Coal was first discovered in Nigeria in 1909 at Udi in Enugu, south-eastern Nigeria. The country’s first coal mine, the Ogbete mine, opened six years later. The Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC) was formed in 1950, taking on operations of Ogbete and other major coal mines across the country.
Coal was one of Nigeria’s primary exports for much of the 20th century. However, significant changes in the Nigerian energy market increased the utilization of petroleum as a fuel source. Further disruption to the coal industry due to the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967 and the Nigerian Enterprise Promotion Decree in 1972, which sought to transfer business ownership to Nigerians, contributed to significant declines in foreign investment and many foreign mining companies left the country.
The Nigerian Coal Corporation eventually went bankrupt in 2002, leaving many of its mines abandoned without proper closure. The country has considerable remaining coal reserves. Production has dwindled over the past 20 years, hitting a record low of 40,000 metric tonnes in 2012. Olajide Adelana reports.
Abandoned coal mines: Enugu’s charred past hurting its present
Enugu – A once-forested valley sits silent as a graveyard. The scars left by heavy machinery on the swaths of forest are still evident, with chunks of coal waste littering the ground. Once seething like a beehive, the now abandoned Onyeama Coal Mine in the southeastern Nigerian city of Enugu, has become a shadow of itself. The coal mine is one of Nigeria’s derelict coal fields which was closed in 2002 when the Nigerian Coal Corporation went bankrupt. Now the area is mostly farmland.
But the land is not fertile.
Sunday Okeke, a farmer, walks along one of the narrow paths into the mine looking very upset. The maize he planted sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope for a moment –until the stalks started wilting. Unemployed and with dim prospects of getting a job, Okeke and some residents of Onyeama, who once worked in the mine resorted to farming to feed their families. This decision was their undoing as they rarely make a profit.
“The land is not very fertile. I only plant vegetables and some crops that are not deep-rooted, because they do not require as much nutrients and fertilizers,” he says. “I tried planting maize and I am disappointed at the outcome.”
Many farmers in the areas are unaware that mining activities in their community years ago removed the topsoil, which contains much of the moisture and nutrients that crops need. They end up spending money on fertilizers, which reduces their profit. The Onyeama mine also polluted the water used for farming and household use. Bright-orange runoff from tunnels at the abandoned mine drains into local water sources.
Communities across Nigeria face danger and pollution from abandoned mines
As of 2017, Nigeria had an estimated 1,200 identified abandoned mining sites—sites where mining activities ceased without proper closure or reclamation and continue to degrade the environment and pose physical dangers in the form of weakened and collapsing mine shafts, sinkholes, and water-filled pits.
The 2007 Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act, requires “progressive reclamation” – reclamation activities carried out simultaneously with mining operations – in newly approved industrial mining projects. The act also calls for mining companies to establish a reserve fund for environmental protection, mine rehabilitation, reclamation, and closure costs. Although most of the now-abandoned mines in Nigeria, including in Enugu, predate the 2007 legislation, there have been few material changes in practice since the act was passed.
Section 30 of the Act stressed that, “a tax deductible reserve for environmental protection, mine rehabilitation, reclamation and mine closure costs shall be established by companies engaged in the exploitation of mineral resources.”
Reclamation includes filling depressions or hollows with soil or rock removed during excavation and planting trees to stabilize and restore the mined area. Best practices also include repairing wildlife habitats; removing office buildings, processing facilities, and transportation equipment; and sealing mine shafts and other openings.
In Akwuke community, Enugu South Local Government Area (LGA), Enugu state, close to Okpara Mine, there is a complete collapse of mining infrastructure years after mining activities had taken place. The mining site was abandoned by the operators without efforts to address impacts on the community, residents alleged.
“Except for those who were employed when the coal mine was still active, there is no tangible benefit our community has gained from mining,” says youth community leader Sunday Nsude, pointing to an untarred road that has deteriorated due to flooding and poor maintenance.
Simon Ude, a resident, who worked as a security guard at the mine from 1996 and 2006, says he was laid off after the mine closed and given no severance pay.
