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Red Earth Mining in Lagos – Good business or a ticking environmental time bomb

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On the trail of sand:

Red Earth Mining in Lagos: Good business or a ticking environmental time bomb?

…As MMSD gets special police squad for enforcement.

When Lagos state government began a clamp down on sand dredging from the rivers of the state, it marked the beginning of so many changes in the economy of sand and sand mining in the state.  Firstly, it pitted many federal and state agencies in a battle of supremacy:  the end is yet in sight but all sides are mobilizing all available help.  After some interregnum of hostile jousting, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) has achieved the emplacement of a special police squad at its beck and call for enforcement of the law that favours the agency to regulate sand mining.  All other contenders now play a grudging second fiddle. 

What about the bone of contention itself, the sand market?  One of the outcomes is a seeming  end to the dominance of sharp sand in the local market.  Now the vogue is red earth, being used, mostly because of the convergence of necessity and the nature of emerging projects in the state.  But the biggest question is the effect on the environment of such massive harvest of red earth around the state to supply the needs of frenzied construction companies all over Lagos.  Is it good business or a ticking environmental time bomb which will be manifest to future generations of Lagosians?
Although the frenzy of truck drivers around the state’s highways gives the impression that things have remained the same and sharp sand from rivers is still in wide use, the truer picture is that a change occurred in the predominant sand type in use. 

However, sharp sand remains expensive at a retail price of about N2,500.00 per cubic metre or more.  But red earth, formerly widely used as filling sand, is far cheaper at about N7,000.00 for a 10-ton truck load, depending on the distance for delivery. 
In fact, the huge volumes of red earth needed in the market has encouraged another generation of sand miners: the forest devourers. Their main attraction is virgin forests growing on hard soil.  Whereas river dredging was in search of sharp sand, this new quest is for red earth.  And the methods of harnessing the sand have been found to be less problematic for regulatory compliance than the hassles the Lagos state agencies usually put river sand mining operators through. 

The sites visited by DDH give an insight into the complexion of the business.  The first was at Lagasa village in Lekki, Eti-osa local government, about 10 kilometres through muddy track roads passable only by SUVs or heavy duty trucks with high axles.  Said to be owned by Yaba College of Technology, this site of about 20 acres had remained bushy and uncleared for many years. The school’s plan to turn it into staff quarters proved unrealizable because of the huge cost of clearing the forest and leveling the grounds.  When developments in the Lekki peninsula continued to gain momentum and the need for red earth became marketable, news filtered out through the local land owners popularly called Omo n’iles that there was land that could be turned into good money with the right investment.

The firm of sand miners, FSS, through their chairman approached the college and secured an agreement to bring in earth moving equipment and other plants to level the ground and mine the red earth for sale to road construction companies.When DDH visited the site in May, more than 80% of the forest had been cleared, with a lot of the overburden  harvested and sold to construction companies. Trucks were still moving in and buying up the sand at the rate of N6,000.00 per 10-ton truck. The ground, through the scraping of the surface soil had been leveled and ready for the construction of staff quarters by Yaba College of Technology, according to local people who milled around the vicinity. The school had even built a concrete fence around the perimeter of the large piece of land, with imminent construction of houses said to be on the drawing board.

During the administration of Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, there were comparatively less road projects than now.  But since the onset of the Fashola government, on the other hand, not only has the number of active infrastructure projects increased, the state began to enforce a controversial clamp down on dredging sharp sand from the rivers using mechanized dredgers.  This has occasioned series of effects in the sand and gravel market in the state. 

Firstly, there was a scarcity of sharp sand  in Lagos state beginning from the first quarter of 2008.  The state’s Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Department (MWID) under the headship of Prince Adesegun Oniru, managed to come into a commanding position in the matter of licensing and approval processes for such dredging activities, and, in fact, for all dredging operations, a step that meant a declaration of war with many interest groups.  Chief amongst these interest groups were the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) which by the Mining Act of 2007 had superior powers in the licensing of all operators mining sand or other minerals around the country.  Their angst at the intrusion and presumptions of the Lagos State Government in sand mining matters became a major issue which often led to arrests and counter arrests of operators and security operatives by security forces attached to the opposing task forces of the two powers.  As against MMSD’s resentment on the matter, Lagos State Government claimed that it passed an enabling law in the state in 2004 which authorized the Office of the Special Adviser to the Governor on Mineral Resources (abbreviated as OSAMRD) to regulate all issues of mineral mining in the state. Using this law, MWID went on an enforcement spree which stopped all operators from work, including those licensed by MMSD.  There was great confusion, and as many insisted, a free environment for dubious state government officials to make hay through bribery and underhand deals. 

Another aggrieved party in the state was the National Inland Waterway Authority (NIWA) which by a 1997 federal government decree was empowered by law to regulate inland waterways development, use and management all over the federation.  It had been using its position before the new  disagreements to collect revenue in the form of royalties from dredging companies mining sand from all rivers in the country, including those of Lagos state.  Now, such NIWA activity and regulation were curtailed and even threatened as its enabling law was repealed in the state, something that has not happened elsewhere before or since then. To facilitate the formulation of its legal frameworks to control waterfront activities in its domain, Lagos state being bounded by plentiful water resources, thereafter promulgated the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), a rival body to NIWA.  NIWA did not take this lying low and various adversarial measures were taken by the two bodies on the field, on the airwaves, in newspapers and even in the courts of the law.  The then President, Alh Musa Yar’adua on getting a ministerial note from the Federal Ministry of Transport, NIWA’s supervising ministry, directed a resort to the Supreme Court, in line with the government’s rule of law mantra.  But Lagos state was not dissuaded by such a move and pushed ahead to enforce the provisions of these state agencies charged to harness internally generated revenue from the mining sector and the water resources sub sectors. 

