13 Dec 2023

Mining and extractives / Illegal mining by Chinese actors complicates Nigeria’s criminal landscape

In a country dealing with diverse forms of criminality, foreign criminals in the extractive sector present a serious challenge.

Nigeria’s mining sector is diverse in mineral resources that make a significant contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product. The country is endowed with an estimated US $700 billion in commercially viable minerals with the capacity to diversify its revenue sources and boost foreign exchange earnings. Its minerals include barite, bitumen, iron ore, lead, zinc, coal, limestone and gold.

However, the mining sector is faced with multiple challenges and its current poor performance can be attributed to various factors including opaque extraction, insecurity and organised crime.

Nigeria’s natural resources have been exploited by foreign criminals for decades, and the extractive sector is the most recent target. Since early 2020, several Chinese nationals have been arrested in Nigeria for their involvement in illegal mining.

In April 2020, the Nigeria Police Force in Zamfara State arrested two Chinese nationals for allegedly engaging in illegal mining in Bukkuyum local government, where the federal government had banned all mining activities to curb killings by armed bandits. In September 2022, a Chinese national was arrested by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) operatives in Ilorin, Kwara State, in possession of a truckload of minerals suspected to be lepidolite.

In July 2023, the EFCC arrested 13 more Chinese nationals for allegedly engaging in illegal mining activities. In August 2023, the Akwa Ibom State Government closed down an illegal mining company operated by Chinese nationals for the firm’s inability to provide authorisation documents for titanium ore mining in Ibeno community.

Nigeria’s mining sector is diverse in mineral resources that make a significant contribution to its gross domestic product

Over the years, policy inconsistencies relating to the extractive sector have created disorder across mining sites and activities. This lack of comprehensive legislation has facilitated the presence of illegal miners. Their activities are characterised by inefficient manual mining techniques, illegal trading of highly priced minerals, severe ecological degradation, spread of diseases and huge loss of revenue for the government through smuggling. This has opened the door for foreign organised criminals to further exploit illicit minerals trade across the country.

Most recently, foreign criminals have focused on gold mining. In the banditry-affected communities of Nigeria’s north-west and central areas, loose criminal networks engaging in illegal gold mining have ties to foreign actors and facilitate trafficking flows. Most criminal markets for gold in the country are driven by foreign demand but are propped up by local actors.

Foreign criminal networks operate similarly to local actors in illegal mining, and have repositioned their activities in the criminal value chain through direct involvement in illicit gold mining in remote villages and forests.

ENACT spoke to various security and law enforcement officials on condition of anonymity. A senior police officer in Zamfara State in north-west Nigeria said the incursion of foreign criminals into the gold mining sector was happening because ‘our mining sector has not been accorded much priority by the nation’s security actors until recently when illegal mining was linked to rural banditry’ in the country.

‘Most of the mining activities are being done by illegal miners because mining sites have been neglected by regulators and security agents. Chinese and other foreigners too are taking advantage of this prolonged neglect by the nation’s mining regulators and security agents. It’s also the reason why bandits are attracted to the sector.’

Government must accord the same level of importance to solid minerals as it does to oil and gas exploration

Echoing this, an Independent Corrupt Practices Commission senior official said the problem was driven by ‘endemic corruption, opaque mining regulations, poverty among the residents of the host communities of mining sites and the readiness of Chinese actors irrespective of where they operate to corrupt the system with foreign funds [to] fuel illegal mining activities and its attendant security breaches. They are always ready to compromise the mining regulatory agencies and the local citizens.’

The situation is exacerbated by an inadequate visa approval process, driven by incompetence and corruption. Nigerian immigration authorities continue to issue tourist visas to Chinese workers, despite this group of people regularly staying to work in Nigeria beyond the visa expiration date.

In March 2022, the Nigeria Immigration Service in Niger State arrested over 200 Chinese workers who had reportedly travelled to Nigeria with tourist visas and continued to stay after their travel permits expired. ENACT found that this phenomenon was sustained by cumbersome visa approval processes by Nigerian authorities and outright violations of travel permits issued for Chinese workers by Nigeria.

In a country currently contending with diverse forms of criminality, this emerging layer of foreign criminals in the extractive sector presents a serious security challenge. The country’s government must accord the same level of importance to solid minerals as it does to oil and gas exploration. Solid minerals are some of the country’s most critical national assets and should be guarded through a coordinated security response.

If allowed to continue, foreign criminals could funnel illicit financing to armed or terror groups for greater access to minerals. This is particularly so in light of a recent ENACT study that links illicit gold mining in Zamfara to protracted banditry in the country’s north-west.

Cooperation with China to address transnational illegal mining operations and trading of minerals is important

Security and law enforcement agents must prioritise putting the extractive sector on their security radar. It must be closely monitored by security operatives, including the military, police and Nigeria’s Security and Civil Defence Corps.

A senior Abuja-based police officer told ENACT that inter-agency collaboration was needed to identify, arrest and prosecute foreign criminals in the extractive sector. Here collaboration with immigration authorities is crucial to stop this criminality at its source. Foreign miners must be properly documented and either granted legal status or deported, depending on their circumstances.

Illegal foreign miners may be part of larger criminal networks. Thus, cooperation with China to address transnational illegal mining operations and mineral trading is essential. In some cases, the federal government could enact or amend laws and regulations to address illegal mining and strengthen penalties.

Lastly, public awareness and education are essential. Sensitising local communities about the negative social, environmental and security impacts of illegal mining and encouraging them to report suspicious activities could be part of the strategy.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, Central Africa, and Freedom Onuoha, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Coordinator Security, Violence and Conflict Research Group, University of Nigeria

Image: The Gaurdian (Nigeria)


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