“I was not compensated and I am not the only one. I have a friend whose years of service was just 9 years and 9 months and he was also laid off without pay.” Nigerian labour laws require compensation for laid-off employees based on the length of their employment.
“I had to restart my life from scratch. I started a firewood business, but the income is insufficient to take care of my family’s needs,” Ude says with a tinge of regret.
Since the Onyeama, Iva Valley, Ribadu, Okpara and Ogbete Mines (all located in Enugu) were abandoned, locals have had to contend with varying degrees of environmental and physical hazards.
Mike Achio, who once worked in the Onyeama Coal Mine and now heads a community-led security team, says that the abandoned mine is now a hideout for criminals.
“We regularly contend with criminal elements who have mastered the art of coming into the community to inflict pain on residents and escape through the abandoned mine,” he says. “Recently, we arrested some people at night peddling hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin, in the community.”
Achio, pointed out that respiratory diseases —including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease —are also common among miners, due to long-term exposure to airborne coal dust.
“Although I am lucky and have no issues with my health, many of my colleagues are not,” says Achio. “They are battling with different health problems such as chest pains and breathing problems. The majority of them were left to bear the consequences of long years of working at the mine without any help.”
Dr Onwubere Basden Jones, a medical expert specialising in cardiovascular and congestive heart diseases, says that elderly people in mining communities are likely to have co-morbidities associated with mining.
“Years back when mining was still actively going on in these communities, there was an upsurge in the number of patients seeking medical attention for different diseases, including respiratory diseases,” he says.
A city on the verge of collapse
Communities along the mining corridors in Enugu are also facing a range of environmental challenges, including flooding and landslides and significant erosion. Residents of Enugu-Ngwo, Amuzam, Agbaja Ngwo, and Nsude said that houses and properties have been washed away by gully erosion caused by heavy rains and landslides.
Despite these challenges, little research has been conducted on the impact of these abandoned mines on the environment.
“A lot of people do not know the extent of the damage mining did to Enugu,” says Chinedu Nwafor, executive director of the Africa for Africa Initiative. He adds a warning about the state’s capital city of Enugu: The city is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If nothing is done, Enugu might collapse. “I don’t know why the government is yet to see this as an emergency.”
In particular, the network of underground mining tunnels in Enugu is poorly mapped so no one knows their full extent or how it may be exacerbating flooding and erosion issues. The local media have reported that the area is at risk of cave-ins. “Sometimes in the city you will notice a lot of earth movements and the land will collapse inward. This shows that that place is empty below,” says Nwafor.
Local sources including former miners estimate that the underground tunnels from Onyeama and Ribadu mines lead to Nsude (18 miles) and Abor (12 miles) respectively.
Lack of government action
State and federal officials have paid some lip service to the impacts of abandoned mines on human health and the environment but have made little effort to address them. Ayodeji Adeyemi, a special adviser to the minister of mines and steel development, did not respond to requests for comment, despite promising on several occasions to forward queries to the appropriate desk and provide a response.
Senator Ike Ekweremadu, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and one of the three senators representing Enugu State in the National Assembly did not respond to multiple emails. His assistant, Mr Uche Anuchukwu, acknowledged receipt of the inquiries made but did not reply.
Enugu state’s Environment and Mineral Resources commissioner, Mr Chijioke Edeoga denied knowledge of any challenges posed by abandoned mines in his state. He maintains that his office has never received an official complaint about the matter.
“I am not aware. There is no official complaint from these communities to my office. “The state government cannot be blamed, as the mining sector is under the federal government. They (federal government) should be the one to put things in order.”
The federal government is undertaking some interventions to mitigate the impacts of abandoned mines in Enugu State as part of the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP), but experts say that an expansive and thorough environmental audit needs to be conducted across the entire mining corridor in Enugu to inform strategies for long-term, sustainable solutions.