All these translated to more financial burden on the operators who now have to pay two masters.  Unfortunately for NIWA and MMSD, Lagos state government was able to deploy more foot soldiers and seemed nonchalant about gentlemanly methods.  The show of force by its enforcement team was unrivalled and the operators soon learnt to respect the new kids on the block, as they seized all equipment found on dredging or mining sites that fouled any of their regulations.  Moreover, there were allegations that Lagos state enforcement officials on the field were brazenly pursuing money inducements for their personal use.  Corruption was being practiced and covered up in the general confusion of the inter-agency rivalry.  Law suits were being made by many parties and operators in the sector for or against the federal or the state government depending on whose interest was at stake.  

While MMSD seemed to have carved a stronger niche for itself with the passing of the Nigerian Mining Act of 2007 which it tries to enforce on all parties, including the state government, the same cannot be said for NIWA which never fully recovered from the weakening of its turf by the new rival, LASWA.  Attempts by NIWA to challenge the offensive status quo in court and reverse its fortunes are yet to yield any appreciable results.  But all the parties now appear to be learning to cohabit in the uneasy peace: the war has abated but without a truce.

To all intents and purposes, this is the semblance of the order now prevailing in the sand mining and supply market in Lagos as at press time.  Tempers have cooled and new adjustments are seemingly being made especially by desperate dredge owners and operators some of whom have borrowed bank money to launch into business.  The aim is to see if business, any form of business acceptable to all parties can continue.  DDH gathered, for example, that the MMSD, after succeeding with the request for a special police squad for its enforcement activities, has resumed active licensing and monitoring of all sand mining operations, with appropriate bills being given at the rate of N28 per cubic metre.  It gave the German-originated construction giant handling the Lagos-Badagry road expansion project a bill running into hundreds of millions of Naira in May as royalties for sand usage, the magazine gathered.  And similar bills were being prepared for sand suppliers to the contractors of the Lagos-Epe road project and other high profile projects.  A top official of the agency confided in DDH that all operators are now taking MMSD serious and even officials of Lagos state government, caught in an unwinnable war, have resorted to advising those they approve for sand mining to consider working with companies which already possess MMSD approved mining fields with assigned coordinates.  Many see this development as a pointer to the fact that the state government may really be an interloper in the sector with no certain future.   

What has the state achieved with its touted plan to regulate dredging from the rivers of the state and limit the number of approved operators?  The first story was that only 15 dredging companies will be approved by Lagos state to dredge sand from the rivers.  The list never saw the light of day except a few licenses said to have been granted to some dredge operators in Ikorodu and Construction Support Ltd in Aja, where sand stockpiles were later made.  A few operators confided in the magazine that they had got permit to dredge from various rivers but otherwise many others are lying low.  By mid-year, the list of licensees began to increase word made the rounds that one of the requirements for getting a license was to have a top Lagosian or top government official as a director in the board of the company.  But many of the lucky licensees had no previous experience nor dredging equipment; they were only well connected to the strings of political power and the calculation was that those with Lagos state dredging permits will need to strike private deals with those licensed by MMSD who had mining coordinates registered in their names.  Industry intelligence was that any operator in default of MMSD approval risked arrest by the special police squad working with the agency.  Perhaps here is the lynchpin of the current rapprochement:  the fear of an enforceable statute in the hands of a determined officer. 

That officer is the new mining officer for Lagos State, Engr Mayowa Omasebi, who has been in the state for quite some time and seems to know much about its history of squabbles with other agencies.  From past interviews with the young engineer, he goes about MMSD enforcement with appreciable passion: he leaves no one in doubt about his intentions. 
In fact, the magazine sought to be embedded in one of his trips around mining sites in the Eti-Osa local government and Ibeju Lekki axes of the state in May, a trip that uncovered much information and explains the profile of the sand business in the state currently.  As said earlier, the preponderance of sand use since the Fashola administration have favoured red earth because of its application as a base for road construction.   

Aside from the FSS site reported above, other sites visited include a planned estate for Chinese style flats which was being planned as a joint venture between Geoni Construction and a Chinese firm at Ibeju Lekki.  Many other such red earth mining sites have been licensed by the MMSD and Engineer Omasebi, confided in the magazine that these companies’ modus operandi agreed well with his office, environment-wise.  He said he tours them regularly and enforces laid down environmental standards.
In this whole melee, the side that took very much of the beating is the operator: he now gets more bills from more agencies and must settle them all, even if grudgingly.  Why are sand mining operators able to cope?  Firstly, the field is alive with much rich pickings… so many projects are alive and ongoing in the state and cannot stop without ugly consequences for government service delivery targets, perceived political good will and so-called dividends of democracy in a state now reputed with high achievement by the Governor.  Eventually, however, it may be that the state government will ultimately be made to refund the sand miners, the high cost of doing business in the sand market: the price of sand will have to continue to rise