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No-fly zone in Zamfara: The intrigues and intricacies

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[FILES] Security agents peruse a scene of bandits’ attack in Zamfara State.

One of the nation’s biggest crime thrillers is unfolding in the Northwestern state of Zamfara, but nobody seems to be paying attention. The plot is not only dangerous, but it is at the root of the banditry and sacking of villages in that part of the country.

The cast includes the National Security Adviser (NSA), Maj Gen Babagana Mungonu (rtd); the state governor, Mr Bello Muhammed (Matawalle Maradun), and the House of Assembly. Behind the scenes and pulling the strings are some illegal gold miners from China, who can easily pass for the executive producers of the plot. Like all such high-stakes, the hapless citizens, in this case, the poor people of Zamfara are paying dearly. I urge the Nigerian media and pundits to focus their full attention on Zamfara, with the realization that the atrocious civil wars in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and the never-ending conflicts in DR Congo and other parts of Africa are rooted in illegal mining and theft of natural resources.

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In early March, the National Security Council (comprising the President, Vice President, National Security Adviser (NSA), Chief of Staff to the President, Defence Minister, and the Service Chiefs) met, and acting on a well-informed intelligence, proscribed gold mining in Zamfara and issued a no-fly zone over the state. The intelligence indicated that the series of banditries that have rocked the state in the last few years were directly sponsored by, and linked to the Chinese gold miners who have exploited the mineral for years.

The report also stated that past and current officials of the state government, including senior political leaders, are fully involved in illegal mining activities. They routinely receive handsome payments from the Chinese. Federal authorities were also informed that the Chinese would sponsor large-scale banditry and assaults against the hapless civilian population, sack the villages and render them desolate before their helicopters fly in, loaded with weapons and the Chinese gold merchants. The choppers would then ferry the minerals undetected out to safe havens for onward shipments to the Middle East and other destinations.

On receiving these reports, President Buhari was livid with rage and shocked at the extent and depth of involvement of past and current Zamfara officials in the lucre. It was on the basis of this report that a No-fly zone was ordered on March 2. Confronted with the security report, the state government has issued a stern denial of the governor’s involvement in the criminal mining activities and collaboration with the Chinese. Even the PDP, the governor’s political platform, was quick to speculate that the No-fly zone order was a prelude to the declaration of a state of emergency on the state and subsequent sack of the governor.

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A statement signed by Mr. Zailani Bappa, Special Adviser, Public Enlightenment, Media and Communication to the Governor, asks rhetorically: ‘’how can a governor who worked hard to fight illegality be linked to the same illegality?’’. The statement noted that any allegation that the governor is attempting to sabotage the No-Fly Zone is ‘’unfounded and mischievously fabricated’’. Clearly, the state government was stung and rattled by the security report, and its response has raised more questions than answers. Whatever good the denial by the Special Adviser had achieved was quickly eroded by a vote of no confidence passed by the State House of Assembly on Thursday, March 11 on the NSA. The resolution, according to a statement signed by Mr. Mustapha Jafaru Kaura, the Public Relations Officer of the House of Assembly, also rejects the federal government’s No-fly zone order and the total ban on mining activities in the state. The lawmakers are piqued that despite school abductions and banditry in other states, the federal government has only singled out Zamfara for the No-fly zone restrictions. They accuse the NSA of ‘’improperly handling of the precarious security challenges’’ in the country in general and Zamfara in particular, wondering why the NSA has not visited the state. 

This is quite curious. How can the House of Assembly reject a federal government directive that is aimed at stopping illegal mining activities and their sponsors and eliminating banditry? Who has been benefitting from these crimes? I would have thought that the state government should be working in collaboration with federal authorities to defeat crime and violence in the state. Why are they furious? Who were the people flying in and out of Zamfara in choppers, and what were they carrying? Why does the state government appear more protective of the foreign miners than the Zamfara people?

The security challenges in Northern Nigeria have been particularly debilitating to our social and economic life. The metastasis of this cancer in different forms to other parts of the country has threatened the very bonds that keep our federation together. The President has been abused, criticized, and insulted for allegedly condoning the activities of the criminals. Many have glibly made the unfounded accusation that he is indulging the criminals because they are of his Fulani stock. I have written several articles calling out the administration for its shoddy handling of the security problems. I have also made the point that although General Buhari can never condone or encourage these crimes, his legacy would be defined more by his tacky management of the crisis and our diversity than the great things he is doing in building infrastructure and fighting corruption. Since the embarrassing abductions of school kids in Katsina, Zamfara, Niger, Kaduna states, and the inter-ethnic flare-ups in Oyo and Ondo states all in these years, the administration has been under pressure to stem the tide of violence across the land. The NFZ order was therefore established as the most effective and devastating action directed at the very root of the problem by this administration. Nigerians are therefore dismayed that the Zamfara state government is balking at the idea.

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Rather than try to antagonize the NSA, as the Zamfara State government is curiously doing, the retired army general ought to be encouraged in this new decisiveness and firm approach of the Federal Government.

The role of illegal mining of diamonds, gold and other minerals in Africa’s many civil wars and conflicts are well known. Nigerians should learn a lesson from history and work together to keep their country safe. By 1991 under the leadership of Joseph Momoh, Sierra Leone had a corrupt government that was openly trading in an illicit diamond. In March that year, a civil war erupted when Forday Sankoh, an ex-army sergeant, funded and supported by foreign forces who had their eye on the gems, led a rebellion against the state. Throughout the nine-year civil war, fighting concentrated in and around the diamond territories because whoever controlled the diamond mines controlled the country. Over 75,000 people were killed and 2.6 million displaced.

In the central part of the continent, the age-old wars and crisis that had bedeviled the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) are also linked to the struggle for its rich mineral deposits. The country is the world’s largest producer of cobalt ore, and one of the main producers of copper and industrial diamonds. Since the 1880s when Belgian King Leopold II ruled over the territory as a personal estate, exploiting vast natural resources through indigenous forced labour, DRC has always been in civil war, conflicts, and turmoil due to its resources.  Although the crisis in Sudan which led to the breakup of the country in July 2011 was largely political, the country was engulfed in a different kind of crisis in 2012 when gold was discovered at Jebel Amir in North of Dafur State.

Certainly, most of Africa’s civil wars have been linked to the scramble for its minerals and natural resources by the political elites and their foreign collaborators. The question then is: Will Nigeria fall into this trap in Zamfara? President Buhari owes this nation a duty to root out violence and insecurity from our nation, no matter who is benefiting from them. And the counsel of General Monguno on this matter is certainly a good one that can secure the President’s legacy and keep the peace in Zamfara and elsewhere.

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