Officially, Cameroon produces only 2004 kilograms of gold per year. Unofficially, it's 180 000.

Sixty-something Beteki Andjoun, a miner from the gold-rich region of Kambele in Cameroon, complains bitterly about the Chinese company that ‘treats him like a slave.’ If he had the means, the equipment and the manpower, he would exploit the gold himself, he says. Instead, he rents his mining license out to the Chinese in exchange for fast cash and sells them the gold he digs. On the side of the Chinese there is no love lost either: they complain that workers try to sell them ‘dust for gold’.

It is unclear what is, and isn’t, gold in Cameroon. Officially, very little is produced: two thousand four hundred kilogrammes per year. Unofficially, it’s almost a hundred times more: hundred and eighty five thousand.  The government should keep track, and tax the proceeds to fund schools and water in the region. But it doesn’t, and in this no man’s land, local workers and foreign exploiters accuse each other of cheating.

Turning a blind eye

“I have never seen the gold that is mined here, and our people have never benefited from the profits of the said gold”, 50+-year-old local chief Angouan Dieudonne says angrily. “Strangers come here, destroy our ecosystem with the connivance of the government authorities who turn a blind eye, mine our gold and take it away without even as much as buying a drink for the village chiefs. They do all this on the pretext that they have ‘authorisation’. They say that they have paid the various taxes in the capital, Yaounde, and that we will get our money, or alternatively, development projects will take place. But have you seen any signs of development here?” Angouan emotionally points at the lack of good roads around us. “There are also no health facilities or drinking water. Our children sit on the ground in school."

The natives of the region would not complain if the terms of the fiscal contracts in force were to be respected. These stipulate that the gold exploiters keep sixty percent of the revenue, the government gets thirty percent while the region should receive ten. The problem here, according to official Paul Ntep Gweth of the new monitoring body CAPAM, is that “there is no way of determining how much revenue comes in because the exploiters alone know what they make. They commercialise only a very small quantity of the gold they mine through official circuits. The larger quantity is sold clandestinely.” Gweth estimates that no less than ninety-five percent of the monthly gold production of Cameroon is handled through clandestine channels involving mostly Asians, -including South Koreans-, and West- and North Africans.

Owning the gold detection machine

Cameroonian private dealer Adamu Maikano is intimately acquainted with the clandestine mining community. He is a ‘gold connoisseur and detector’: owner of a gold detection machine that is used in differentiating gold dust from other substances. Maikano is attached to the Mboukma mining site which, he says, produces at least a kilogramme of gold a day. At a rough estimate, if the five hundred and nine registered mining sites in the country were to also produce one KG a day, then the daily gold production of Cameroon would be five hundred and nine KG’s per day, which would amount to 185,785 KG’s annually. And this is counting only the registered mining sites. Were government to collect the relevant taxes on this amount, the sector would generate approximately US$173 million per year: three percent of Cameroon’s annual budget.

But Maikano’s profits go untaxed. He explains that he sells a kilogramme of gold at about US$ 44,000; that his customers are mostly clients from Chad, Gabon and Niger; and that he, as a middleman, receives about US$ 18,000 from such a transaction. Asked whether he pays taxes on this commission, Maikano replies: “Wouldn’t I be reporting myself if I were to do that? Mine is a transaction between private gold miners and unofficial buyers, so there are no records.”

Hating the Chinese

Maikano’s customers are West African. But complaints in the region about pollution and exploitation are mostly targeted at the Chinese. Says Eugene Sabal Lecco, a local environmental activist: “The mining centres and local miners have been colonised by Chinese who shortchange both the government and the local populations. They rent permits from local miners, don’t allow anybody to pry into their activities and milk away the natural resources of the people. They pollute our rivers too –of course with the complicity of local authorities.”

Local artisanal miners agree. One, who begs to remain anonymous, complains that the company severely under-declares the gold that is found: “Sometimes, when government inspectors are around, they make us work only for a few hours in the day, pretending there is no gold to mine. Then they force us to come back at night and work to cover up for the lost hours during the day. All this to cloud the quantity of gold we dig up.” Nguelle Jerome (40) adds that the Chinese pay very little: “US$10 for the same amount of gold dust that we used to sell to Senegalese or Ghanaians for about US$30 in the olden days.

“They are fraudulent and take us for idiots.”

Most times, they take our gold dust to test, only to come back to tell us that what we gave them was ordinary dust or sand. They are fraudulent and take us for idiots.” Bengono Michel (38) accuses the local authorities of being in cahoots with them: “They share their loot with the administrators so when you report any of them for ripping you off, you are more likely to be detained than them.”

