March 3, 2024

Solid minerals plant for S/East abandoned – Onyia, Ebonyi Commissioner



…contractors whereabouts unknown

•Says reckless mine blast can trigger landslides, earthquakes in Nigeria

•‘We have traces of gold in Ebonyi but…’

Mr. Chidi Onyia Emmanuel is the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Solid Mineral Development. In this interview with Kennedy Mbele, Onyia, who assumed office barely six months ago, discloses plans by the state government to drag construction giant, Julius Berger, to court for failing to reclaim their mining site, contrary to a contract agreement, Mining Act and Mining Regulations of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and, indeed, global best practice. The Commissioner identifies the Federal Government’s total control of the mining sector as a major factor affecting the industry and reiterates the need for mutual respect amongst investors, host communities and states. Excerpts:

 Six months down the lane, how has it been?

 Well, so far, so good. First of all, I must appreciate His Excellency, the Governor of Ebonyi State, Rt. Hon Francis Ogbonna Nwifuru, for giving me the opportunity to be part of his Executive Council. It has been a kind of easy ride but not totally an easy ride because it is an office that I am occupying for the first time. But, to the glory of God, I am adjusting well and the cruise has been quite enjoyable.

 When you were appointed, you had certain expectations. To what extent did those expectations meet with the present reality?

 Before my appointment, I had been in the mining sector and, as such, have knowledge of some of the activities in the sector. That has helped shape what I do now. When it comes to expectations, I think we are doing our best to get things right in the sector because what we met on ground was not impressive. Good enough, our governor is giving us all the support and encouragement we need. So, we are on course.

 Can you share with us some of those areas of disparity?

 Yes. Before now, most investors, local and foreign, left the state because of some issues they had with some government officials in the ministry during the previous administration. We have been doing our best to bring them back and I must tell you now that our efforts have started yielding positive results. I can assure you that many of the foreign investors that left the state are gradually coming back. Also, our local investors, who we encourage so much, have also returned to the site. The foreign investors are back because the major reason that led to their departure has been addressed and we are assuring them of a good business relationship. However, we have emphasized the need for mutual respect between investors, the state and, of course, the host communities. We have assured all of our preparedness to protect the interest of all parties. Needless adding that government interest must be protected at all costs.

 What were those things that scared them away, initially?

 It was because of the high handedness of some people. You know, investors are to be treated like beautiful brides. Hostility scares them away and makes them look for alternatives. They have the money, so the assurance from government must be there if they must invest in an area. One or two government officials were not getting it right to the extent that there were issues of attack on investors. But, like I said, this area has been properly and permanently addressed and those that are back can testify to that.

 We understand that Ebonyi is endowed with a lot of mineral resources. Can we hear from the horse’s mouth, some of such resources and their locations?

 Indeed, we have so many mineral resources in the state, but I will only share the common ones with you because we have not substantiated the quantity of so many others. So far, the ones we have in abundance include granite, scattered in almost all the 13 local government areas of the state, lead and zinc, scattered in almost every community in the state. Salt is in Uburu, Okposi, Ikwueto, Enyigba, and other parts of the state. You must have heard of Nigercem, Nkalagu. There are deposits of limestone in commercial quantities in Ishielu, Ebonyi, Ezza North, part of Ohaukwu LGA, etc. We also have traces of gold in the state but considering what is happening in some states in the North, I won’t speak much on that until we conclude our investigations. Those listed above are the ones being harnessed currently. It may also interest you to know that the granite in Ebonyi is taking care of many states of South-South and, of course, the South-East. And, I can assure you, the quality of granite we have in Ebonyi is the best in the country. When you talk about lead and zinc, it’s safe to conclude that Ebonyi is blessed with them because they are in abundance in almost every community of the state. If you check the volume of export of these products, you will find out that Ebonyi is contributing significantly. We are encouraging investors not to engage just in exportation of these resources but to start processing them locally because of the inherent benefits in processing.

 What can you tell us about the solid mineral processing plant, reportedly established about two years ago?

