illicit deals, the state government repatriated 31 foreigners. The culprits, comprising 11 Chinese and 20 others from Burkina Faso and Mali, were repatriated to their respective countries.

On April 26, 2020, the State Commissioner of Police (CP) Usman Nagogo, led a special task force to mining sites in Nasarawa Burkullu village, where they arrested two Chinese nationals running illegal mining operations. The culprits, identified as Mr. Wang and Mr. Chun, were caught with chemicals necessary for processing gold.

On May 21, 2020, the Brigade Commander, 1 Brigade Nigeria Army, Gusau, Brigadier-General O. M Bello equally led a team, comprising the Army, Police, and the Department of State Services (DSS) to raid illegal mining sites in Anka, Bukkuyum and Gummi LGAs leading to the arrest of 251 illegal miners comprising 250 Nigerians and one Burkinabe.

In February 2022, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Zamfara State Command, arrested 10 suspected illegal miners from Matuzgi village in the Talata Mafara Local Government Area of the State while they were carrying out an illegal operation. Nine bags of raw precious stones were confiscated from the suspects.

On Sunday, September 23, 2023, the Governor of Zamfara, Dauda Lawal, issued a ban on illegal mining activities and ordered law enforcement officials to shoot illegal miners at sight, claiming that such stringent action has become necessary to end the destructive activity and ensure the well-being of the people.

Reacting to the raids, artisanal miners in Maru and Anka LGAs, stressed that there was no way they could stop mining as it was their only means of survival. “What does the government want us to eat? Bandits have sacked us from our farms. They rob us in our homes. Government is unable to protect us and they haven’t offered us alternative means of livelihood. We can’t stop mining. Even people in government are involved. They only send police after us when we venture into their territories or the territories of their cronies,” said Idris Bala, 55, a miner working from Anka.

Corroborating him, his first son, Abubakar, stated that artisanal gold mining was lucrative until the state government officials and traditional rulers established mining companies and invited the Chinese, Burkinabes and Togolese, to take over the industry.

How gold is under-priced, smuggled out of Zamfara

The supply chain flourishes by the sale of gold to a second intermediary, the regional trader. The local trader or contractor, who buys gold from the child miners by decigrams can accumulate between 50 and 100 grams of gold before selling this wholesale to the regional trader.

Often the local dealer will melt the gold, losing around 10 per cent as impurities in order to create batches of many tens of grams, which will earn a higher price when sold. Local buyers are often undeclared when they work in isolation and are generally self-financed.

The gold content is evaluated visually in the field and then measured at home using densitometry, applying a pre-determined formula. Quite often, local traders are sent to the mining sites by the regional trader, who is sure to capture all of the available collected gold, in exchange for a percentage commission on the collected quantities; in some cases, he also provides an advance of the working capital needed to collect the gold.

As a result, the buyer is often declared under the cover of the regional trader. So, if the local buyer purchases the gold at a maximum retail price for the gold content of 93% – 94% of the world price from the miners, the regional trader will buy it wholesale at a price equivalent to 97% – 98% of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) price.

Once the trader cum big player has accumulated a certain quantity of gold, generally many hundreds of grams, he will travel to the capital, Gusau, to trade it at around 99.2% – 99.5% of the LBMA price. The buyer in Gusau subsequently exports the gold abroad as contraband through the country’s porous borders to Niger, Ghana, Togo or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A toothless bark?

A lack of compliance with the 30-day ultimatum of the Minister of Solid Minerals, Dele Alake, has forced him to grant another 30-day extension of the ultimatum as he warned illegal miners to join notable mining cooperatives or face the full wrath of the law.

Alake had initially warned that from October, a rejuvenated security regime will become active in the solid minerals sector and the Federal and State governments will also be encouraged to allocate the prosecution of cases against illegal miners to competent courts.

On August 3, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Dr. Mary Ogbe, raised a similar alarm that illegal mining activities are disrupting the country’s $700 billion industry.

According to her, some of the minerals are often exported raw to Asian and European countries at ridiculous prices without value.

A history of failed regulation

Two years ago, the former Governor of Zamfara, Bello Matawalle, announced a total ban on mining activities in the State and its environs in a bid to curb banditry and restore peace to the state. The decision, he claimed, was informed by intelligence reports suggesting that illegal mining fuels armed banditry in the state.

Hundreds of people have been killed or kidnapped by bandits in Zamfara in the past year, and in the wake of the ban, several miners relocated from Zamfara to less policed hubs of artisanal mining in Niger and Osun States.

In their absence, field leaders contract underage boys, like Baballe, to fill the vacuum created in the artisanal gold mines thus accentuating their predicament as part of the 10.5 million out-of-school children in Nigeria – 30 per cent are in the North-West (Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kebbi, Kano) and Niger States in the North Central region.

PAGMDI dead on arrival?

To cushion the huge foreign exchange revenue loss from gold smuggling, the immediate past administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari launched the Presidential Artisanal Gold Mining Development Initiative (PAGMDI), a comprehensive artisanal and small-scale gold mining development programme.

The initiative was designed to address the structural and institutional factors such as rural poverty and difficulties in meeting legal and regulatory requirements that tend to push artisanal gold mining operators deeper into the informal economy.