“Any palliative or reclamation done without a comprehensive environmental audit to ascertain the level of devastation and the funding required to remedy it is unlikely to be a sustainable solution,” says Nwafor. “It is superficial and amounts to poor utilization of funds.”
Residents consider the government’s efforts to be merely cosmetic. A resident of Enugu- Ngwo, who identified himself as Chinedu acknowledged the efforts but said more funding and commitment are needed given the number of affected sites.
Nigeria’s Small-Scale Mines Leaves A Legacy Of Ruin In Ebonyi, Enugu, Plateau, Nasarawa, Others
Nigeria also has many artisanal and small-scale mines that provide a livelihood for thousands of people, most of them mining gold, gemstones, and cassiterite (a tin oxide mineral). This segment of the extractives industry employs an estimated 400,000 and 500,000 people and currently accounts for more than 90% of solid mineral extraction in the country.
However, this activity is poorly regulated by the government. Most miners operate outside the formal regulatory regime, without licenses or permits. As a result, communities suffer from environmental degradation and negative health consequences. These mining sites are rarely properly closed or remediated, creating hazards for communities long after miners have moved on.
In Ebonyi state, the landscape is punctuated with pockets of abandoned mining pits. Two kids while away time in one of them near the town of Ihotor-Ameka, singing as they run in circles and then collapse on a heap on the muddy soil, giggling.
Okeh Gloria, a resident, recalls the day in 2019 when her third child, 2-year-old Sylvanus, was in pain and fighting for his life. His eyes had rolled back in his head, his mouth closed. His muscles tightened and he struggled to breathe. Gloria and her husband were distraught.
Jittery, Gloria squeezed his jaws open and poured palm oil down his throat. She had seen many others in the community use this remedy and thought it might help. But Sylvanus’s condition only worsened.
“I cried and prayed when I saw him convulsing. I could not believe what I was seeing,” says Gloria. Sylvanus was later rushed to hospital, where he stayed for six days before he regained consciousness and began his journey to recovery. The family had to pay N50,000 for his treatment.
The couple suspected heavy metal poisoning as the cause of their child’s sickness. Ihotor-Ameka has huge deposits of minerals, notably lead and zinc, and is littered with mining pits from both abandoned and active artisanal and small-scale mines.
When the pits are flooded after heavy rains, the miners pump the water into the surrounding environment, including rivers and streams. The risk of water and soil pollution with heavy metals is high.
“Although we could not explain it, we knew the reason for his ailment cannot be dissociated from our environment,” Gloria says. Several weeks after her son became sick, other residents began to show similar symptoms.
“My neighbour’s son was sick and convulsing,” she says. “Two days later, he died. He was only 3 years old.”
Water samples collected from the area and tested at the Institute for Agricultural Research, Zaria and the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology (NARICT) had a lead (Pb) concentration of nearly 408 parts per million (ppm); for reference, a U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule requires systems to monitor drinking water if lead concentrations exceed 0.015ppm.
Heavy metals can harm the body even in small doses. Lead exposure can be especially dangerous for children, causing damage to the brain and nervous system, stunted growth and development, behavioural and learning challenges, and hearing and speech problems. Seizures and convulsions are among the more severe neurological symptoms associated with lead overexposure.
Diagnostic capacity is a challenge in Nigeria, including testing for heavy metal poisoning. People come down with strange illnesses that often are left undiagnosed, even after evaluations by experienced physicians.
But this is not news. In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a high incidence of convulsions and death in young children due to lead poisoning in five mining villages in Zamfara State. The number of children affected continues to grow.
Many blame the informal and unregulated activities of artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) who make up 85 per cent of miners in Nigeria’s extractive industry according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Artisanal and small-scale mining differs from medium and large-scale mining. There is limited available information on production, revenues, operations, and location of their activities.
“The havoc that these artisanal and small-scale miners cause is often overlooked because they don’t necessarily carry heavy machinery to the site,” says David Bade, a farmer whose land is threatened by abandoned mining pits in Yelwa community, Kokona LGA, Nasarawa State.