 During the time of Dr. Uche Oga as Minister for State, Solid Mineral Resources, the Federal Government made provisions for all the six geo – political zones to have mineral processing plants, for value addition purposes. This was because when you export in raw form, you lose a lot. Minerals usually occur in associated forms; some may be mining lead and zinc but if it is processed, you may see that there is silver or copper in it. So, if it is exported and processed outside, the silver and or copper that may be there, becomes their extra benefit. That was the idea behind establishing processing plants across the country. Regrettably, only that of the South-East, cited at the Uburu area of the state, has not been commissioned. In fact, nothing substantial has been done there. We have been on it because it was designed to serve the entire South-East. If completed, all mineral resources from the region would be processed there.

This would generate revenue and employment for both the federal and state governments. Mineral resources, as we all know, are in the exclusive list, so the state benefits very little, sometimes, nothing. We are trying to track down the contractors who were handling the project in collaboration with the Federal Ministries. Though we feel the location is not good enough because it is far from where most of the minerals are harvested, we are engaging the Federal Ministry of Mines to do something about that, right away. Meanwhile, the state government is also working on her own processing plant. I wish to inform you that it is one of the major projects we have at hand and the governor is on the same page with us. He has approved feasibility studies to that effect, which are ongoing. Establishing a processing plant is capital intensive and as such, there is need for proper examination of all that are involved, before

commencement. God willing, there will soon be a processing plant in Ebonyi, in addition to the few privately owned ones. Government has to establish one to avoid issues associated with monopoly. It will also enable the government to benefit more from the sector because according to the Mining Act, associated minerals discovered during mining must be reported to the government. That means, if you secure a lease to harvest lead and zinc, and if in the course of your mining, you discover another type of mineral, you cannot take it. You must report such development to the government through the ministry for necessary actions.

 What is the proposed location of the state’s processing plant?

 We are looking at Abakaliki central area because over 90 percent of the minerals are harvested within that axis. This would curtail transportation and security challenges and at the same time, make the product easily accessible to all.

 Can you quantify the contributions of Solid Mineral Development to the state’s GDP?

 The states get nothing from mineral resources, but we as Ebonyi State are not folding our hands. We have acquired leases and licenses so that if we have prospective investor/s who can partner with us well, we can do that, but presently, we are not getting anything directly from mineral resources in the state. We all know that it is the exclusive right of the Federal Government. We are even appealing to the FG to look into the loopholes created by its total control of the sector. If states are carried along, both the states and FG will benefit more. Presently, we have Federal Mines Officers in each state, most of whom do not even care about the states they cover. They report to the Federal Ministry of Mines and don’t find it necessary associating with state officials, including commissioners. But, if states are fully involved in mineral activities within its space, I can assure you, most of the ugly situations we are experiencing in some parts of the country will be arrested. State governors have what it takes to do that. It is worrisome that because the states are not properly involved, investors neglect them and the host communities. This is where we, as a state, are not taking it lightly with anybody. You may have all the backings from any source, but you can’t come here and take advantage of our people. It is also worrisome that some investors get consents through back doors. For instance, you may not even know that someone has secured a lease on your father’s land, what you would see is someone coming one day with soldiers to tell you that he has a mining lease document from the Cadastral Office, Abuja. In summary, as an investor, we are not going to be hostile to you, but you must respect us and our people.

 What specific changes have you brought to your ministry since your resumption of office?

 So far, we have brought a lot of changes and many more are in the pipeline. In the first instance, we have changed the attitude of our people to investors and that of investors to our people. Again, we have insisted on strict adherence to the Community Development Agreement (CDA) prepared by the Federal Ministry of Mines. When I came on board, I discovered that most of the investors in the state were not adhering to the content of the CDA; they preferred settling one or two persons in the host communities and this has been contributing to most of the crisis we are confronted with. I have taken it upon myself and must get it right, no matter how difficult. If you are investing in the mining sector in Ebonyi, you must follow to the last letter, which is contained in the CDA, which you signed. We monitor implementation of the agreement because you could see for instance, that in an area with provisions for scholarship awards to children in host communities, most of the investors liaise with one or two persons and give them peanuts in exchange. In some cases, rather than do the right thing, they go behind to instigate crises. If one really means well for the state, he or she will not be part of anything that could lead to a crisis. Today, in Ebonyi, all we need from investors is to follow the laid down rules and procedures. That’s all.

