WHOEVER THINKS AFRICA is anywhere near total emancipation on the political, social and economic fronts could be daydreaming, particularly based on the various events and emerging issues around and within the continent. Just a few days ago, a long-serving President Idriss Deby of Chad Republic died of injuries he sustained from the frontline in the fight against rebels’ incursion into Chad. Deby, a former Army Commander before he took over power in 1990, had, previously, repeatedly and personally led military forces in fights against terrorists and insurgents in his own perceived attempts to keep his country safe. Rather than picking his running mate as a successor in the just concluded election that was decided in his favour as winner with over 70 per cent of the total votes, a rather awkward decision tantamount to coup was taken and the will of the Chadians subverted. Deby’s son, an army officer, was named as his successor who is expected to be in charge of the state affairs as president for another 18 months, that is, “all things being equal” as economists are wont to say.
Although it was not immediately clear what was the overriding motivation of the rebel group Idriss Deby went out to confront before he died, two educated guesses can be made. Unlike some insurgents who are bent on infiltrating with hard line religious ideologies, it is possible the group could be all-out for power grab or, given their geo-ecological positioning, could be involved in some illegal mining operations to make money, following which they could metamorphose into organised army of occupation and subsequently attempt to overthrow the government at the centre. The school of thought on illegal mining is reminiscent of Muammar Gaddafi’s uranium ambition in the 1970s as Libyan President when he attempted to annex Aozou Strip, part of the northern Chad reportedly rich in uranium. For about 21 years leading up to 1994, Libya’s forces occupied the disputed territory until the International Court of Justice in The Hague settled the rift, leading to Libya’s withdrawal of its troops from the area. A point can therefore be made about Africa’s obsession with commodities and the conflicts this has caused, and continues to cause in Africa. Quite often, cases of mining in Africa have benefitted a handful of people rather than the vast majority of the populace as Gaddafi’s uranium exploits were then designed to be. Africa would probably have been having an equivalent of Kim Jong-un of North Korea in Libya by now.
The stories of mining in Africa are getting rather worrisome, not so much from the historical perspectives, but from the contemporary and future standpoints. Africa is famed for its rich mineral deposits of a wide array of minerals – from the bulky to the small but precious and expensive. Although the mineral extracts from the African soil have largely funded much of its economic development, a continued dependence on them provides strong basis for a negative prognosis of Africa’s environmental future. Take uranium and countries where they are found. Chad is easily one of the sparsely populated countries in Africa, particularly in the northern parts of the country. It is not surprising if the rich uranium deposit becomes the temptation for foreign insurgents as is currently the case with those invaders in the Cabo Degaldo where gas and mineral deposits found only recently seemed to have become a problem. The presence of French military forces was reported in Chad in the fight against rebels. This was understandable, considering the veneer of assimilation of former colonies while France continues to feed fat on the resources of these former colonies. The situation would not have been different with Niger Republic, another neighbouring – but also uranium-rich country. Niger reportedly provides a bulk of uranium that powers electricity in France, but electricity supply in Niger is abysmally low.
Mining in Africa creates peculiar occupational health and safety hazards that need a deliberate and conscious effort to mitigate, primarily in the cases of those who work directly in the mines and, secondarily, those who live in the immediate environment of mines. Countries that depend on mining as the mainstay of their economies need to go the extra mile of guaranteeing the environmental health and safety of their people. Uranium in particular has to be handled with a lot of care as because of the health risks involved. Countries with huge deposits therefore need to work with competent authorities to safeguard people’s health. This becomes more germane in the context of green energy advocacy. Many countries of Africa are likely to be at a disadvantage as the rush for minerals to satisfy global consumption demands puts unprecedented pressure on Africa, leading to various forms of anomalous business and political decisions, many of which could be harmful to the people, and for which those at the receiving ends may have no channel for seeking redress. Without well organised interface between countries and international professional bodies and competent regulatory authorities, the rise in the demand for Africa’s minerals could be the continent’s undoing.