“They came in droves, took over our farmlands and started digging for tourmaline, a gemstone,” he adds. “Several months later, they vacated the site and moved elsewhere.”
Bade says he has noticed a sharp decrease in his harvest because his farmland is no longer fertile. As lead deposits are common in the area, it is also possible that the miners may have kicked up lead-contaminated soil and dust in their search for gemstones.
“Before, I used to harvest up to 300 bags of maize; now I rarely get up to half of that. I have also been attacked by snakes and other reptiles that hide in the holes. I have lost two of my dogs to snake attacks.”
This is not unexpected, says Ibrahim Yahaya, an official of Nasarawa State Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. “Mining can severely alter the soil and reduce its fertility. When miners dig into the earth for these minerals, they inadvertently dump the excavated materials on the topsoil. This is called over-burden and it makes it more difficult for crops to access nutrients,” he says.
Soil samples collected from Bade’s farmland and tested at the Institute for Agricultural Research and the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology showed levels of metals that are poisonous to plants, including 1,350 ppm of copper. According to the U.S. EPA, normal soil has a copper content of 1 to 200 ppm. The concentration of zinc in the soil was 2,090 ppm, also much higher than normal levels. The concentration of lead was 1,560 ppm; the EPA recommends avoiding growing vegetables in soil with lead concentrations of more than 400 ppm.
How large companies enable informal mining
Artisanal and small-scale miners operate as part of a broader mining ecosystem in Nigeria. With limited access to capital, they are often financed by sponsoring companies that take a large cut of their profits. The sponsors have mastered the art of profiteering from Nigeria’s weak mining regulations and enforcement. In the states visited, the number of artisanal and small-scale miners continues to grow due to the availability of a ready buyer.
Some larger mining companies have reportedly given artisanal miners access to concessions that they are not actively mining. A Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) audit report covering activities in the extractive sector from 2007 to 2010 found that only 30 per cent of the companies holding mining titles were engaged in active quarrying, mining, and exploration.
In Ebonyi State, most big mining companies with or without licenses grant access to their mining site to artisanal miners, often members of the local community. The company pays a negotiated fee to the landowner and local authorities but retains exclusive rights to the mined commodity. One source noted that many of these companies are Chinese.
“They send scouts to the community to negotiate with individual landowners who believe they have mineral resources underneath their properties. Afterwards, they agree on fees to be paid to the landowner and local authorities in the area, often the traditional heads,” says Chikezie, a miner in Ameka.
The government has signalled intentions to formalize the sector, improve revenue collection, and increase the contribution of solid minerals to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). But progress has been slow and uneven, complicated by a lack of geological information and limited government capacity. Mine closure and remediation do not appear to have featured heavily in discussions about formalization.
One small-scale granite miner in Umuogharu, Ezza North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, who declined to give her name for security reasons, said the state government is aware of their informal mining activities.
“We pay the necessary levies and go about our activities,” she says, adding that discussions on abandoned mines and proper mining site closure were rare in their interactions with the state government.
In Wamba community, Nasarawa State, large mining corporations and the locals agreed on a sharing formula for the proceeds from mining activities.
One of the locals, Kasim Usman said, “When they (mining company) came in 2019, we agreed that a certain percentage of the mineral resources mined would be given to the community. One-third is paid to the local government as royalty, one-third is paid to the owner of the land owner where the resources were mined, and one-third is paid to the community.”
Neither the mining companies nor the artisanal miners take responsibility for the proper closure and reclamation of mining sites. They simply move on to another location. The exploitative behaviour of these large-scale companies is often the root cause of community corruption and violence, and it results in a massive loss of revenue to the government. In turn, poor revenue from the sector makes budgetary allocations and funding for the reclamation of abandoned mines difficult for the government.
Lives lost, livelihoods affected in Plateau, Nasarawa, others
In Plateau state, years of complaints by mining communities about the wreckage caused by abandoned mining pits have fallen on deaf ears. Belied by its beautiful scenery, abandoned mining pits in Jos city are now potential death traps for residents of the area.
