Gold laundering in the Tnr desert: Gold fever in the Djado valley despite isolation and security risks

In the context of worrying economic and security situations in Kawar (Agadez region), an unexpected new activity suddenly appeared in early 2014 in this northern Niger: gold panning after the discovery of a first site in the Djado Valley. A few months later, another place, the Tchibarakaten, was put into operation, about thirty km from Chirfa (Bilma branch). At the same time, several small deposits were discovered in the Ar massif. The thirst for gold, accompanied by a certain madness and fever to the yellow metal, gripped many Nigerians and foreigners in search of happiness. This article resumes this adventure by describing the major gold panning sites and their leaders. Next, the relationship between municipalities, traders and gold miners is discussed, and then the political, religious, economic, social and environmental consequences of gold panning in this desert area of ​​Kawar are examined.

In Niger, certain areas have great potential in terms of mineral resources, especially gold. In Tillabri, Maradi, Agadez and perhaps Niamey, for miles, the vast sedimentary basins and ancient potentially high mountain ranges stretch. Lor is exploited manually or rarely industrially in these areas. But in recent years, due to its high price, secret gold exploration has multiplied and has expanded to the desert regions that have not been explored so far. Niger thus has real streets for gold in these regions. Nigerians, Burkinabes, Ghanaians, Central Africans, Malians, Chadians, Nigerians, etc. are rushing to these promising areas. This is the case with the Kawar area, which since 2014 has hosted thousands of miners of all kinds. A street that may well be an El Dorado for some, but also a hell for others. These streets for gold, in Kawar, emerged in a security context marked by attacks by armed bandits, arms smugglers, drugs and migrants. The economic context is marked by a crisis in Nigerian uranium production, affected by the fall in world prices for it. The opening of the Imouraren mine, which was to bring additional revenue to Niger and create jobs in the Agadez region, had to be postponed. Agriculture and pastoral agriculture remain unsafe there as they are subject to climate variation and land instability. Merchant flows to Libya and to a lesser extent Algeria; which had once given the area relative prosperity, fell sharply due to insecurity and the Libyan civil war, while Sahara tourism and Tuareg crafts fell with the arrival of jihadists and the departure of tourists. Also in early 2014, apart from drug trafficking, which has some implications for the local economy and the activities related to the passage of migrants south of the Sahara on their way to Libya and then possibly Europe, the economy of the region and Agadez and therefore Kawar was sluggish . Authorities and foreign diplomats at the time were concerned about the rise in persistent unemployment, which particularly affected the youngest section of the population: What could be done to prevent them from listening to jihadist sirens? How and what does one have to occupy it to provide that income? These were the questions that Nigerian leaders and Western chancellors asked themselves without solutions and feared a spillover of the Malian, Libyan and Nigerian conflicts in Niger.