 What do you think can be done to enhance optimal extraction and processing of mineral resources in the state?

 The entire country has to wake up with regards to activities in this industry. Interestingly, I am giving it to the current administration because if the previous administration had done half of what the present administration is doing, we would have gone beyond where we are today. It is worthy to note that the Solid Mineral Sector can conveniently feed the entire country but as you know, our interest is only in oil and that is why some investors in the sector try to take undue advantage of our ignorance on the capacity and viability of these minerals. If all the agencies that are involved should be truthful to themselves and ensure proper harnessing of resources in the sector, I can assure you that Nigerians will be made happy. With what the Minister is doing now in collaboration with the state government; carrying everybody along…Nigerians will rejoice soon.

 Compensation to host communities and poor attention to workers’ welfare have been identified as serious management issues in this sector. What is your leadership doing differently in this regard?

 Compensation to host communities is contained in the CDA I talked about earlier. According to the agreement which is in two folds, there are benefits to the actual owners of the land and benefits to the host community. It is also in the CDA that if there are houses close to a mining site, those houses have to be relocated. This does not mean renting houses for the affected families but building new houses that meet certain specifications for them. However, compensations are determined by the volume of what the investor is doing at a particular site. There are other Social Responsibility provisions such as provision of access roads, construction of health centers and classroom blocks, pipe borne water, electricity, including paying of Christmas homage, among others, host communities enjoy in the state.

Are these things happening in host communities in Ebonyi now?

 Yes, they are, but some investors are not complying and those are the ones we are working on. They must comply. We are also working on areas where hazardous chemicals are involved. We observed that this particular area was being neglected seriously, but we have brought it to the front burners because our key responsibility is the protection of lives, property comes second.

 Safety is vital in this sector. What specific measures has your leadership taken to ensure that the lives of your staff are not endangered while on site?

We are confronted with a serious challenge in that regard because even when you force the investors to get kits for their staff; most of the workers only kit properly when they are expecting government officials at site. They say they are more comfortable working without kits, but we have made proper kitting mandatory to all on site. We have insisted that workers who are not ready to kit properly on duty should be laid off and that if we catch such a person, we will arrest him or her and then prosecute both the staff and the company. In fact, the State House of Assembly has legislated on that, and we are serious about it. Lead and zinc are very poisonous, working without kits means endangering, not just one’s life, but also that of his family and the community. 

Technology is key in the extractive industry. To what extent is your ministry

embracing modern technology in harnessing the huge potentials of mineral resources in the state?

 Well, mining manually is no longer the practice in Ebonyi. We have stepped ahead of many states in terms of application of modern technology in mining; gone are the days when hoes were used in harvesting. However, there are artisanal (small-scale) miners who still load materials manually, but harvesting is generally done with machines. 

Can you tell what your ministry is doing to ensure proper control and storage of explosives used in mining in the state?

 Yes! Few days after I came on board, I invited all miners in the state (quarries, lead/zinc, and iron ore) to a meeting in my office and informed them that before they blast, they must notify my ministry. This is due to several reports about dangerous degrees of blasting capable of causing landslides or earthquakes either now or in the near future. I discovered that before now, nobody cares about how they blast and how they store these explosives. I also discovered that some safety measures before blasting weren’t in check. In Ebonyi today, any miner found keeping explosives in residential houses or warehouses must be prosecuted. The State House of Assembly has legislation to that effect. Our prayers are with the good people of Oyo State for the unfortunate incident that happened in Ibadan recently. It’s also a wakeup call on the federal government. If the state government has full control on all these minerals and the activities of miners in their respective states, believe me it’ll be easy to arrest some of these negative effects of mining. The states should be allowed to control these resources and the activities of the miners for the overall interest of the citizenry.

Like other government appointees, your position is not forever. What legacy would you like to leave as a former Ebonyi State Commissioner for Solid Minerals, when leaving the office?

