The Zamfara mining disaster: Still, a human rights debacle

Oscarline Onwuemenyi

01 August 2012, Sweetcrude, Abuja – It is a given that after several decades of mining activities in the country, fortunes in the nation’s mining industry has not necessarily translated into wealth or social security for the communities in which the resources are extracted. Starting with the Jos tin mines in Plateau state, the Enugu coal mines which commenced operations in 1909, the discovery of crude in Oloibiri community in 1955 in present-day Bayelsa state, and recently, gold mining in Zamfara state, host communities have faced the brunt of rapacious exploitation in an environment of lax regulations and laws that are contrived to keep them at a disadvantage.

Mining communities in the country have historically fared very poorly and have had to contend with government, mining corporations and artisanal miners for the protection and fulfillment of their human rights.

The recent tragic events that led to the deaths of over 450 children from lead poisoning in Zamfara state, for instance, brings to stark focus the negative environmental impacts of mining on communities across the country. Till date, more than 2000 children are said to have received treatment for lead poisoning, as a consequence of unregulated gold mining activities in the state. The exact numbers of adults affected have not be ascertained, however, it has been confirmed to have led to higher rates of miscarriages among adult women and impaired livelihoods and health challenges for thousands.

The human rights violations in mining communities are obvious including the right to life, to a healthy environment and violations of their socio-economic rights. The less obvious social impacts of mining which are often ignored, such as increased migration of skilled miners and related services providers which puts pressures on limited amenities, increased social security risks and destruction of culture, are other ways through which the human rights of host communities are potentially abused. The human rights violations occur when government does not does not address the strains these incursions put on the communities or does not fulfill its obligations to citizens in host communities.

With regards to the Zamfara saga, many human rights organizations have argued that the while there are regulations for artisanal mining in the country, not much is done by government to actively regulate these activities. The Nigerian government, they added, was characteristically slow to respond to the Zamfara disaster, coupled with the back and forth trading of blame between the Federal and state governments over whose responsibility it was to respond to the crisis.

The Nigeria Minerals and Mining Act of 2007 vests mining within the exclusive purview of the Federal government, through the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development. However, state governments have a responsibility for the regulation of the environment through the state Mineral Resources Management Committee (MIREMCO). The state MIREMCOs were primarily set up to ensure some level of citizen participation in the governance of natural resources located in their communities. Unfortunately, the various state MIREMCOs have been slow to take up their responsibility and are yet to fulfill the rationale behind their establishment.

In the view of Abiodun Baiyewu, the Country Director of Global Rights in Nigeria, both the Federal and state governments through their agencies have not responded appropriately and adequately to the Zamfara disaster thereby endangering the lives of citizens. “Their failure is not limited to events after the mining disaster, they in the first place allowed the situation to develop by overlooking dangerous practices and failed to take corrective action once they were aware of the danger.”

Rights violation
Baiyewu contends that the violation of the right to life, which is the most fundamental of all human rights, is the most obvious breach in the Zamfara scenario. However, “socio-economic rights such as right to decent work, right to health, right to adequate standards of living, and the right to housing were also violated by the government’s failure to supervise mining in Zamfara state. The presence of children working at mine sites also points to child labour rights violations.”

According to her, it is the constitutional duty of the Nigerian Federal, state and local government to respect, protect and fulfill the human right of the citizens. “Where a government fails to enforce or protect the rights of citizens when they are being violated by private persons or entities, and the government has a duty to act to prevent such violations, then that government has itself breached the rights of citizens through its acquiescence of unlawful actions. Therefore, where government continues to fail in its duty to actively regulate mining, and implement existing mining laws to protect the rights of host communities, it amounts to the violation of their individual and collective rights by government itself,” she added.

Officials of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development are adamant that reports of loss of lives in the vast mining areas of the state have not taken note of the vast amount of remediation work going on in the state, as well as efforts by the administration to effectively organise the small-time miners into cooperatives to ensure efficient supervision and regulation of their activities.

A statement from the Ministry noted that, “The report was based on the illegal mining and inappropriate mineral ore processing methods adopted by local miners in Abare, Dareta, Unguwar Yargalma and some other villages in Zamfara State that led to lead poisoning emergency in the State. The Ministry and other Government agencies as well as some international agencies have made concerted efforts to have the situation brought under control.”