Dust and excrement

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese miners have a different view. A Chinese illegal miner, operating under a license rented from a Cameroonian, says he feels victimised. “Most times they (the Cameroonian gold diggers, CBE) bring dust at dusk to pass it for gold dust and expect to be paid. When they are unmasked, they cry foul. They think the Chinese are loaded with dollars. They think they can sell us anything. One day they will try to sell us excrement!”

He also feels that Chinese are unjustly singled out. “Why are they only targeting the Chinese? Why don’t they talk of their own relatives who were driven from gold mines in Gabon and Congo, who have returned here and have been fleecing them? (Cameroonian gold diggers were in fact expelled from these countries for ‘illegal exploitation’ in 2011 and are back working here, CBE). Or is it because they are Cameroonians that their own crimes are being covered up? We pay for our rented licenses, but these repatriated Cameroonians from Congo and Gabon exploit without any authorisation. Yet not even the government authorities question them.”

Another Chinese source thinks that Chinese are targeted because it is believed that they have lots of money. “They think just because it is we who are doing the mining, the value automatically skyrockets and they demand first world wages from us. They want us to pay them more than quintuple what local license holders were paying them before the licenses were rented out to us,” he says. “If they think the mining is that profitable, why did they hire out their licenses in the first place?”

Nephews without any expertise

Where there is gold, there will be strife. But that is why a government is supposed to regulate. It is the job of the government inspectors and representatives in the region to see to it that licenses are legally obtained; that gold turnover and profit are properly monitored, registered and taxed; and that labour law conditions are met. So where does it go wrong?

The government of Cameroon “knows that official figures represent less than ten percent of Cameroon’s gold production and that most of the gold produced in this country is smuggled out,” admits a senior official in the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Technological Development (MINMITD). “They talk of curbing this drain on our natural resources, but so far, all the talk about this has just been lip service.”

Geological expertise seems key to proper regulation. After all, those who want to take gold tax-free, have an interest in pretending they found only ordinary sand.  This means that whoever owns the geologists, owns the gold. And it is here, according to government sources, that a lot of corruption takes place. “Corruption, nepotism and favouritism result in the passing over of geologists who can differentiate gold dust from ordinary dust or sand. Instead, relatives of those making the appointments –their nephews who don’t have any expertise- are sent here instead,” says the same MINMITD official.

It is widely known in Cameroon that, whereas most civil servants would bribe their seniors to escape a posting to the remote eastern regions, MINMITD officials are usually very eager to be posted here: there are many millionaires made after one tenure.

A thick skin

The local administration in the East refutes all the allegations. Says the Divisional Officer for Betare-Oya, Simon Etsil: “We have developed a thick skin from those constant accusations. And if you as a journalist were to investigate them carefully, you will discover that they are made mostly by people who have unsuccessfully tried to make us bend or break the law in their favour. Did any of those who told you about all these things show you any proof?’ Told that those who take bribes don’t issue receipts, the administrator laughs out loud.

Rather than acknowledging mismanagement, Minister of Mines, Industry and Technological Development Emmanuel Bonde has, meanwhile, attacked mining companies that operate under individual artisanal licenses bought or rented from small miners like Beteki Andjoun. Bonde has called such companies ‘dishonest’, saying that one can’t carry out heavy duty-mining under such a license ‘in the shadows’. He also denounced the artisanal miners for subletting to foreign miners ‘who make billions at the detriment of the state’. He said that recently all artisanal mining licenses had been cancelled (this was also news to many in Cameroon, CBE), “but the artisanal miners behave as if nothing has happened and continue mining as usual.”

Probably vaguely aware that his Ministry of Mining was supposed to do such, he announced the establishment of ‘control brigades’ made up of elements of the national gendarmerie and geologists from the monitoring body CAPAM who, he said, are to ensure the veracity of the declarations made by the mining outfits. He further announced the establishment of a structure that will “objectively draw a map of all sites, publish tender offers for mining concessions, evaluate the competences of prospective partners and determine what the state would profit from the mining operations”.

Again, this is precisely what Cameroonians though that his Ministry was for.

Chief Bisong Etahoben (61) is a Cameroonian investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Post newspaper. He also writes for international media and has participated in several transnational investigations. He is a member of a number of international investigative journalism professional bodies including the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR), as well as a traditional leader.