Eight local miners escaped death by the whiskers last Saturday in Tunga, a remote village under Kadarko district in Wase local government area of Plateau State. Authorities say 12 miners had gone into the tunnel with the hope of excavating lead and zinc but four of the 12 were not so lucky when the tunnel gave in to environmental pressure, sealing off the main entrance.
Management Committee Chairman of Wase, Comrade Hassan Garba, said the surviving eight who accompanied them into the tunnel brought out the four corpses. However, local miners say apart from the four corpses dragged through an underground mine ventilation channel, there are fears that many others may have been buried alive.
Tunga, a village of about 370 kilometres from Jos and 120 kilometres from Wase town has witnessed beehive of mining activities in the last six months since Chinese miners allegedly left the area. The Chinese, locals say, had invested in rail-lines and carts to easily convey miners and minerals in and out of the tunnel. But in the course of excavation, they were said to have discovered the tunnel was unstable and so abandoned site and moved to other safer but ‘juicy’ sites in Gidan Allahramma, Bakin kaya, Jawando and Rikaya villages where mineral treasures abound.
However, before abandoning the area, Shafi’I Sambo an acting Councillor in Wase attested to the fact that the Chinese had sealed off the main entrance into the tunnel with woods and planks and left a danger sign for anyone approaching the area.
Sambo however said locals who had worked in the mines with the Chinese had returned to the site, ignoring the black human skull drawing on a wooden sign and carefully dug out earth, a few meters from the sealed entrance to create their own access.
Sunusi Abdullahi popularly called Sunusi Wasesa who used to be a miner and had gone into the tunnel twice said the dug pits by locals had connected with the Chinese tunnel underground, adding that, “all we needed was an entrance because the Chinese had done most of the work underground. Once inside, you can stand up straight and walked almost two killometers to where lead is excavated.”
Giving a vivid description of the tunnel, Wasesa said “it is deep and dark. When you go in, you have to walk for almost two kilometres using a torchlight and there is a lake which reaches the waist level for an adult male, you have to cross it to get to the excavation point.”
He said there are usually over 50 people working at the main excavation spot and explained that, “as soon as lead is discovered, miners dig out the edges to expose the mineral before explosives are used to blast it. When the lead is scattered on the ground, people scramble to pack what they can and at the beginning, noxious gas from the explosives was making most of the miners sick but they now go in with gas masks.”
Abdulahi said apart from the high level of drug usage among miners, he had been spooked by the scary dark tunnel and decided to quit mining a few months ago. Wasesa now uses his motorcycle as a dispatch carrier of excavated minerals from the pit entrance up the hills to readily available buyers.
Last week’s tragedy at the mining site was not the first, the tunnel is said to have claimed many lives in the last six month. “People die on weekly basis but this is just the first time it is getting attention because of the fear that some people were trapped inside,” said Shafi’i Sambo. Wasesa on his part said the death of the miners may be connected to a superstitious belief that when death occurs, high deposits of minerals are discovered in the tunnel.
“There are times you find five or six people working on a spot and one person may die, but the others will continue to dig because the likelihood of hitting it big at that moment is very high. Mining is connected to certain ground spirits and the Chinese know this which was why they used to make sacrifices on weekly basis; sometimes cattle or sheep but our miners make a lot of money from the activity yet refuse to make such sacrifice. This is why the tunnel claims lives,” said Wasesa.
Wasesa’s statement may explain why despite the death of four persons, more people immediately turned up at the site to continue excavation. The Chairman of Wase, Hassan Garba, had told Daily Trust that at the time he visited the site, several miners had continued to move in and out of other pits to excavate without giving any qualms to the danger.
A miner, Ibrahim Salisu, who was working at a nearby pit at the time of the collapse on Saturday claimed that the tunnel had collapse with some miners in it. Salisu said “there were people trapped in the tunnel because up till now, the whereabouts of some of the miners is not known even though authorities don’t want us to say it. But anybody who knows this work will tell you that there are some spiritual things attached to it, the mines claim lives but it also gives abundant mineral resources to those who survive.”
He expressed disappointment that though officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and their colleagues from the state agency had visited the site, they failed to use their equipments to detect those trapped in the pit.
However, the NEMA team which was led by Mr. Eugene Nyelong told Daily Trust that at the time they received the distress call, they were told about 56 persons had been trapped but stressed that their equipment had not detected any breathing from the tunnel.
Nyelong explained that “we were earlier told that it was a disaster so we immediately mobilised with other partners from SEMA to visit the scene and while we were there we didn’t detect any breathing. The chairman of the local government and those on site also confirmed to us that only four people died and their corpses have been removed and buried.”
The official however said he was shocked at the level of drug peddling taking place at the site and called on relevant authorities to take action. Our correspondent gathered that with a lot of money which local miners make daily, serious social vices such as drug abuse and prostitution have taken over the area.
“If you are lucky you can make as much as N500, 000 or N1 million a day because there are buyers from various parts of the country waiting on the hills. There are food vendors, prostitutes and drug peddlers there, most of the miners consume a lot of drugs in order to muster courage to go into the pit, I am not sure someone in his right senses will be comfortable in there,” said Wasesa.
Wase, Plateau’s largest local government area has four districts including Wase, Bashar, Lamba and Kadarko. Kadarko and Bashar have become every miners dream due to high deposits of lead, zinc and oxide. According to Shafi’s Sambo, it will be difficult for government to stop the activities of local miners no matter how risky. He said mining has so far reduced crime rate in the area and unless government finds better ways of engaging youths, criminality will be on the rise.
According to Wasesa, “even when the chairman of the local government suggested that they stop mining following the death of the four, a village head told the chairman that without mining, most of the youths would return to criminality.”
However, a Jos-based geologist, Surveyor Dakup Titus, advised that the rush for money in unstable pits at the detriment of lives was not worth it. Titus explained that, “these miners should not go blindly in search of money especially when there are danger signs that show that such a place is dangerous to life.”
He said for every mining activity, there should be some form of reclamation or restoration of the land based on the law adding that section 114 of the Nigeria Mining and Mineral Act deals with restoration of the mines area while section 115 deals with reclamation of the area. “The reclamation is that since you are digging out sand, when you are leaving, even if the soil you dug out is not enough to cover that area, you have to borrow sand from another place to fill that hole.”
He described as mere superstition the belief that sacrifices have to be made to appease ground spirits in order to prevent tragic accidents such as pit collapse, stressing that “the minerals underground are covered and by the time you uncover them, they can react to the surface of the air so it is not spiritual.”