In this regard, it noted, the Ministry had embarked on vigorous sensitization campaign in the state using both the electronic and print media to enlighten the public, especially the rural people in the mining communities of Zamfara State of the inherent dangers associated with inappropriate mineral processing and illegal mining. “In the same vein, the Ministry issued a suspension order on all manners of mining activities in Zamfara State for sometime which helped in the initial containment of the emergency. Similarly, in order to assuage the water needs of the people in the affected communities, the Ministry provided 15 water boreholes that spread across the affected areas,” the statement added.

The Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arc. Mohammed Sada, recently admitted to challenges government is facing in curtailing activities of illegal miners across the country, which was brought into sharp focus some last year with the death of over 300 people, including women and children in Zamfara State. He noted that activities of illegal miners was becoming increasingly rampant, adding that even the entire forces of the Nigeria police would not be able to contain the menace of illegal miners in the country.

Sada pointed out that investigations carried out by his ministry and other officials revealed that the deaths of the villagers in Zamfara State were entirely the handiwork of illegal miners.

According to him, “The issue of illegal miners has become one that is increasingly difficult to contain. This is because of the very difficult terrains in which mining activities are carried out. Some of the locations of the illegal mines are remote and almost inaccessible.

Also, whenever these illegal miners get wind of the presence of the authorities, they easily disappear into thin air leaving the hapless villagers and other locals to bear the brunt of their nefarious activities.”

He added that, “It is important to note that these illegal miners abound everywhere across the country, and it would be practically impossible to attempt to check them all. We can’t stop them from operating, but we can find ways to harness their efforts and create better value for them and the economy at large.”

The Minister explained that the government was doing its best to enhance the education and enlightenment of the mining communities, especially on the dangers involved in the improper handling and processing of crushed rocks from the illegal mining sites. “We are also working with the village heads and traditional chiefs to organize and formalize activities of the miners. We also encourage the artisanal and small scale miners to join co-operatives for effective mobilization as well as ease of access to extension and other support services,” he noted.

Officials of the Ministry explained that they are also providing extension services to the artisanal miners in Zamfara State who have organized themselves into mining cooperatives. The artisanal miners are being exposed to standard best practices in mining operations especially as it applies to gold mining and processing. “The Ministry is collaborating with community leaders, security operatives and the local authorities to ensure that artisanal miners in the State are compelled to adhere to the guidelines as stipulated in the Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act 2007 by formalizing them into mining cooperatives in order to enable them acquire small-scale mining license,” one official in the Ministry told Sweetcrude.

Human rights organisations, however, insist that the Federal government must fulfil its responsibility to promote and protect the rights of citizens in the mining communities in Zamfara as well as in other states of the federation. According to GR, “The Federal has to move in and act more resolutely to prevent the recontamination of the communities and fresh contamination by uniformly remediating the top soil in all communities. There is also need for government to develop a comprehensive environmental and health strategy for artisanal mining, which is presently lacking in the country.”

More importantly, they noted, the Federal government must pass the 2011 Mining Regulations into law through an act of the National Assembly.

Implementation of the regulations, especially as it relates to artisanal mining is also necessary. “The government should regulate and provide safe mining equipment and techniques to artisanal and small scale miners, in addition to immediately developing infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and pipe-borne water to affected communities,” Baiyewu stated.

She added, “The Federal government should mandate state MIREMCOs to develop a strategic community development plan for their states and communities within the purview of mining activities. Government must ensure that extractive activities, including incomes are transparent and must therefore incorporate the principles of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) within the solid minerals industry.”

About the Author

  • Whereas government is designed to exist for the people, in Nigeria the reverse is the case. The people are not in any way central to the attention of the Nigerian government. Indeed that is why there is no protocol in place to safeguard the lives and well being of the people from reckless miners. One really needn’t look to far to appreciate the degree of insensitivity displayed by government to the plight of the people at the receiving end of mineral exploitation activities – Zamfara is indeed a case in point, the communities in the Niger delta impacted by oil spill is yet another. Worst, is the case of the Ogonis and the UNEP Report which government would rather stay silent on, hoping to wish it away. The situation is not helped by those of us who keep quiet in the face of this degree of insensitivity and callousness. What manner of people are we? What manner of government do we run?