Tin was discovered in Jos plateau at the turn of the 20th century and colonial mining began soon thereafter. These tin mines were largely abandoned following the 1972 nationalization policy, which broke the monopoly of foreign interests, particularly of British firms. Decades later, tin mining communities are still struggling with the negative effects of mining on human health and the environment.
Today, informal artisanal and small-scale miners operating on meagre profit margins work in these abandoned mines. This carries a unique set of risks and dangers.
In December 2019, an inactive mining pit in Zawan community, Jos South LGA, collapsed, killing six people who were illegally prospecting for tin and other minerals. Eyewitnesses said that more than 50 people were in the pit before it collapsed.
In Sabon-Barki, Jos South LGA, residents are fearful when it rains because of how abandoned mining sites channel floodwaters. In April 2021, a 4-year-old girl was swept away after a heavy downpour.
“She was returning from school alongside her brother when the flood carried her from Dadin Kowa to Muchogopyeng,” says Belinda Yusuf, a resident of the area.
In Keffi, Nasarawa state, the Five-Star Mining Company allegedly vacated its mining project without reclamation after an outcry by residents of the area over the incessant blasting of rocks. The abandoned site sits behind Keffi Secondary School.
“Each time they blasted the rocks, strong vibrations reverberated throughout the entire area,” says resident, Garakuwa Zubairu. “Our buildings began to crack from the foundation.”
He said residents complained to the company and asked them to reduce the blasting activity but to no avail. The company maintained that it was licensed by the federal government to carry out its activities. They brought their complaints to state government authorities, who inspected the site and directed the company to stop work. The company then vacated the site without doing reclamation work.
Checks at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), showed that the company is inactive and was incorporated on January 6, 1993. The company is headquartered in Calabar with Janet Okok, Effiong Effiong, George Effiong, and Nkoyo Effiong on the board of directors.
Slow progress on reclamation
Government remediation efforts date back to 1955 when the federal government reclaimed abandoned mining sites managed by Northern Regional Government at the time. The reclamation of several other abandoned sites followed in 1980.
In 2017, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD), which oversees the solid minerals subsector in Nigeria, said it would spend N1.67tr to reclaim more than 1,600 abandoned mine sites across the country.
A total of 32 mining sites were reclaimed between 2007 and 2019 for N2.39 billion naira or about N75 million per mine – less than the amount originally projected. (In 2014, a ministry official named Salim Adebgoyega, had put the reclamation cost per abandoned mine at N80m to N100m, depending on the size of the site.*
Progress has been much slower than expected. The ministry initially projected that 100 sites would be reclaimed annually between 2007 and 2020. An inventory of abandoned mines and quarries commissioned by the ministry in 2017 to evaluate the environmental and social risks associated with past mining activities is yet to be released officially. The Environmental Protection and Rehabilitation Fund (EPRF) called for in the 2007 Nigeria Mining Act is not fully operational.
The ministry did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted on September 29, 2021, asking for specific details about progress on mine remediation and closure – including a list of all abandoned mining sites identified by the ministry, reclaimed abandoned mining sites, the cost of the reclamation of the sites, and the status of the EPRF. The ministry acknowledged receipt of the request and asked for ample time to compile the required information, adding that the process of revalidating abandoned mines and quarries was ongoing.
The federal government has allocated significant funds to the reclamation of abandoned mines but has achieved little in terms of value for money. Analysis of the ministry’s budget showed that at least N2.43bn was spent on activities related to reclamation between 2015 and 2020. A further breakdown revealed that N1.90bn was budgeted for the actual reclamation of an unspecified number of abandoned mines during the same period. In 2018 and 2019, the government spent N78.3m on revalidating abandoned mining sites nationwide and a whooping N463m on logistics support for a special mines’ surveillance task force in 2020.
One of the reclaimed sites in Barkin Ladi area of Plateau state is still prone to flooding and ecological problems years after the purported reclamation in 2017. Residents who spoke with this newspaper were critical of the work done.
