The author of this report has requested that his name, which is known to the editors of World Policy Journal, not be released since he serves as a researcher for the U.N. Panel of Experts. Work on this report was funded by Open Society West Africa (OSIWA) and produced by African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).
MONROVIA—A recent report by the United Nations Panel of Experts in Liberia highlighted the ongoing insecurity in the border area between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as the risk of an upsurge in violence there as the Ebola epidemic abates and campaigning for this year’s Ivorian presidential elections intensifies. Underpinning this insecurity is the large number of disaffected young men working for a pittance in dozens of gold-mining camps along both sides of the frontier. Much of the mining is unlicensed and illegal, and the governments in Monrovia and Abidjan have little idea of how much gold is produced, who buys it, or where it ends up.
The answers to these questions may lie in a remote area of southeastern Liberia, located in Grand Gedeh County and extending over the Cavalla River into the Tai Forest of western Côte d’Ivoire. It is less than 250 miles from Monrovia to Zwedru, the administrative capital of Grand Gedeh County, but the journey can take weeks. The appalling roads, often hemmed in by thick forest, become sclerotic as soon as the first poda poda minibus capsizes in the mud.
Zwedru is a small, unremarkable town deep in the bush. Its principal trade is the traffic in gold and diamonds extracted by the alluvial mining industry, which spreads throughout the south-eastern region of Liberia. About 40,000 refugees live in camps and communities along the border with Côte d’Ivoire, which they fled during the political crisis of 2010. The vast majority are from the Guere ethnic group that inhabited the forests of western Côte d’Ivoire for centuries, and over the past 150 years traded cocoa with Europe and the United States.
Roosevelt Nyantee lives in Barteljam, a sprawling, overcrowded, rural slum. Also known as Alpha Golf, he is a former fighter with Model, the Liberian militia that helped oust former president Charles Taylor in 2003. Although only 30 years old, he looks much older, his features ravaged by war and years spent in the bush fighting hunger and disease.
“After the war ended in 2003 we were given small money by the U.N. to lay down our weapons,” he begins. “We were promised retraining as mechanics or tailors, but few of us received this training. So I came to Zwedru to look for work as a gold miner.” According to Nyantee, working in the deeper pits is more difficult than working in the open ones, though “it pays better because you need strength and courage. It is very dangerous work and many of my friends have died in cave-ins.”
Nyantee works up to 16 hours a day in one of the many “deep pits” as he calls them. The site is located on the side of a hill, about two miles north of the main mining camp. Like a vast rabbit warren, the area is pock-marked with holes, covered with tarpaulins, and interspersed with rudimentary shacks where exhausted miners sleep, cook bush meat and rice, drink, and smoke marijuana.
At first sight the pits appear small, perhaps only five feet in diameter. But they are deep—often as much as 190 feet straight down. The miners work themselves up and down with their feet and backs braced against opposite sides of the narrow shaft walls. There are no safety ropes or helmets, and a slip in wet weather means either death or serious injury miles from medical care.
A group of men work a surface gold mine deep in the forest in Gbarpolu County, northwest Liberia. Shot not too far outisde Henry Town, Liberia in 2012.
“Once we find gold at the bottom of the pits we start to dig out horizontally, kicking the dirt back before filling buckets which are then hauled to the top by other members of the gang,” Nyantee explains. “This is when it gets really dangerous. You can expect a cave-in at any time. We all say it is more scary than fighting. In war you get shot and die. Here you get buried alive.”
After the ore is washed at a creek on the surface, a day’s production is small, often less than a gram of gold dust, and the proceeds must be shared among all members of the gang. Some days yield nothing at all.
His broker, Ibrahim Yallah, waits for him back at Barteljam camp. A Muslim Mandingo from the Forestière region of south-eastern Guinea, Yallah is tall and thin, clad in a long, grubby kaftan and a crocheted prayer cap. In broken French, he explains how he makes cyclical tours of the mining areas, visiting about ten sites each month in Guinea, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.
“I travel by bush taxi and visit certain mines where I am known and know miners,” he says. “It is long and hard, especially during the rains. The food is poor and we always have malaria or diarrhea, but you get used to it.”
Yallah also explains that transportation can be tricky, and it is always best to “look poor” to avoid soldiers, police, or thieves from taking your gold. Once he gets through such obstacles, Yallah ends up selling this gold to larger dealers in places like Zwedru and Nzerekore who in turn sell on to exporters in Conakry and Bamako. These exporters are often connected to smelters, says Yallah, where they are smelted into bars before being shipped by plane to the Middle East.
One major dealer, called Mustapha, lives in Zwedru. Although cagey at first, he opened up over cigarettes and mint tea after some discussion of mutual friends.
“Some of us are moving up to four kilos a month via Conakry or Bamako,” says Mustafa. “Once the network is established and the relevant people are on side, it is not a problem to move these amounts. All you need is the flow of gold, the flow of capital, and trustworthy couriers who can make the journeys to the big West African cities or even to Dubai.”
While Mustafa says he has been to Dubai many times to exchange with buyers, generally Arabian or Persian, he finds transporting the gold through the sky much easier than brokers like Yallah do on the ground.
“I can even travel business class and take the gold with me as cabin luggage,” he says. “They never ask questions in Dubai. From the airport I travel to certain cheap hotels that African traders use to meet my buyers.”
Despite the dangers along the way for miners and brokers, the government in Monrovia is powerless to do anything about the industry and its associated trade. Says one Liberian mines ministry official, “Quite simply, we lack the necessary resources and capacity to intervene.”
After years of authorities turning the other cheek, believing that the trade at least “keeps young men busy,” low-level cross-border attacks have now begun to increase into western Côte d’Ivoire by Guere, supported by Krahn mercenaries. Even after Liberian officials stepped up security in an attempt to spare nearby refugee camps along the border, seven UN peacekeepers were killed in May 2011 while on patrol from Toulepleu.
While it has not been clearly demonstrated that gold from the mines along the border helps pay for weapons—funding is more likely to come from Guere expatriates in Ghana and France—the mining areas provide remote camps for young men where they can sustain themselves and be recruited by commanders for fighting, when required. Some of these cadres have been captured or killed. But new combatants, bitter at their loss of land, are emerging. Attempts by the Ivorian government to pay known fighters not to join raids has proved largely unsustainable.
Without an effective process of reconciliation and equitable land reform in Côte d’Ivoire, endemic, low-level conflict is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, destabilizing the border region and putting pressure on the international agencies that support refugees.
Global demand for gold, and the lawlessness of gold mining in West Africa, will continue to play a role in perpetuating an intractable problem.