Uranium contamination is a global health concern. ELSEVIER, a notable publication, in its Volume 145 of Environment International, published an article on “Emerging health risks and underlying toxicological mechanisms of uranium contamination: Lessons from the past two decades.” Some extracts showed that natural and anthropogenic uranium contaminations cause latent risks to public health, including that recent advances in toxicological mechanisms involved in the chemotoxicity of uranium have been comprehensively presented. Many epidemiological and laboratory studies have demonstrated that environmental and occupational uranium exposure can induce multifarious health problems. Uranium exposure may cause health risks because of its chemotoxicity and radiotoxicity in natural or anthropogenic scenarios. Although few in number, the multinational mining companies that are earning billion-dollar profits in Zambia have had a massive impact on its environment and people. Zambia has been highly dependent on copper and the mining industry for over a century. The country economic progress has taken a huge toll on both the environment and people’s health. Cases abound of land degradation, widespread deforestation, ubiquitous water and air pollution from particles, which also ruthlessly affect those residing near mines.
Although Chile is in the Andean Region of the Latin America, a few lessons about the negative outcomes of copper mining from there could be of help in Africa. A publication known as Int J Environ Res Public Health, published in January 2018, on “Estimating the Causal Impact of Proximity to Gold and Copper Mines on Respiratory Diseases in Chilean Children: An Application of Targeted Maximum Likelihood Estimation” disclosed thus: that Chile contributed to 31 per cent of the world’s production of copper and two per cent of the gold production. It disclosed that open-pit mining, used in up to 91 per cent of the mines, is the primary extraction method in Chile. It posited that children are particularly susceptible to air pollution because they spend more time outdoors and have a higher breathing rate than adults. Despite the prominent role that mining plays in the economy of South Africa, it is associated with many chemical hazards. Many workers have experienced occupational exposure to toxic substances such as platinum, chromium, vanadium, manganese, mercury, cyanide and diesel particles. Exposure to dust from mining has been associated with many pathological effects depending on mineralogical composition, size, shape and levels and duration of exposure. The individual and community impacts occupational injuries and ill-health have social and economic implications take the forms of direct and indirect costs, affecting the society as a whole. Total costs of occupational accidents and disease have been estimated at between 1 and 3 per cent of GDP in various countries.
Cobalt mining in DR Congo has reportedly led to DNA damage in children living in the mining area, according to a study. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) was quoted as noting that “chronic exposure to cobalt-containing hard metal (dust or fume) can result in a serious lung disease called ‘hard metal lung disease.’” The growing global market for cobalt – a naturally occurring element – as a critical component in lithium-ion in rechargeable batteries for portable electronic devices has increased the incessant pressure over the commodity in recent years as many top electronic and electric vehicle companies need cobalt to help power their products. But this industry is now riddled with scandalous reports of child labour in cobalt mines in the DR Congo as The Amnesty reports first revealed that cobalt mined by children was ending up in products from prominent tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and Samsung. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported recently that “developing countries pay environmental cost of electric car batteries.” The organisation expressed concerns by beaming a searchlight on this new green economy. According to UNCTAD, “growth in electric car sales is great news for the fight against climate change, but the mining of the minerals used in their batteries poses serious risks for the environment. Global consumers are warming up to electric cars, whose sales are expected to jump from three million vehicles in 2017 to 23 million in 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Similar growth is expected for rechargeable batteries, with the market for cathode – the positive electrode of the lithium-ion battery – forecast to reach $58 billion in 2024, up from an estimated $7 billion in 2018.”
Behind these great expectations are some untold stories of miseries. While this is great news for efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, an UNCTAD report says the expected boom in mining for the raw materials used to make rechargeable batteries raises environmental and social concerns that must be urgently addressed. “Most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects of electric vehicles,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight.” And these are the areas where Africa must not allow itself to be manipulated. Africa must therefore tirelessly resist all external commercial pressures that could push it to the brink in the quest for minerals to power the new green world that is in the making.