“We cannot farm on these sites. The land is not fertile. No bioremediation was carried out,” says Dafum Chung, a resident. “They just came to sand-fill the site and went away. Although the gully erosion subsided, the problem of flooding is still persistent.”
He adds: “I used to farm close to my house until flooding and erosion caused by mining destroyed my farmland. Although I have relocated to another area to continue my farming, my friends who still farm there are always complaining of poor harvest.”
The Ministry of Mines and Steel Development acknowledged receipt of a FOIA request for procurement records, including budgetary allocations and lists of contractors engaged but the request was not fulfilled by publication time.
Can communities sue?
Nigeria has a federal system of governance but states have limited power. Mining is on the exclusive legislation list – a list of issues over which the federal government has exclusive legislative powers. This means states cannot advance their legislation governing mining-related issues, including mine closure. State governments cannot enforce federal legislation.
“You really cannot blame the state governments,” says Abiodun Baiyewu, Nigeria’s country director at Global Rights. “The federal government is quick to remind you that the benefits of the minerals primarily belong to the commonwealth at the federal level. It was not until 2017 that benefits started to trickle down to the local communities. Even so, the benefits have been negligible because the government still earns so little from solid minerals due to massive haemorrhages in revenue.”
However, one potential avenue for states to regulate their mining sectors remains unexplored. Section 19 of the Mineral and Mining Act of 2007 provides for a state-level governance apparatus for mining, known as Mineral Resources and Environmental Committee (MIREMCO). To date, this apparatus is yet to be fully explored.
Communities that have been negatively impacted by abandoned mines have limited avenues for recourse, including through national legal systems. Chinedu Bassey, a program manager at the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, argues that several international human rights instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory are yet to be properly legislated in the country. These include the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Ten years after endorsing them, Nigeria is yet to develop a national action plan to implement the principles, which allow aggrieved communities to seek redress in court.
Hamzat Lawal, chief executive of Connected Development (CODE), a nongovernmental organization that works to empower marginalized communities in Nigeria, says the real question is whether the Nigerian justice system is reliable. “If we’re being realistic, these communities do not have the resources to pursue a case against the government, and while that reflects the weakness of our judicial institution, it also shows the extent of the failure of leadership in the country,” he says.
Regardless of the challenges, human rights lawyer and activist Inibehe Effiong believes that mining communities can sue the government or businesses if they can provide evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt of their culpability.
Effiong is right. There are quite a few justiciable clauses to rely upon. Beyond the Mineral and Mining Act of 2007, Section 17 (2d) of Nigeria’s constitution states that a community’s natural resources must not be exploited except for the good of the community.
Some international avenues are also available, particularly if a multinational mining company has violated the rights of communities through inadequate mine closure. For instance, communities could file a grievance with the National Contact Points (NCPs) that are responsible for business conduct in the company’s home country or they could request a UN Special Rapporteur investigation.
These avenues are rarely explored, however, due to a lack of information and low literacy levels among residents of these communities. Communities can only seek redress if they are aware of their rights and are empowered with the information, they need to demand justice, accountability and transparency from government entities and other stakeholders in the extractive industries.
For this to happen, knowledge and participatory dialogue platforms are important, says Baiyewu.
“Let’s start with providing a basic knowledge of what mining entails, the likely impacts, and the rights of mining host communities,” she says. “Mining host communities need to access information on how to air their grievances, and ensure ease of access to the relevant agencies of government.”
Lawal has a similar view. Rather than sue the government, he says, leaders of mining communities would do better to learn how to engage the government as partners.
“It’s the first step in the right direction, and it disarms a government that is quick to defend itself against its own citizens.”
This report was supported by Result for Development (R4D) under its Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption (LTRC) project.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olajide Adelana is an investigative writer and editor who is passionate about advancing accountability and transparency in the service of social justice. He recently served as a field communications officer for the United Nations Office for Project Services, where he focused on water supply and sanitation issues.
All Photos are by Nelson Owoicho.