A golden man who comes at the right time!
In this worrying situation, an unexpected gift suddenly appeared in early 2014 with the discovery of gold in the most important fossil valley in Djado (Bilma branch). A few months later, the Tchibarakaten site, close to the Algerian border, was in turn discovered and put into operation immediately. After intense investigation, several small deposits were discovered at the same time in the Ar massif. An unprecedented thirst for gold in the Sahara gripped many Nigerians and foreigners in search of happiness. It is this adventure that begins in the most important gold panning sites with its many and varied leaders. The Kawar area is so difficult to access, with its large, often sharp sand dunes, its rocky roads, its dryness, drought and strong heat, its icy nights, therefore its unbearable climatic conditions and above all an area that is considered dangerous because raised by jihadist groups and smugglers, this is closed to all research, only gold diggers who, driven by a thirst for young metal, have the right to citizenship. Located in the fossil valley of Djado and in the municipality of Chirfa (more than 1,000 kilometers northeast of Agadez), this place was discovered on April 13, 2014, according to the regional department of mines and industrial development in Agadez, by a certain Amadou Maman Barka , a Toubou from Niger (46 years) previously expelled from Chad with two friends as they engaged in gold panning in the Tibesti massif. Reinstalled Chirfa, they realized that the hills of Djado had the same geological characteristics as the mountainous places of Chad and therefore possibly also contained gold. Since this region is a military zone, Amadou Maman Barka and his two companions asked the prefect for permission to go there and claimed the loss of a camel. Using metal detectors brought back from Tibesti, their investigation proved fruitful, so the small group quickly enriched themselves and picked up acquaintances to attend the celebration. This influx of people alerted the authorities, and the governor of the Agadez region ordered a mission to the site to assess the situation to take measures to organize the activity and ensure the safety of the site (600 soldiers were sent there). According to the same source, the extracted gold, day and night, is of alluvial type, solid and of superior quality, with a content of 22 carats. It comes in the form of nuggets of varying weight that can reach up to 300 grams and are placed in detrital stones mixed with quartz pebbles. To identify them, artisan miners use search coil metal detectors. As soon as they rang, they continued to extract the gold by stripping and digging promising surfaces to a depth of nearly 60 cm using rudimentary tools (shovels, picks, etc.) while the soil was loose. No chemical treatment of the rocks is necessary: ​​Even with the tongue you can see if it is gold, says a former gold digger, who specifies that you just have to remove the sand and dust. Subsequently, large Arab trading machines transported to public works from Libya to treat larger areas, a practice that is now banned as it has serious consequences for the environment (Decree n00153 / MMI / DGMG / DEMPC of 8 June 2016). The discovery of the gold deposit was followed by the discovery of a host of others, all in line for more than a hundred kilometers along a wide fossil valley (about 50 km wide) with little sand to the northwest as far as Emi Lullu. It provoked a first real gold rush. Influx of Nigerians, especially Toubou, but also returnees from Libya, that is, people who fled this country because of the war. Chadians and Sudanese have experience of gold laundering in the desert zone, sub-Saharan residents coming mainly from the Sahelan countries as well as traders and prospectors from Libya. The population of the places exceeded 10,000 people in two weeks, all men (from the age of 14), since the collected testimonies mention the absence of women in the places. In Djado, gold is alluvial and therefore shallow and even sometimes springs, resulting in extensive and very mobile gold washing. These characteristics remained in spite of the influx of people, and the places moved as the earth was systematically cleared. The metal detector is the necessary and often unique tool. In addition to the miners, sellers of food, water, gasoline, coal, tools, animals, vehicles 44, materials and tools settled near the capital, creating ex nihilo the largest market northeast of Agadez. Restaurants, air-conditioned lounges equipped with televisions and health centers have been created thanks to the generators. Seeing this as a major source of revenue, many carriers, mainly Toubous, started commuting between Djado, Dirkou, Bilma and Agadez, while others transport water from Chirfa (80 km from the capital). In addition, some sources condemn corruption, which affects certain government agents responsible for security and tax collection, who exploit the remote location of the area and its weak presence to make money completely unpunished. According to these sources, ordinary chiefs, community leaders and even local politicians introduced a number of informal taxes. Thus, they issue fake passports and permits to operate using a whole system of nominees so that foreigners can participate in the activity, note these sources. Finally, gold attracted an entire population of bandits of all kinds, so it seems impossible to ensure the maintenance of order in the squares and tracks. Authorities therefore decided to close the site on November 29, 2016 (the gold diggers had had a month to leave it) for fear of fights between gold diggers of various origins and in light of banditry that took place daily due to the intense circulation of weapons in the area. This date was finally postponed to February 28, 2017. Dozens of trucks carrying up to 300 people drove more than 10,000 gold miners to Agadez and to the gold mines in Ar. The stakes are high: for the state, it is a matter of nationalizing gold laundering, that is, expelling foreigners to dry up a possible source of economic migration, as Djado is close to migration axes leading to Algeria and Libya, but also to Europe, assesses Abou Garka, an official turned into a gold washer, met on the spot. He adds that the closure of the site may be linked to the strong pressure exerted by the EU (EU) to encourage Niger to stop sub-Saharan immigration passing through it, as the country receives funding for this purpose every year. . The gold miners are in fact suspected by the authorities and the EU, most often unjustifiably, of having a migration project in Europe and of stopping in Djado to reconstruct their capital there before continuing their journey towards the Mediterranean, Abdou Garka states.

By Mahamadou Diallo (onep), Special Envoy

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