HUMAN RIGHTS: Not What We Expected

A piece of coal from the Okobo coal mine
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A piece of coal from the Okobo coal mine

Okobo, a small town in Enjema District of Ankpa Local Government Area, has reserves of up to 380 million tonnes of coal. The civil society group Global Rights focuses on human rights issues in mining communities in West Africa, and have visited Okobo community regularly to monitor the impact of coal mining on the lives of its people. Abiodun Baiyewu-Teru, Executive Director at Global Rights Nigeria, describes the human rights perspective of coal mining in Nigeria.

Gathered in a primary school classroom on a quiet Thursday afternoon, were some members of Okobo community – the community chief, their titled elders, women and youth representatives as well as some concerned residents. As they sat fidgeting and speaking with one another in whispers, they cut a picture of most Nigerians who live on less than a dollar a day, and grapple daily with the dividends of underdevelopment. Present also at this gathering was a government representative from the office of the Special Adviser to the Kogi State Governor on Mineral Resources.

Okobo is a remote, peaceful, agrarian community which recently began to play host to commercial coal mining after the Federal Government negotiated and assigned a mining license to ETA Zuma Group. Evidence of governance at this community is deficient. Okobo lacks access to basic infrastructure: there is no electricity, pipe borne water, tarred roads, hospitals, schools, public buildings, public transportation or even a police station. Talks of a multi-million dollar project which held the potential of putting them on the map and improving their quality of living was exciting news for them. But after welcoming the development and the promises it portended for their community, they, like most mining communities in Nigeria, were beginning to be confronted by the challenges extractive activities bring to their host communities. It was these challenges that this meeting sought to discuss.

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Contaminated water inside Okobo coal mine pit (Photo: hbs Nigeria)

Promises of development
Mr. Idris Ibrahim, assuming the role of the community spokesperson at the gathering, read out loud from a piece of paper in his right hand: “some years ago when the company by name Zuma Nigeria Limited came and approached us to establish a company to mine coal in our community, we granted their request hinged on some conditions.” Mr. Ibrahim went on to list the social and economic demands the community had made as a precondition for permitting mining activities in their vicinity. These had included a block of classrooms for a school, potable water, a health centre, and a sundry list of conditions most underdeveloped communities would think to add to a Community Development Agreement. “But to our dismay,” he read on, “the company did not strictly adhere to the conditions mentioned above - except for a few”.


  • Okobo has reserves of 380 million tonnes of coal
  • ETA Zuma Group has a license to mine 100 million tonnes of coal, and is applying for additional licenses
  • ETA Zuma Group has licenses to build coal power plants in Itobe, Kogi State, to generate up to 1,200 MW
  • Okobo coal is sufficient to feed the Itobe power plants
  • Until construction of the Itobe power plants is completed, the mining in Okobo provides coal for brickets for cooking, or possibly for firing steel production.

The villagers nodded in agreement as Mr. Ibrahim read his statement. Supporting his statement, the traditional chief and paramount ruler of the community, Chief Aminu Abubakar, stated that ETA Zuma Group, had promised to develop and provide the basic infrastructure Mr. Ibrahim had listed in his speech, once the coal mine was in full operation. While acknowledging that the company had built and handed over a new school building to the community, the Chief insisted that that was not enough - It was just one item on the list of conditions the community had proposed and Zuma Energy had assented to. “A community cannot survive without good roads” he lamented “We don’t have good water because the chemical from the coal mine is polluting our only source of water, no hospital and we are also not properly recognized by the company!”
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Exposed water in Okobo coal mine pit (Photo: hbs Nigeria)

Compensation or joint development planning?
The Nigerian Mineral and Mining Act of 2007 makes it compulsory for mining companies to seek social license for their activities from their host communities and to reach a community development agreement (CDA) with them before a mining license is issued. Yet, there was no documentary evidence of a CDA reached between Zuma Energy and Okobo community. Evidence of its existence became even more confusing when neither the company nor the community representatives could provide one. In a separate interview, Ambassador Joseph Ayalogu, the Corporate Relations Director at Zuma Energy, explained that a community development agreement existed, but only as an addendum of some sort to a lease agreement signed by both the company and the community. The community however insisted that they had never seen a copy of the signed agreement and that they had no knowledge of the parties who were signatories to it. They insist that their agreement with the company had been oral.

According to Ambassador Ayalogu, “But the Ministry of Mines has a new approach…there should be a standalone CDA, which we have already prepared and sent to the community”. At the time of writing this article, the newly prepared community development agreement was also in contention as the community leaders insisted that they had never received it.

The primary school classroom in which Okobo community members had gathered to discuss their plight, is the core tangible community development project undertaken by ETA Zuma Group. The primary school building boasts of six sparsely furnished classrooms (which was still of better quality than government built schools in the state), two lavatories and an overhead water tank which supplied the water needs of the school and recently had been extended to the community after the pollution of their stream. The water which filled the overhead tank was supplied by a water tanker truck with which the company fetched water from a neighbouring source. While grateful for the school block, Okobo’s indigenes insist that the building was only constructed to replace a previously existing one which collapsed due to strong vibrations from the company’s large excavation tractors. ETA Zuma Group claimed that the former school building’s foundation was already defective and was destined to collapse in any event.

