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Ebonyi solid minerals: Poverty in sea of wealth

Posted by By IKENNA EMEWU on 2008/02/12 | Views: 1485 |

Ebonyi solid minerals: Poverty in sea of wealth

Billions of naira in ores, precious stones, sands and others leave Ebonyi State every year to feather the nest of the federal government. A pittance of it is accruable to the natives via their pilfering of the resources that ordinarily should be theirs as they are embedded underneath their soil.

Billions of naira in ores, precious stones, sands and others leave Ebonyi State every year to feather the nest of the federal government. A pittance of it is accruable to the natives via their pilfering of the resources that ordinarily should be theirs as they are embedded underneath their soil. But the state seems to have nothing to show for the enormous wealth it affords the nation.

Ebonyi does not look better placed than other states that cannot boast of any natural resources in their domain. That lopsidedness is the situation created by Nigerian laws over the provision on who has powers to tap natural resources in the nation.
The state Special Adviser on Solid Minerals Development, Dr. Ifeanyi Ikeh cannot say for sure whether the 13 percent derivation proceeds provided for in the statutes comes to the state at the end of the month.

The federal government of Nigeria rather than solve the problem of the Niger Delta caused by deprivation of local communities to the benefit of the government is busy creating problems in areas where none existed earlier to tap mineral resources. This time, it is the solid mineral bearing areas. What is happening in Ebonyi State as found out by Saturday Sun is an eye opener to what exactly the FG does with crisis management and mitigation. Otherwise, we would have learnt a lesson from Niger Delta and adopted a different approach to the implementation of the laws that empower the FG to own and issue rights to tap minerals.

December last year the Minister for Solid Minerals, Mr. Ishola Sarafa visited Ebonyi State and told the people pointblank that the law says the minerals belong to the federal government and nothing could be done about it. It never concerned him how to remake the laws as the minister so that the communities whose lands hold mineral deposits would be less restive and maybe government will have less tension to take care of.

Saturday Sun’s trip to most parts of Ebonyi to know the pains the local communities suffer revealed so much. Funny enough, it was discovered that the state government is also a victim of the FG’s law to remain in control of all mineral deposits anywhere they are found within the terrestrial coverage of the nation.

As the FG takes the benefits of solid mineral extraction by issuing licences to extractors in Abuja, the state government bears the pains of settling the fights that ensue between extractor companies in circumstances of multiple issuance, and on the other hand between host communities who can’t agree on sharing formula of the petty windfall from the table of the Abuja-powered companies. At some other times, the fight to settle arises between the host community and the extractors.
But the FG watches it all askance and from a very safe distance, having collected its money upfront.
From a year to another, the ministry that issues empowerment to companies to extract never comes around the mineral fields to know how work goes on and what impacts the environment and people suffer.

Destroyer agents
As Saturday Sun visited Enyigba, one of the towns where mineral extraction is on, we heard another type of story from the villagers who bemoaned how the federal government sometime in December after the visit of the minister to the state brought in earth moving machines and commenced refilling of the several mining sites and pits that dot the entire surface of the remote and dormant settlement that has lead, silver and kaolin underneath.

Enyigba is dry like the bones Ezekiel saw. There is poverty, dejection and helplessness inscribed all over the terrain. The houses look awful. The residents looked rusty and decrepit at the mercy of the strong harmattan gale that blew over the land without mercy. The children looked like they were rolled in dust, with all manner of pieces of clothes hanging loose on their shoulders. The elders were few with the sparse settlement not helping matters. But the slim population holding not withstanding, the common thing in this town is acute scarcity of water.

Although it is a location in eastern Nigeria, the outlook of the area makes one feel he is somewhere between Gejiram and Monguno in Borno State. But the little difference is extent of vegetation cover – which is a little more towards sahel than guinea savannah. While Borno is swept bare of vegetation, Enyigba wears a scanty grassland outlook. Water is nowhere around and residents walk long distances to manual-operated boreholes sank by the government where they work the wheels to drop water in vessels. But providence somehow smiled on the people of Enyigba when in the process of chipping out lead, silver, kaolin and marble from the bowel of the earth, they got too deep – likely 40 feet to hit water level.

Maybe, that is not the permanent saturation layer, but water seeps out and forms enough pool for the need of the people. They thanked their stars for being saved the agony of long walk for water. At least, they can rush down to a spot and fill their pots. The children who look like they bath once in a week would have looked cleaner and the village happier. But the FG said enough to such beneficial serendipity. After Sarafa’s visit, the order was ‘fill the mineral pits, they are illegal mines. Let the miners – in the circumstances poverty-stricken villagers come to Abuja for discussion on licence procurement’. In the process that water pit in Enyigba, the rare gold they found by chance is gone.

