ALERT: The sad tales of mines workers in Kebbi State, By Y. Z. Ya’u

#TrackNigeria – I have become used to the fact that the word “sadness” has lost its meeting. Within officialdom, it has ceased to exist. On Thursday last week I came face to face with this reality.

Tungan Zakara (don’t get funny to think it is named after me!) is about 5km off the Birnin Kebbi-Yauri Road in Shanga Local Government of Kebbi State. This sleepy village is on the edge of a large expense of land: plain, unusually flat for this part of the state. This is the youngest gold mining site in the Yauri Emirate. There are two others, namely Makerin and Marrarabar Yauri.  Marrarabar Yauri, otherwise also known as Kampani Waya, is about 15km away from Yauri on the Yauri-Birnin Yauri Highway. Makerin is farther 5KM down the road, closer to Birnin Yauri than to Yauri.

Colonialism has a way of leaving its footprints in its former colonies and did this in a variety of ways. Makerin is one of such footprints. It was the site of mining set up by a white miner called Macrean, started some reportedly about eighty years ago and he has bequeathed his name to the community. Today the settlement has blossomed into a bid town of about 8,000 people. It has a senior secondary school, a junior secondary school and a primary healthcare centre. About 4000 of its inhabitants, earn a living directly in the mining cluster of the town. If you add those engaged along the value chain such as transporters, food sellers, shop owners, etc, you have about 6000 people depending on mining for their means of livelihood

Like Makerin, Kampani Waya also got its name from a certain Mr Whye, another white miner who started mining in the area about 40 years ago (legend has it that when he was given a few hours to leave the country by a government, he and his colleagues dug a deep pit, buried the gold they could not dispose of and blinded the locals so that till date, they have not discovered where the gold lies beneath their houses!). Today the people there prefer to call the settlement Mararrabar Yauri because it is actually a junction settlement, sitting at the take off point of the Zuru road that veered off the Yauri-Birnin Yauri highway. Its mine clusters provide jobs to over 5000 people. Because its gold processing site caters for both Makerin and Mararrabar Yauri, it also holds additional mine workers from the other clusters.

Tungan Zakari, unlike these other clusters, is a camp. Although the village of Tungar Zakara (which gives the site its name) is close to it, mine workers live in and work as well trade and worship in the camp. It is thus an independent settlement of its own but also temporary than the others, with makeshift structures. While in both Makerin and Mararrabar Yauri, miners go to work and return to their homes by 6.30pm, in Tungan Zakara mine workers work and live at the camp, 24 hours a day.  Although it is the younger of the three clusters, it also is the biggest of them, with over 8000 workers.

On average, a miner labourer makes about N4000 per day. When this is read in the context of the exploitative labour relations in the mining settings, a fair share for the labourer would possibly be around N12, 000 per day. The bulk of this is appropriated by people who are called Sponsors, much like slave owners who own the labour of the mine labourers. The Kebbi State Governor has never visited this site, which holds huge deposits of gold. In deed it is probably, the largest deposit in the state. `

If you take my very poor estimation of the workers in these three sites, mining provides jobs for close to 20 thousand people in just Yauri Emirate alone. Zuru has also several gold mining sites. There are also mines in other Emirates of the state.  When all these are tallied, it is probable that close to 100,000 people are living off mining related activities in the state. Apart from the revenue that the state gets, this is thus one of the largest employment sectors in the state.

By the fiat of the Inspector General of Police, sitting cozily in Abuja, on a dreary day in May, just about ten days to Sallah, these over 100,000 mine workers were rendered jobless as the police authorities closed all mines in the state. The excuse given was that mining has been the cause of the violence in Zamfara State and that government did not want it repeated in Kebbi State. The State Government was not even consulted when this order was given. It was only when a delegation of members of the Artisanal Miners Association visited and complained to the State Ministry of Environment that they were led by officials of the ministry to the State Police Commissioner who explained the order to them and a perplexed Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Environment under whose ministry mining is regulated in the state.

It should be noted that there was never any mining related violence or indeed any form of violence in Kebbi State. This is confirmed even by Police accounts (as indeed I interviewed police officers in the mining areas). But the closure of the mines was not just the problem.  In Mararrabar Yauri, the police destroyed shelters, reservoirs, washing tanks, equipment and other facilities at the washing, crushing and processing site.  These were huge investment by the artisanal miners for which no government had assisted them to acquire.

Worse however is what happened at Tungan Zakara. Here, people lived in the camp as they also work and carry out trade and commerce. The police moved in and razed the place to the ground. Not just equipment of miners, even personal effects like clothing, shoes, were also burnt. It was a callous display of sadism. Because unlike Mararrabar Yauri and Makerin, the workers here came from different communities in the state, many of them are trapped as they do not even have the money to leave the place. They live and sleep in the open field today, many of them stranded. On this Thursday I met a number of them picking leaves on which to survive. When the Chairman of the Mararrabar Yauri Miners Association asked one of them whether he was picking it for his rabbits, his answer was straight: he was the rabbit!

That day I listened to mine workers in all these places lamenting about their fate. I listened to community leaders complaining about the problem that has befallen their communities. I heard the restless voices of young people who have felt let down by the government. The day after as I was reflecting on what do with my notes, 17 of the miners who were caught with implements going home appeared in a Kebbi Federal High Court, charged with mining when an order had been given against any mining activity. Nothing was found on them, but they have been languishing in detention for more than 30 days.

I went around these mines, entering many pits, and engaging several mine labourers who have lost out. As I speak to elders in Mararraba Yauri, they complain that theft of goats and chickens which they were never an issue in their communities are becoming daily occurrences since the closure of the mines. Even mine sponsors said they were afraid to come out as they have no money to give to the people they had been sponsoring and have no money to repay their creditors.

In all these, neither the elected representatives of the people (whether in Abuja or in Birnin Kebbi) nor the State Governor are talking about this dangerous development. About hundred thousand people out of job in a context of already existing high youth unemployment is a serious problem. And not a word from the political leadership of the state!

Today, the youth could steal goats and chickens to survive. Already many children have been withdrawn from schools because parents can no longer afford to pay for fees and other charges. Even the headmaster at Mararrabar yauri Primary School complains that the support they were getting from the community had drained and now they are facing serious challenges running the school. Farms have been left fallow because it was mine proceeds that had been financing farming.

Government and police are creating a similar situation that snowballed to the violence that we see in Zamfara State today. There is peace today in Kebbi State but gradually when the goats and chickens are exhausted, many of those youth, if they do not get back their jobs, they will begin to look for other things to steal. They may begin to break into houses and from there block roads (as indeed has started to happen along the Mararrabar Yauwi -Zuru Road) and before you know it, there will be generalized violence and then we will have harvested another Zamfara.

I was told of a story: the convoy of the State Governor ran into a track full of granites (it is probably some precious stones) that had been mined illegally by a Chinese company.  The Governor ordered the track and its load be arrested and detained in Kebbi. After some negotiation the vehicle was released but the content had been dumped at the State Ministry of Environment. That is the much the Governor knows about mining in his state, a state richly endowed with minerals that it can do away with revenue from oil. Sad.

I admit there is sadness in this story, but sadly government seems to know nothing about it or is not interested in addressing it or it is waiting for the violence to occur and then the war economy will peak and profiteers of violence will then live off such dangerous adventure. Let all who have conscience shout to the ears of Government, that we will not accept the making of Zamfara in Kebbi!

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