The solid minerals subsector in Nigeria is an entrepreneurship hub waiting to be discovered. The colonialists have it in their record books that the exploitation of Nigeria’s solid minerals resources started in the early 1900s. However, tilling for and use of these natural endowments obviously started well before their advent.
It has been there since ancient times as the clay marvels of the Igbo and Nupe people, the terracotta sculptures of ancient Nok culture of Kaduna State, the bronze artefacts of the Bini kingdom and so on can attest to.
Ceramics, iron and gold forgery are skills that have been with us since antiquity. Our ancestors exploited clay to build houses, produce decorative materials and household utensils. Likewise, iron was used to produce work tools, while gold provided jewellery for royalty.
Minerals like salt were also mined for cooking, chalk for cosmetics and decorations, and so on.
The colonial records probably allude to the period when large scale rape of the landscape by foreigners for minerals began; The conqueror’s quest, though massive, did not include the development of a local value chain or industry.
Its main focus was to tap the resources for export to foreign lands, in their raw state. Subsequently, metal threads were constructed to make the lift of the minerals from the hinterlands to the coastal areas for shipment overseas easier.
Armed with a good eye for the buttered side of their slice, colonial administrators ensured that the SM sector received good attention, even as they made the continuous search and discovery of new minerals through the Geological Survey a priority.
During that era, the British considered the Geological Survey Department so strategic that its Director was made an automatic member of parliament. In the sixties and seventies, original works at the GS on the Precambrian rocks attracted foreigners to Nigeria in droves to meet Professor Oyawoye and his ilk.
So, our mineral resources have long been discovered but have largely remained untapped, in the modern sense.
In the 1960s, before the civil war, Nigeria became a notable exporter of minerals like tin, columbite, coal, and gold. This brought in revenue but the untold story is that we would have earned much more if we could have added value to the minerals before export.
Consequently, Nigeria continued to import tin sheets to meet her canning needs, steel to meet stunted industrial needs, etc., whereas the resources with which to develop viable industries around those needs remained under the ground.
Even coal, the most utilised of the minerals at the time, became stymied after the civil war as the nation plunged deeper into a monoculture mode to meet her economic and energy needs.
So, while the coal mines were overtaken by flood, the foray for crude oil increased and hope for a revisit of the nation’s solid minerals resources dimmed further.
Crude attempts by the erstwhile Nigerian Mining Corporation to grow the subsector dipped terribly. Subsequently, its assets were eventually flung at willing buyers under an expedient privatisation policy; a move that summarily buried the company as democracy was gaining root in the 2000s.
A major dividend of the emerging democratic order was the liberalisation of the telecom sector. This brought on a long overdue submersion into the overwhelming embrace of a dubious digital village through Internet access.
The new informed society immediately became aware of the failings of the indigenous economy when compared to other civilisations.
Notably, many more people understood the dangers of the nation’s monolithic structure and informed discussions on how to revive the agriculture and solid minerals subsectors gained traction.
While it may be said that huge inroads have been made in expanding activities in agricultural development, the same cannot be said about solid minerals.
Even after extensive work in re-creating the mining laws had been done, the sector is yet to experience mentionable growth.
A major setback, as many stakeholders have lamented, has been the lack of infrastructure in remote areas where the minerals ironically choose to occur in commercial quantity.
Many an investor has been put off by the lack of access roads, security, power and other amenities in proposed mine locations.
Those problems were seemingly intractable until recent security challenges have stirred the Government to deploy armed personnel to comb the forests that surround the nation’s cities and villages.
Hitherto, the forests had become a hideout for bandits, kidnappers, terrorists, ritualists and other miscreants who scare investors away from foraying into places that are far from busy settlement areas.
In fact, an owner of a company that started a commercial cassava farm in a remote area told me that they visited the farm to harvest the crops only to discover that the tubers had been harvested overnight by thieves.
So, many mining areas remained inaccessible and that helped illegal mining activities to thrive. In fact, in some instances, some commercial farmers and mining investors have been sacked from site by criminals.
The following statement by an Igbo leader a few years ago is instructive and portends good for the coming times: “As we speak 1,700 forest guards are being recruited. New access roads are being constructed into desolate and hidden areas of our forests…”The same is happening in all parts of the country.
Mining title holders and other entrepreneurs who have stayed away from remote areas because of infrastructural challenges may take this as a lead to prepare for a comeback as civilisation is beginning to find its way to the forests and other remote locations. The mining sector can now stage a comeback.