According to the community, the collapsed school building killed a pupil who was buried in its rubble. The community’s paramount chief, who had been the deceased pupil’s  guardian till his tragic death, said that the company was yet to officially acknowledge the incident or offer any form of compensation to them. The government claimed no knowledge of the event.

At the inception of the coal mine operations in 2011, residents of Okobo community had such great expectations. According to them, they were promised the mines would bring numerous job opportunities and would radically improve their standards of living. Four years on and 30,000 metric tonnes of excavated coal later, only 14 members of the community had been employed by the company. The number of indigenous people employed by the company represents only a small fraction of the total staff strength of over a hundred people. Counting off the tips of his fingers, the paramount chief acknowledged the number of local residents who had been employed by the Mine, “We have 14 people working in the company - 3 are drivers, 2 are helpers, 3 are cleaners and the rest are security guards”.

“Too much dust!”
The environmental degradation they suffered from as a result of the mines operations was another source of contention for the community. “Dust! Too much dust! Once they remove and lift the coal, the entire village is covered in coal dust. The roads too are very dusty. When their big tractors run at top speed, we are covered in dust.” According to the community, there had been a definite increase in respiratory diseases since the Zuma Energy commenced its operations.

The dust emanates not only from the lorries trawling the untarred roads around Okobo, but also from the grinding of the coal within Okobo. Once the coal from the pit is ground in Okobo, it is then transported in lorries to neighboring Okaba, where a factory presses the powder into brickets used for cooking. There has been no official survey of the health impacts of the coal mining operation on the community so far. Without such a baseline survey, the community has no scientific evidence to defend their claim that the mine is affecting their health. But global comparison indicates that people’s health is at stake in Okobo. Statistics from Mpumalanga Province in South Africa, which has a long history in coal mining, show that inhaling the dust from coal pollutants is instrumental in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease characterized by permanent narrowing of airways and quite common in coal mining host communities.

Trace amounts of mercury in coal dusts affect the nervous system and can cause loss of intellectual capacity. Studies in Mpumalanga have shown the relation between coal mining and stunted growth in children. The correlation between coal mining and asthma in mining host communities has been established in several countries including the
US where environmental pollution regulation is much stricter than in Nigeria. Many community members in Okobo are not aware of these potential consequences. To make matters worse, community members have no health care facilities in Okobo. The two room clinic built by ETA Zuma Group is reserved exclusively for its staff.

Contaminated stream
But the biggest problem for Okobo citizens is water. Before the coal mine opened, residents were fetching water from the stream that runs through the village. The coal mining has changed all that as the excavation activities within the 5-meter deep open pit affect the ground water. ETA Zuma Group’s surface mining activities consume large volumes of water and excavation activities have possibly disrupted the water bed in the community. The contaminated residue water from the activities find their way back to the community’s stream. Globally, it is acknowledged that the greatest risk that mining brings to water sources is Acid Mine Drainage.

Acid mine drainage consists of three interrelated problems: first, the pyrite in the rock gives rise to water with a low pH level. This acid water in turn mobilizes heavy metals from the environment, in the mine or in the river course from the sediments. The oxidation of pyrites due to excavation activities causes chemical reactions of the metals which in concentrated amounts are dangerous for human consumption.

The mining related pollution of the community’s water source has resulted in residents – especially women and children - having to travel long distances to neighboring communities to fetch water for their consumption. According to them, the water from their stream has become so bad that they cannot use it even for their laundry. A scientific analysis commissioned by Global Rights also revealed that their water’s turbidity and chemical content was higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended levels for human consumption.

Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air. The measurement of turbidity is a key test of water quality. As the mining pits are awash with fresh and contaminated waters, they have become a breeding ground for weeds and all sorts of vectors including malaria bearing mosquitoes and reptiles in unprecedented numbers in the community.

A new start
According to the community’s leaders, the oral MoU between the company and the community expires in 2016 and will need to be renewed. This would give them an opportunity to negotiate a better deal and also to ensure that this time around, they have proper representation at the negotiating table - something that they lacked during the previous negotiation four years ago. According to Gago Majiadah, a community elder, the people who had negotiated and signed the CDA on their behalf did so for their own selfish interests. Majiadah argues that those people were not from the core clans that were affected by the mining activities, even though they come from the area. Speaking in his local dialect he says, “Their water is safe for them to drink, their land is arable for them to farm. The real people who are affected are ignored and the company seems not to understand”. While they were largely disappointed, the community still credits the company for fulfilling some of their statutory obligations. For example, according to them, the company has never defaulted in meeting its annual obligation of paying surface rights to the land owners. They had put up a new school building for the children, provided a monthly stipend for the administration of the school and leveled the major road leading to the community. “It is not like we are ungrateful with what the company has done,” says Mr. Idris Ibrahim. “Things are just not the way we expected”.