China’s massive metals industry can only maintain its size using imported minerals, frequently from limited suppliers. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, the country has actively invested in mining assets in Africa and Latin America, and is beginning to engage in overseas refining and downstream facilities.
Many countries have welcomed this with open arms. Africa’s mining and mineral extraction industries, especially in countries like Nigeria, Namibia and Ghana, have attracted billions of dollars from China, one of the continent’s biggest participants. The vast reserves of cobalt, lithium, copper, and other minerals essential to modern technology production have attracted investment and operations in several African countries.
But recently, some African countries and China have reportedly experienced tensions in the mining industry. China has been accused of operating illegal mining activities and funding militant groups, disrupting the otherwise stable bond built on mining investment.
Is China funding Nigerian militant groups?
British newspaper The Times reported in April that some Chinese mining firms had funded Nigerian militant groups to get access to the country’s mineral reserves. This raises the prospect of China indirectly funding terror in Nigeria, causing societal disruption for its own gain.
According to The Times, Chinese firms working in certain regions of Nigeria where crime incidents are common have been “striking security deals with insurgents”. Attacks against Chinese citizens, estimated to number between 100,000 and 200,000 in Nigeria, have been widespread as a result of this.
Researchers discovered that interactions with militants are so strong in regions of Zamfara that some miners operate as spies for Chinese businesses that control gold-mining sites across Nigeria, it said.
How well do you really know your competitors?
Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.
Your download email will arrive shortly
Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample
We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below formBy GlobalData
The Chinese Embassy in Nigeria objected to The Times’ report at the time, calling it “unverified, unclear and unproven information”. The statement also noted the bilateral cooperation between China and Nigeria, which has brought “tangible” benefits to both countries. Nigeria has banned the export of raw materials, aiming to keep processing industries within the country, and on the surface, China seems happy to comply.
“The Chinese government was not, and would never be, involved in any form of funding terrorism. The allegations in the report were irresponsible and unethical, and the intention of the report is seriously questioned,” the Chinese government said in a statement.
Arrests for illegal mining activities in Nigeria
In September, ahead of Nigerian President Bola Tinubu’s visit to India for the G20 summit, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told the Chinese Embassy in Abuja that it would take action against companies if they did not obey the law.
People familiar with the matter said illegal Chinese companies were operating in some Nigerian states, including Niger, Zamfara and Edo, India’s Economic Times (ET) reported.
In July, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested 13 Chinese workers. Authorities alleged that the miners from W Mining Global Service were involved in illegal mining activities in the Kwara state, in the western part of the country. The suspects were arrested for illegal mining and non-payment of royalties to the Federal Government as required by law, according to the EFCC.
The EFCC discovered that the firm had utilised illegally mined granite to manufacture marble for local sale in Nigeria. The findings also showed that several suspects in the company did not have a work permit and entered Nigeria on a visitor’s visa.
In the span of eight months, the EFCC’s Ilorin Zonal Command arrested 80 unlicensed operators and impounded 24 truckloads of assorted minerals.
Chinese licenses revoked in Namibia
Another Chinese company, Sinuo Xiyan Nigeria, has been pursued by the EFCC and political powers. On 10 September 2022, the EFCC’s Ilorin Zonal Command arrested a Chinese national, Dang Deng, managing director of lithium miner Sinuo Xinyang Nigeria. He was charged with possessing 25 tonnes of assorted crude minerals and convicted on 19 October.
Namibia’s Minister of Mines, Tom Alweendo, revoked the company’s mining licence in April this year and ordered it to cease operations by the end of May. The minister alleged that the company used an improper application process to get the permit.
However, Xinfeng appealed the minister’s claims in the Namibian High Court, claiming Alweendo lacked the authority to reverse his prior decision to grant the mining licence. On 27 July, a judge ruled that this was the case.
In June, Namibia prohibited the export of raw lithium and other vital minerals to boost domestic processing and capitalise on the rising demand for metals used in clean energy technology worldwide. Four months later, the government ordered police to ban Xinfeng Investments from shipping or exporting lithium ore, accusing the Chinese miner of ignoring this restriction.
In a letter seen by Reuters, Namibia’s Mining Commissioner asked the country’s police chief to stop any trucks bringing raw lithium ore from Xinfeng’s Kohero mine, roughly 250km northwest of Windhoek, Namibia.
However, Namibian officials remain happy to promote the role of China in diplomatic relations. In a China-Namibia business networking event hosted by the Chinese Embassy, the country’s Executive Director of the Ministry of Industrialization and Trade spoke highly of China and its role in creating jobs for people in Namibia, according to the Embassy’s statement.
Pushing against exploitation
In addition to mining issues in Nigeria and Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo has banned six Chinese businesses operating in South Kivu for illegally extracting gold and other minerals. Before this, according to the ET, 33 Chinese nationals were detained in Ghana in 2019 for engaging in illegal gold mining activities.
Tom Sheehy, a distinguished fellow at the US Institute of Peace’s Africa Center, described the situation: “This isn’t just an issue of economic development, not just an issue of geopolitical competition. Sadly, the history of Africa has all too many cases of natural resources being exploited and fueling conflict,” he said.
In July this year, the Nigerian Ministry of Mines and Steel Development pushed for the cooperation of the federal and state governments to eliminate illegal mining activities.
Nigerian Minister of Solid Minerals Development Dele Alake claimed that the tenacity of President Tinubu’s administration will end the risk of illegal mining, which damages the country and costs it significant income.
“Africa has historically suffered exploitation by different global powers. China is only the newest comer to this ‘party’. What should bother us is the role African leaders play in the exploitation of Africans. If African leaders lead in the interest of their people rather than the selfish interest of the leaders, then Africa stands a chance to redefine its engagement with the rest of the world.”
“So long as the focus remains on who is the present or next exploiter, we perpetuate the narrative of victimhood, which serves the interest of bad leaders in Africa,” Leonard Otuonye Ugbajah, executive director at the Centre for Trade and Business Environment Advocacy, told the ET.
Ultimately, many African countries have taken measures to tackle illegal mining and exploitation, but China’s response remains uncertain.