The cargo could hardly go unnoticed. Nearly 1,400 kg of gold bars, with an estimated value of more than 60 billion CFA francs (91.4 million euros), were seized in early January at Addis Ababa airport, in Ethiopia, while they were transiting without any official document from Niger to the United Arab Emirates. Made public by the NGO Transparency International, the case was entrusted to the Nigerien judicial police. “The people involved in this trafficking will be identified and, if necessary, will be brought before the judicial authorities,” promised, Thursday, January 25, the Minister of Justice, Alio Daouda.

But the investigation promises to be difficult given “the extent of corrupt practices in the chain of management of authorizations for the exploitation and marketing of gold resources”, underlines the Nigerien Association for the Fight against Corruption. According to the latter, the export of gold was made possible thanks to the complicity of security agents at Niamey airport. Since then, eighty-two customs, police, gendarmerie, and water and forestry agents have been relieved of their duties or assigned to other posts during the investigation.

These diversions are not new, as revealed by data on gold shipments to Dubai compiled by Transparency International Niger. In 2020, for example, “actual gold exports reached up to 34.26 tonnes with a total value of US$1,743.5 million, while only 18.2 tonnes were reported to the Ministry of Mines in during the same year”, points out the NGO. Fraud “facilitated by the crumbling of borders with Algeria and Libya”, recalls André Bourgeot, former anthropologist specializing in the Sahel at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Considerable losses for the State

Five days after the announcements from Transparency International Niger, the ministry of mines announced that it was suspending the granting of mining titles and the last permits granted. This “temporary stop” should officially make it possible to take stock of gold mining, mainly informal, and to encourage artisanal gold miners to declare themselves in order to “start again on new bases”, explains Yaou Fatimata Korgom, the deputy secretary general of the ministry of mines. “Most gold panning sites do not have authorization from the ministry. (…) If gold panning is regulated, it is an activity on which the country and the economy [can] count,” adds the official.

So far, the losses for the State have been considerable. Although the sector is growing like the Samira mine, operated by the state-owned Liptako Mines Company, industrial production represents less than 20% of exports. In addition, the production capacity of the Samira site, estimated at three tonnes of gold per year, is today disrupted by insecurity “leading to a drastic drop in production” to only one tonne, according to the former Minister of Mines, Ousseini Hadizatou Yacouba.

State regulation of gold mining is also seen as a tool in the fight against banditry and terrorism. The gold rush, which began in 2014 in Niger, led to the displacement of thousands of people towards the Djado plateau and the Aïr massif, where the presence of the State is very limited. “Power vacuums in these localities have created instances of lawlessness that particularly benefit non-state armed groups. These actors often find ways to exploit the discontent of community members,” noted the Nordic Africa Institute, a research center, in 2021.

The activity, which generates insecurity, nevertheless continues to attract the nearly 300,000 young people who enter the job market each year and whom the formal economy cannot absorb. Thus, despite these failures, the gold sector represented 54% of the country’s exports and supported more than 800,000 Nigerien households.