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Minerals for Christmas

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By Desmond Ovbiagele

I was listening on the car radio to an artiste being interviewed the other day, and had to smile at his response to what Christmas reminded him of.

‘”Rice, chicken and minerals!” was his pithy reply.

What tickled wasn’t the spiritual insensitivity of his answer (given the reason for the season, after all) but the particular use of the last word. Yes, ‘minerals’ is a technically valid (if not globally popular) reference to a non-alcoholic beverage (at exactly what point it became established in the lexicon of Nigerians remains a mystery, as does the use of the meaningless word ‘trafficate’ instead of ‘indicate’), but still its mention personally conjured images of substances far less consumable.

With all due respect to the erstwhile Nigerian governor and his now infamous response of ‘Coke, Fanta and Sprite!’ to the innocent inquiry concerning the minerals available in his constituency, the mention of the word takes me back to around 2006; a time when global appetite to invest in Nigeria seemed to be at its zenith.

The country was in the 7th year of its fourth attempt at democratic governance, had just spectacularly decimated its towering edifice of crippling debt to smouldering rubble, and boasted amongst its troops a clique of internationally respected technocrats — not the least of whom was the then-serving Minister of Solid Minerals, whose zeal for the prompt implementation of wide-ranging sectoral reforms placed the country squarely in the radar of the industry’s global behemoths.

As a then-member of the financial services community, I was privileged to attend a number of the investor roadshows organized locally and abroad to showcase the mouthwatering potentials of the sector and stimulate firm investment commitments. From the Australians to the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, the South Africans … they came from every corner of the globe to assess the opportunities to exploit the diverse resources the land is blessed with, which included gold, zinc, tin, copper, lead, bitumen, coal, uranium, tantalite, etc.

But more impressive than their mere participation was the clear respect they had for the reform initiatives and especially the Minister who was championing it. The professionalism and meticulousness presented a rarely seen aspect of the country that whetted international appetites, and it seemed that the only thing left to finalize the several deals and partnerships that were furiously brewing was the passage of the Mining & Minerals Act that was required to lend the highest legal credence to the process and safeguard the considerable investments expected to flow in.

Nine months later. The highly effective Minister has been redeployed to another Ministry for reasons that remain an enigma but which were clearly not informed by the uncompromising pursuit of progress for the sector. The legislative bill was yet to be passed. The momentum and impetus of reforms that had attracted global attention had totally dissipated. The flurry of dealmaking emails and phone calls had evaporated. The investors stayed home (or in reality, went elsewhere). The international financial tsunami swept in soon after in 2008. The investors ran for cover from even their domestic customers. Africa was not even on the radar.

And for Nigeria? The opportunity was gone. The thousands of jobs that would have been created directly and indirectly to absorb our ever-growing legion of unemployed graduates — gone. The technology transfer that would have resulted from the strategic partnerships with global players — gone. The opportunity to significantly boost the nation’s non-oil revenues and reduce its dependency on hydrocarbon income – gone.

This is not to say that minerals exploitation in the country is comatose. Far from it. But as is the case with far too many of our precious resources in the country, a lot of the activity is illegal, unaccountable and unreported – deliberately so, in order to allow the beneficiaries continue their silent raping (sorry, reaping).

Think of the several lives that have been lost on our dilapidated roads and highways, in a country whose bitumen deposits occur along a belt that is 5 – 8km wide and stretches over 120km spanning four different states (Lagos, Ogun, Ondo & Edo). A resource estimated at the equivalent of over 13 billion barrels of oil (if we didn’t have enough hydrocarbon reserves already).

Think of the perennial power blackouts that from time immemorial have plagued a country blessed not only with sufficiently abundant reserves of gas to light up both itself and the rest of the continent, but also with coal deposits that would have provide a useful feedstock option in the present privatization dispensation of the power sector as Nigeria’s strains to narrow the formidable chasm between demand and supply.

Think of the prevailing security issues in the land that may not have flourished quite so readily if the antagonists had instead been constructively involved in the exploration and exploitation of the mineral resources available right under their very noses.

We need another champion for the sector who can reinvigorate interest and bring back those investors. The nation would undoubtedly be better off for it.

And we definitely need another name for Coke, Fanta and Sprite.

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