The residents of Solhan, a village in northeastern Burkina Faso, are painfully aware of the connection between artisanal mining and insecurity.
Last June, insurgents invaded the village, targeting the civilian self-defense force in the area as well as an artisanal gold mine located there. They went on to burn down a market and several houses, killing at least 160 civilians in the process. The regional governor directly blamed the incident, which marked one of the deadliest-ever insurgent attacks in Burkina Faso, on artisanal gold mining, and he subsequently banned the practice after the attack.
Several hundred miles to the east, in the Nigerian state of Zamfara, artisanal gold mining is proving similarly problematic. Security officials there insist that a nexus exists between the rapid proliferation of banditry groups, which have kidnapped nearly 2,000 people this year alone, and illegal mining. In June, the federal government banned all forms of mining in Zamfara in an effort to prevent banditry groups from profiting from the activity.
Mining’s increasing prominence in the context of rising insecurity in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and other countries across the region raises the question of what role informal and illegal mining play in West Africa, why these activities are proving to be so attractive to Islamist extremist insurgencies and other armed groups, and what regional governments should do to counteract the nexus between insecurity and mining.
Artisanal mining refers to the practice of individuals mining natural resources themselves, often with the assistance of rudimentary tools. It is often confused with illegal mining, though there is an important distinction between them. Whereas artisanal mining occurs where there are no regulations governing informal mining, or limited ones, illegal mining is the practice of mining informally where it has been explicitly prohibited by the state, or where miners encroach on land that does not belong to them to mine it. The distinction between illegal and artisanal mining is often blurry, however, since artisanal miners are regularly involved in smuggling their minerals out of the country, making their activities illegal, even if the practice of mining informally might not have been.
Both illegal and artisanal mining are widespread in many parts of West Africa where natural resources are plentiful, states often do not have uncontested authority and control over parts of their territory, and jobs within the formal economy are scarce.
2 million people are directly involved in artisanal mining
in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, producing around 50 tons of gold worth around $2 billion a year
. An estimated 80 to 85 percent of Nigeria’s total mining output
is produced by artisanal miners.
A significant amount of this gold is smuggled out of these countries, often to Togo, which produces little of its own gold but is used as a smuggling hub to move the gold on to the United Arab Emirates, where it is typically refined and traded. A 2018 OECD study found that around 20 tons of gold is smuggled into Togo from Burkina Faso alone each year
One obvious reason that informal and illegal mining is useful for extremist insurgencies and other armed groups is the revenues it generates. Armed groups are able to finance themselves and their operations both through panning for gold themselves, demanding informal
taxes from miners already operating, or seizing the gold that miners produce. In Mali, for instance, according to the United Nations, armed rebels tax the gold trade in the northern town of Kidal
, while government officials in Niger note that Islamist extremist groups are demanding a share of gold
produced in the country’s west.
Disputes over access to illegal mining areas can also create latent tensions for extremist groups and banditry organizations to exploit. Many countries in the Sahel and the broader West Africa region, for instance, leave the task of protecting illegal and informal mining sites to self-defense forces, because they lack sufficient, well-equipped security personnel to do so.
However, the presence of these nonstate, paramilitary forces is not always popular with local populations, who sometimes perceive them as heavy-handed and vicious. In such instances, the resulting grievances provide the perfect entry point for extremist groups to exploit and leverage for support among the population, largely by pledging both to protect them from the self-defense forces and to allow civilians to retain access to illegal mines. As these armed groups find support among local populations, they are eventually able to expand their influence, seeking new recruits among the supportive residents of the community.
In areas where authorities have banned artisanal mining, it has often backfired, deepening frustrations with local and national governments and reducing economic opportunities in communities where the state is largely absent.
Overruling laws against illegal mining is another method used by extremist groups to further boost support among locals, as seen in the town of Pama, in Burkina Faso. Its residents had long been forbidden by the government to mine for gold because of the activity’s environmental impact. But when Islamist extremists took over the town in 2018, they ended the prohibition, to the financial benefit of local residents.
Illegal mining sites also provide ideal training grounds for extremists and banditry groups in the use of explosives, which are commonly used in gold mining. Several captured members of the Khalid Ibn Walid Katiba, Ansar Eddine’s southern branch in Cote d’Ivoire, have reported that they received this type of training in artisanal mines in the north of the country, near the Malian border.
Illegal gold mining has become so lucrative to armed groups across West Africa, and so crucial to their strategies, that it can often provide a good indicator of where they might launch future attacks. A Burkinabe government survey of satellite imagery in 2018 found around 2,200 possible gold mines, with about half of them located within 15 miles of previous attacks carried out by armed groups.
What, then, can be done to address this nexus of illegal and artisanal mining and extremist violence?
Evidently, banning artisanal mining, as in Zamfara, Solhan and many other mining zones across West Africa, is not the solution. In areas where authorities have taken this approach, it has often backfired, deepening frustrations
with local and national governments and reducing economic opportunities in communities where the state is largely absent. That is a scenario that often prompts civilians to depend more on extremist groups for employment, support and protection.
The alternative is to formalize artisanal mining, while taking steps to avoid alienating informal miners. Programs that seek to strike this delicate balance—like an initiative currently in its early stages of implementation in Nigeria known as the Presidential Gold Mining Development Initiative, or PAGMI—are likely to be effective in this regard, as long as they can be implemented thoroughly.
PAGMI aims to create over 500,000 new formal jobs in the mining sector and register thousands of artisanal miners in the national identity management system. When fully operational, it will allow miners to sell gold through the National Gold Purchase Program, allowing the country’s central bank access to much needed reserves in the process.
Programs like PAGMI are ultimately likely to be much better at reducing the connections between artisanal mining and armed groups than the ongoing efforts by governments to outlaw the practice entirely in many of the affected communities.
Eventually, the ability to provide livelihoods in a formalized artisanal mining sector may also prove transformative in demobilizing many of the armed groups that exist across West Africa. Fighters who come to realize that they, too, could make a reasonable income from artisanal mining might perhaps be more willing to lay down their arms, while potential future recruits may be disinclined to sign up if they were channeled into the artisanal mining sector instead.
As a testament to the potential of such initiatives, many former rebels in Cote d’Ivoire have demobilized and disarmed to eventually work in the gold sector, while numerous mine owners in the Agadez region of Niger are former rebels or traffickers.
Informal mining is an important source of revenue—for local communities, but also for armed groups operating in West Africa. Given the financial incentives for both, prohibiting the practice only serves to embitter populations and empower extremists. Regional governments would do well to consider new approaches, like formalizing these operations, that will instead enrich and empower both local populations and the state.
Jessica Moody is a peacebuilding and political risk consultant focusing on West Africa. She has a doctorate in post-conflict peacebuilding in Cote d’Ivoire from the War Studies department at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter at @JessMoody89.