They woke up the morning after the loud command to find their source of water supply had developed wings. No place to go. Anarchy came. Crisis of water, that substance that sustains life, which even the government promises to make available to the people was back and real. As these happen, Abuja still rolls in the big man’s barber chair waiting for natives already acculturated to penury to find their way to Abuja and apply for licences to mine minerals in their land.

They robbed us
The villagers are scared stiff that the presence of any stranger drives them mad. They were up in arms in sighting Saturday Sun making attempts to take shots of the high mounds of earth scooped out of the old pits since 1960s. The protest was loud and unrelenting. They wanted to know who this ‘government agent’ is this time and why he should be there. One automatically was another enemy from the government to compound their problems. ‘Oga you can’t take any photo here because we know after you must have left, we will hear stories of government coming back to reclaim the land and drive us out of the pits. We make our living here because we can’t wait for the government to feed us. Sometime last month, the minister visited, and the following day, the pits were refilled and our source of water supply was gone’.

That was the argument of a miner who identified himself as Sanaco, his company name. The melee got to bad that a youth who thought himself a custodian of the interest of the people resorted to name-calling to give impact to his claims. Don’t make any mention of taking photo of the miners. That is just a taboo. Their reason – they don’t want government to see their faces and know who to take on. They were about ten mine workers, excluding a child of about five years who very likely was there to keep her dad company. After the argument and a convincing answer of the need to take the photos, the group became friendly and after discussion, the miner who came with his little girl expressed his hospitality by offering the reporter four tubers of yam.

Easier displayed
When you pay a visit to the office of the Special Adviser on Solid Minerals and see a collection of samples of various minerals on his vast desk that looks like a Geology lab, you would think that is how they lay on provenance. That is far from reality. At the site in Enyigba, Ameri and in other locations, apart from the massive granite extraction Julius Berger is carrying out at Akpoha, a location about 50km away from Abakaliki, on the road to Afikpo, the work of extraction is tedious and dangerous.
A visit to the mines was a reminder of how hard it is for a man not equipped with technology can only make a living the hard way.

It is a random search and indiscriminate excavation for the elusive deposits.
“Sometimes, we get the lead or silver at the top stratum or not too deep from the surface, but at other times, we dig as deep as you have seen where we even encounter water before the mineral is found”. While the dig is on, the miners encounter some finds of kaolin, marble and other things that serve as compensation. But the marble comes in various qualities like every mineral deposit, including crude oil or coal. The immature or impure marble in deep grey colour does not survive the vagaries of weather. At the impact of sun and rain, it turns a spongy mass that crumbles into tiny broomstick-like pieces on impact. But the mature marble is as hard as granite, deeper in colour and used for construction. That is what makes the bulk of the diggers’ earnings. They lack technology to aid their search and direct it to target. But the Special Adviser to the State governor on Solid Minerals, Dr. Ikeh, a biologist explained that Chinese and Canadian firms visited the state with equipment that detects where the minerals they need are. No random search, and yet the find is bigger and more rewarding.

But at Enyigba, Inyima-Agu, Ishielu, Nkalagu and Abakaliki metropolis where thousands of little mounds of granite dot the space, the natives have traversed depths and gone as low as 40 feet in wild search. The space covered is already very wide and huge mountains of dug earth keep piling. In this arduous task, the man who heads the team of local miners in Enyigba and the younger folks toil all day in the sun. In Abakaliki the workers bath themselves in white powder that covers them from head to toe. The dust arises from the crushing of granite in their little machines. The job of deep digs is dangerous as the high walls of earth can collapse without notice and bury miners alive. Under this condition, the miners eke out living pricking and thrashing the earth to drop its age-long possession for their survival.

Granite massacre
In Akpoha, just by the Abakaliki-Afikpo highway, the giant Julius Berger has truck solid grey gold.
Geologic forces hundreds of millions of years ago formed this mass of hard stones laid orderly and artfully into long bedding planes and vast mats. JB saw wealth when it spotted the exposed parts of these massive stone plates few years back.
It went back home and mobilized its heavy machines and marshaled them to crack open and unfix this nature’s compact embankment. Today, the machines roll and eat their steel teeth into the hard crusts to pull loose the layers. The heavy lumps that emerge are later plopped up into the jaws of crushing machines that chew them into bits of various sizes from where the waiting 40-feet trucks – in their tens at any time load them off to construction sites all over southern Nigeria. That is the latest solid mineral onslaught in Ebonyi, the state that has more than enough in its soil.

By the roadside at the place they dig, there are over 30 long haulage trucks waiting to load granite. The loading is endless as Berger’s bulldozers and crushing machines reduce the heavy lumps of grey hard stones to sizes according to varying needs. Off the granites go to all parts of eastern and southern Nigeria, as far as Port Harcourt, Asaba, Aba and Enugu as the company names inscribed on the trucks suggest.

