BEYOND BIAFRA: Diamonds in the dirt of the Niger

Sand Dredging Beyond Biafra

by Victor Akhimenor

The first sign of trouble should, perhaps, have been his unwillingness to disclose his identity, despite several glances at my face and identification card.

“You are a journalist,” he declared. “Who sent you to me?” he demanded.

Another request for my identification card. Another glance at my face.

Such was my introduction to the world of sand dredgers at the bank of the River Niger in Onitsha, Anambra state – a world where a journalist and his tape recorder are viewed with suspicion.

Sand Dredging Beyond Biafra

Dredging – the digging of mud, sand, gravel, pebbles, rocks and other deposits from the bottoms of creeks, lagoons, and sand waterways – has seen an increase in production in Nigeria in recent times.

Though there are no reliable figures on the annual production, it is generally agreed that there are challenges with meeting up with increasing demands.

Chinonso, the ID-obsessed dredger, is quick to agree.

“There’s huge demand for sand,” he says. “But the market is an ogbanje market because prices fluctuate.  There’s no price regulation because the controlling association – sand dealers association – is weak.”

“Most of my colleagues don’t follow the agreed pricing because they want to sell more sand than you,” he continues. “But on a good day we get 20 to 30 trucks of sand to sell.”

Today appears to be one of such days and the dark complexioned manager gladly takes me through the process of dredging for sand.

“The boat goes into sea several times,” he says. “We go inside the river to get sharp sand because the sand close to shore is dusty and doesn’t meet the purpose of using it in building of houses and related works.”

“We position the pumps in the target portion and run it through the boat using pumping machines. It pumps the water and sand unto shore and we separate the water from the sand using a blockage. The water goes back in the river and the sand remains. A truck loads it into a tipper and it’s ready for sale.”

The process, he says, can be completed in a day.

Prospective miners, lured by the relative straightforwardness of the dredging process, are first of all issued permits by the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development (MSMD). Before this happens, however, the agency visits the proposed site to carry out Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) to determine the possible adverse effects of the project to the site and its inhabitants.

Sand Dredging Beyond Biafra

To regulate dredging, different categories of permits renewable after a year are issued to prospective dredgers.

The Category A permit, given to dredging firms and/or dredge machine operators. The Category B permits are issued to sand stockpilers and sellers, while Category C permits are reserved for participants who manually dredge sand from the rivers and creeks, using canoes and motor boats. This is the group to which Chinonso belongs.

But it hasn’t been without its hurdles, he asserts.

“The major challenge I have faced since I started managing this business was in 2014 when we had issues with a naval outpost,” he recalls.

“They seized our boats because they said we were dredging without licence as if they are the ones who issue out those licences. Imagine, they even likened our activities to oil bunkering.”

The dredgers, under their umbrella body, Dredger Owners Association of Anambra State (DOAAS), had to give the naval officer a 24-hour ultimatum to release their boats and other dredging equipment. The matter was later resolved but beyond the 24-hour ultimatum.

But hassles like this one are not enough to make him even consider leaving, he says, certain that he will find success of his own here.

“I have been here since five years ago and don’t intend leaving any moment because it’s a very lucrative business,” he says.

“I hope to set up mine soon.”

Beyond Biafra is YNaija’s citizenship series for the month of April. Find more entries in the series here.

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