Well, I have to appreciate my predecessors. They did their best, and I am continuing from where they stopped. I see political positions as something very transient; it is not an inheritance. It is not even an elective position with a defined period or tenure. First, I would want my ministry to be the envy of other states across the country. That was why I started with the processing plant project. I am also working on establishing what I call a ‘Buying Center: a place where mineral resources harvested by local and foreign investors would be sold.This will help the FG in obtaining an accurate record of mineral resources production in the state. Presently, the data flying around in the sector across the country is off record and as such, not reliable. This is not good for us as a nation. I would also want to leave behind a more technologically advanced mining sector, where all mining activities are mechanized, as obtained in advanced countries. This would reduce the barest minimum risks associated with mining. That is why I always ensure that the capacity of prospective investors meet certain standards. Perhaps, it will interest you to know that proper clearing of overboard in mining sites is very important. If a large space with an overboard is not properly cleared before operation, the site caves in at some point, but if clearing is expanded, the risk of caving in will be reduced. Again, I want to leave behind, a sector where the safety of our people is guaranteed, where investors and host communities smile, and the state government proud of both parties.

We discovered that most of the investors leave pits open and this has led to the death of many of our people. Mineral regulations stipulate that investors notify the state government and the Federal Ministry of their plans to leave the site, at least, 3 months ahead of departure, and the investor is to reclaim the site before leaving. And presently, we’ve adopted progressive reclamation, that is reclaiming as your activities progress. Unfortunately, many mining companies including Julius Berger that left Ebonyi State over seven years ago and the pit they left behind is now a strange lake, posing serious dangers to people in the area and environs. The state government will be coming after them soon because they cannot leave such a big risk for our people. They must abide by the terms of their contract which stipulates reclaiming before leaving the site.

As a Commissioner, you work with other commissioners as a team. What message do you have for other members of the state executive council? 

Again, I must start by commending my boss, Governor Francis Nwifuru, for giving us the opportunity to serve. Although I may not be the right person to assess him, I must state here that he is making Ebonyians and indeed Nigerians proud. Could you believe that every worker in the state got N100,000 as 2023 Christmas and New Year bonus and that he paid retirees’ gratuities and pensions from 1996 t0 2022. Recently, he recruited no fewer than 2000 Ebonyians into the state civil service. He has on going projects scattered all over the states. Approved international and local scholarship for Ebonyi students with first class, second class upper and lower credit in selected disciplines. He paid N300,000 to every Ebonyi indigene enrolled in 2023/2024 law school,. He also supported over 500 Ebonyis hawking in various cities across the country with Million to leave the trade and establish something better. The second and third batches of this project come up soon. There are so many other achievements,  too numerous to mention here. Our governor is a young man who gave 85% of his appointments to young men and women. We do not have any reason not to deliver. Therefore, my message to my colleagues is that we already have a role model with whom Ebonyians are happy and well pleased. Just last week, he procured utility vehicles for medical doctors working in the state general hospitals. He also procured ambulances for general hospitals across the state. He also provided SUVs for all the Magistrates in the state. He is building a palace for every traditional ruler in the state. He is also rebuilding communities such as Eziulor, Ezza Effium, Effium, etc destroyed during the communal crisis. In a few days to come, housing units constructed for Eziulo, and Izzo communities, rendered homeless as a result of communal clashes for over 15 years will be commissioned by the governor. Most importantly, he got to the root of all communal crises in the state and is providing acceptable and appreciable solutions to it. So, on our part as government appointees, all we owe our governor is to give our best, so that the good image he is projecting will continue to radiate in our various ministries. Interestingly, I think we are doing our best so far and will do more.

Is there any other information you would like to share with us?

Yes, I would like to cap up our discussion by saying that we are on course and I am sure that before we mark our first year in office, our counterparts from other states will be coming here to find out how we are able to achieve so much within such a little period. This is going to be possible because our governor, leader and of course, mentor came prepared and we cannot afford to disappoint him and the good people of Ebonyi on whose mandate he stands.