At Ezza Inyimagu, in Izzi, another part of the state, there is heavy granite mining by two companies – Prick Uche and Trade Afric where 100s of trucks of granite are moved from site everyday.
The villagers have been settled according to our findings. But the minister bars the state or local government from collecting tolls form the trucks that load granite. Trouble is already building over who gets what from the windfall. Whenever it becomes a crisis, like it does always, the Ebonyi State government will still play the Daniel and make peace while the beneficiary FG remains in Abuja and promises them 13 percent derivation returns. But Dr. Ikeh does not know, neither does it come to the notice of his office if any 13 percent derivation was ever paid the state. Therefore, he wants the laws reviewed.

Heritage of crisis
Everywhere you go where there is solid mineral in Ebonyi already being extracted there are problems that go with the work.
Sometime in the past two years, the people of Azu Inyaba where extraction of limestone was going on had an unwanted visitor, Ibeto Cement Limited, who came to the town and installed a multi-million naira plant to tap the limestone there for the cement plant. Before the company could settle down for the business, the hosts were up in arms as a result of divisions. Some felt shortchanged and they wanted their share of the cake. Before the company would know what was at stake, the aggrieved party had mobilized and a mob burnt the plant. That was before it could be put to use. It took the intervention of the former governor, Dr. Sam Egwu to get the company another spot in another town for its business, maybe with another machine. But Abuja was out of this having taken its licence fee and other benefits.

At another time, Abuja gave two firms – Jidech Mining and Zuison Merchants and Supply Limited licences to tap the same mineral at the same spot. While the two reported at site, trouble became the rule. They had to tap into each other rather than the mineral for some grievous length of time before intervention came from the same state government. The state House of Assembly waded in, investigated the matter and issued white paper on the crisis. All Abuja did was to say who got the title deed first. And the other had to leave site, yet not without the pains.

When another mining firm known as Paul B came to Amofia at the Umusoke community, it settled the villagers with about N11m before it began its business, and nothing came to the state government, yet it took the burden of quelling trouble in the region when disagreement arose.
At Ishiagu, the town of ex-Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim, it was a bloody fair. The people accused each other in 2005 of shortchange and cheating. They could not handle the matter low. Explosion occurred among brothers and a man had his pregnant wife hacked to death by opposition body. The casualty list was high. State government intervened and settled the matter with some costs incurred. The white paper from the panel that looked into the matter has just been released.
Akpoha, the latest extraction bloc is already warming up to the ritual as some are already alleging more water than declared is already passing under the bridge.

More interest
Dr. Ikeh, the governor’s solid minerals adviser has been familiar with the facts of the solid minerals deposits of Ebonyi State. He started with the former governor and is still there. Ike informed Saturday Sun that from the list in his office, there are 25 solid mineral deposits available in the state scattered in every LGA, with crude oil in Edda.
While the prospecting of most of them has been a very big attraction to even foreign companies from USA, China and Canada, some of them on getting to site spotted other minerals not yet known. These include barite and phosphate in two councils. Tall Capital, a prospecting company from Canada and USA discovered halide, barite, gabbros, quartz and silver in some other locations. The foreign firms have come with sophisticated geophysical prospecting equipment that locates the mineral and all the details about them including quantity.

For a fair deal
Ikeh complains that the state government does not feel comfortable with the arrangement that makes the state a mere passive adjunct to a resource within its domain. “While the FG takes the benefits of the minerals being tapped here by issuing licences and returns from the mining companies, we handle the management of the trouble that arises. Julius Berger as an instance is destroying roads in the state with the heavy trucks that do the mining and the hundreds that load the granite. The state government is not even paid any toll by the trucks, but is only promised 13 percent derivation that should come with the federal revenue. I think what we need is a review of the laws that empower the FG to own the minerals here while the state owns the trouble. The people should have what is in their area for their development. It would be proper to prospect the minerals and pay the FG tax to reduce overdependence of the states on federal allocations for survival. I think the federal lawmakers of the state will do us a great service to initiate bills for the review of the minerals law at the Senate and House of Representatives”.

Poverty fight
To give more impetus to more participation of the local people in the tapping of their resources, Ikeh noted that the government is galvanizing the local miners who Sarafa called illegal miners into a co-operative society that would register with the FG and carry out mining unhindered. “The government wants them in co-operative societies because having them out of work is aggravation of poverty which is inconsistent with government policy to eradicate poverty. We need to do that because it is a way of fighting crime to ensure people have means of livelihood”.
But ironically, the state governor, Chief Martin Elechi thinks otherwise about the solid minerals. He wants them tapped, developed and the resources properly distributed, but he has other things occupying his mind now.
The seasoned technocrat and now state chief executive officer feels there are two more pressing needs in the state – attitude and infrastructure. He says he would rather fix those two before he channels his efforts to the solid mineral matter at the appropriate time.

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.