During the unveiling of the country’s first batch of locally mined gold bars in July 2020, former President Buhari enthused that the gold mining operation would generate over $500 million in revenue annually and diversify the country’s revenue base.

The price of gold had soared at the period, fluctuating between a record $1,988.40 and $2,048 an ounce. Initial forecasts held that the PAGMI initiative could add about $500 million to foreign reserves annually, and contribute $150 million in taxes and $25 million in royalties.

To guarantee the seamless actualisation of set goals, the federal government licensed two refineries to refine gold to the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA).

Under the arrangement, the government was expected to buy directly from small-scale miners at designated hubs in their villages, while the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) buys directly from the state government. This was meant to prevent the locals from selling extracted gold to bandits and other illegal operators. The plan is yet to materialise to the advantage of all identified stakeholders.

What should be done…

Governor Lawal seeks to succeed where his predecessor, Matawalle, failed. But his resort to the use of force can hardly resolve Zamfara’s illegal mining conundrum.

The incumbent governor could work with the Minister of Solid Minerals, Alake, to identify local miners and encourage them to join cooperative societies through which they can earn greater benefits from the state’s mining industry.

Beyond Alake’s ultimatum to illegal miners and Governor Lawal’s order to law enforcers to shoot them at sight, more realistic steps must be taken to address the problem.

The government must restore the miners’ access to the global market, perhaps by buying artisanal-mined gold even on a tax-free, no-questions-asked basis. Responsible sourcing initiatives should also prioritise the improvement of public infrastructure and services in the mining fields.

Small-scale mining sustains millions of people with so much else for governments to worry about, keeping these communities thriving should be the main priority, argued Sara Geenen Assistant professor in Globalisation, International Development and Poverty, University of Antwerp.

But that is in the long run, in the short run, the government must address the perils of child miners prowling the gold fields of Zamfara.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that about one million children work in mines and quarries. However, the actual number is deemed higher as the proportion of child miners in some countries is estimated to be as high as 30 to 50 per cent of the workforce.

In Zamfara, many such children work in extreme conditions in remote areas like Kadauri and other parts of Maru LGA. Children work in ore extraction and assist in drilling. They push carts, clean galleries, and remove water from the mines. They crush stones, haul minerals, pick gemstones, and wash gold.

They descend to the bowels of the earth to crawl through narrow, cramped, and poorly lit makeshift tunnels, where the air is thick with dust and smothering. They constantly risk fatal accidents due to falling rocks, explosions, collapse of mine walls, and the use of equipment designed for adults.

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“They do all these without access to essential safety measures and health facilities. It’s a very scary situation. It’s like making them work in a grave. They are denied protection and other necessary safeguards. Many will tell you they are doing it to help their families. Many of their parents, who are also miners, encourage the kids. They even link them with scouts. As things are, we are toying with another health disaster in Zamfara,” warned Bello Matari, a public health worker based in Gusau.

In 2010, Zamfara State was afflicted by the sudden illness of hundreds of children suffering from vomiting, abdominal pains, headaches, seizures and other health conditions. The respective communities had unknowingly dug into a lead-vein while mining gold ore thus exposing themselves to lead poisoning.

While crushing ore rocks, they released lead-polluted dust into the atmosphere and surface waters. Miners returned home to infect their families with contaminated clothes and tools. Approximately 50 per cent of all recorded cases were fatal, leading to the death of over 400 children.

There are fears that the state may suffer yet another disaster, on a similar scale, if the government fails to intervene.

Interviews with child miners in Kadauri revealed that their exposure to injury is high. Abubakar Adamu, 10, sprained his ankle and crashed his groin into a jagged edge of a mine pit after falling into the exposed ditch several months ago. “I missed my steps because it was dark. I couldn’t walk properly for months. And I found it very painful to urinate; every time I did, blood came out with my urine,” he said.

Despite the dangers involved, a lot of kids in Kadauri take to the fields to mine for gold without an exit strategy. The boys are unaware of the magnitude of danger that they flirt with, daily.

Experts warned that the 2010 epidemic may persist in the environment for up to 15 years resulting in long-term health problems including permanent learning and behavioural problems, and brain damage.

But the child miners of Kadauri are oblivious to such dangers. Their struggles blend into the hobbling steps of Zamfara’s brutal re-awakening as the state drifts between its toxic underbelly and the vague promise of a better tomorrow.

The fates of Ibrahim, Yahaya, Aliyu, Naziru and Baballe, however, resonate a tragedy so overpowering that it evokes a torrent of feelings. Beyond that, there is guilt – that the desire for gold is so strong that it sets society, like a bird of prey upon them, to stalk their strides and exploit their hunger pangs.

In their sad, sorry world, they work in teams under exploitative agreements with a local paymaster, often receiving a wage or payment in kind.

For children who hit pay-dirt, they find that there is money to be made from gold dust, however meagre. For those who don’t, dejection pricks their hopes and sinks like claws.

“If I don’t find gold today, I will get lucky tomorrow,” said Baballe in the tenor of a child who understands that despair might be circumvented by stubborn will.

Baballe doesn’t care if death reclines in Kadauri’s gold dust. Every day, he resumes at the mines with theatrical spunk, his wiry limbs digging and shovelling the earth in measured spasms, his frame bent earthward in a necessary performance of hope.

Credit: The nations

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