Nigeria Digging for Gold With no Lessons Learnt, By Tosin Abdulsalam

We all at least know one person who seems not to have the ability to follow through with a single project in all the years we have known them. Sometimes, it is about their inability to sit down with one business and make success out of it. For some, it is about lacking the ability to date a partner enough to make something tangible out of it. We have all seen people like that. The interesting thing about those people is that they always have two distinct characters: First, they obviously do not take the time to learn anything from their previous failed mission and that is why they end up making the same mistakes again and then jump onto another thing. The second obvious trait is that they always don’t internalise their processes, they are always looking for the next ‘juicy-sounding’ thing and they are quick on the bandwagon. When I look at Nigeria and the way it is run, it really is reminiscent of the person I described above.

As far back as 1903 when the Nigerian Bitumen Corporation started exploratory work in the country, Nigeria has been a big baby who had found it so difficult to get weaned off the extractive industry’s milk. We even got more addicted to this way of life when the Shell BP discovered oil in Oloibiri in 1958. We threw away everything we had and latched onto oil so tight. Of course, like every new thing, there was the huge windfall that came with major oil companies in the world drilling on Nigerian soil. It was so great on the macroeconomic scale that we had a textbook case of Corden-Neary’s Dutch Disease, evident by the unnecessarily high exchange rate of naira to, for example, the US dollars. But of course, with every single commodity economy (that we had turned Nigeria to because of the discovery of oil), the bubble must burst and yes it did! And oh boy, it really burst!! We have been trying to handle the major damage those decisions from the early 1970s have done to the health of the nation’s economy. Instead of the country to have a robust, well-thought-out plan on how to reverse the damage done in the past and most importantly to stick to it, we have been acting like the person I described in the introductory paragraph. We just look for the next big thing and jump at it. It is even more interesting to us, if the ship is sailing towards us from the West. Mind you, the sailor has to be white as snow or at least, has stayed so long in the snow that they are losing their gene for melanin production.

Recent stories in the news show that the Nigerian government is, all of a sudden, focusing on gold. This is not surprising, as the price of crude oil (our only cash cow) has been down in the trenches in recent months. The impact of COVID-19 on the global demand of crude oil has also done its bit on bashing the global crude oil price. The government in its signatory ADHD has recently decided that it wants to boost our nation’s reserve in gold instead of the dollar that we hitherto used. The government also announced that it is planning to open gold refineries across the country and develop the gold refining industry in Nigeria.

As beautiful as this sounds from the face value, every bit of the plan shows how much Nigeria has learnt nothing from its six decades’ painful journey with crude oil. From the opening, why are we interested in another massive extractive industry when we are still battling with the environmental disasters we incurred from the oil industry (our last massive extractive)? The gory images of the heavily contaminated rivers and creek in Ogoni, the soot-filled air in Port Harcourt and the heavily armoured rebels in the Niger Delta creeks are all indicators of how bad our last extractive endeavour turned out to be. Why do we want to take that path again? The obvious answer will be that it is for the economic gain for the country. I beg to disagree with that! As we have learnt from the oil industry, the gold mining activity in the country will only benefit a very little few and will employ a minutesimally small fraction of the population. In fact, the value chain for gold in Nigeria is way worse than that of oil. We have little or no industries that utilise the extracted gold in Nigeria. So, as with many resources in Africa, we will simply dig out the gold from Nigeria’s soil and send it to big jewellery makers in the world to use. Therefore, all value created will be restricted to digging the soil and removing the gold, and maybe a little cleaning. We will create many Niger Delta-like problems all across the country and the only value the country will get from it is to be able to pay some diggers and polishers and of course, make already rich friends and actors in government even richer.

Back to the environment. Digging out such metals obviously will let out many other harmful metals that are hazardous to us humans, to animals, plants and the entire ecosystem. The 2010 Zamfara lead poisoning incident is still fresh in memories. Reports as recent as 2017 reported 92% prevalence of blood lead poisoning in children from some villages in Zamfara State. If the way we have been handling the control of oil spillage in Nigeria is anything to go by, we will all agree that using better technology for mining in comparison to the crude methods that have been used in mining in Nigeria will not reduce the environmental hazard. I am not a prophet, but I will prophesy that the introduction of better equipment will only increase the volume of contaminants in our environment, as the miners will have the equipment to dig more volumes.

On the Central Bank of Nigeria’s noble idea of changing the instrument in the nation’s reserve to gold instead of the Petro dollars, I am not an economist and I will not even pretend to be one, but I obviously have my reservations. The end as they say, will justify the means.

In conclusion, what the Nigerian government needs is a well-thought-out robust plan and to stick to it. We have been doing this dance with different policies and ideas for too long and any sane person knows that it does not work. For gold mining, there are many things to be put into place before we start jamborees of opening refineries. For example, I have always proposed heavy vegetation plantation belts around proposed mining sites. I have suggested non-food, industry relevant plants like bamboo around such mining sites. The plant will be a buffer zone, aiding phytoremediation and phytostabilisation of heavy metals released during mining process. On producing gold, the Yoruba have a proverb that says: “The food that the head of the house does not eat, the mother of the house does not cook”. I see it as foolhardy that we are willing to invest lots of money, time and resources into gold when we have no single modern jeweller in the country. I would have thought the government would already build a value chain that makes sure there is an impressive local demand for the gold before we start banalising our environment. But of course, we are not known for that. Some guy with big grammar who had schooled somewhere in the West must have told our politicians about how many dollars could be made if we start selling our gold in the foreign market and of course, nothing makes our politicians dance like dollars and euros. Now, they are dancing Atilogwu all over the media and evangelising the testament of gold. O di gba!!

About the Author: Tosin Abdulsalam is a scientific researcher at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, he has vested interest in the science and impact of functional environments. He also regularly presents on Africa’s development.

Source: Punch

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