Chinese mining bosses are funding Nigerian militant groups in order to secure access to the country’s mineral reserves, raising the prospect that Beijing could be indirectly funding terror in Africa’s largest economy.
Chinese companies working in parts of Nigeria where attacks are frequent have been striking security deals with insurgents, The Times has learnt. Attacks on Chinese citizens, of whom there are said to be between 100,000 and 200,000 in Nigeria, have become regular occurrences in recent years amid the country’s many conflicts.
Between 2019 and last year, 51 Chinese people are known to have been kidnapped and three killed. It is likely that many more incidents go unreported. The Chinese embassy in Abuja has now urged its citizens to “strengthen civil defence, physical defence and technical defence measures”.
China is Nigeria’s No 1 trading partner and has more than 1,000 companies registered in the country, after a decade in which it has poured vast sums into infrastructure projects to overtake the US as Africa’s largest investor.
Research shared with The Times from SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based analytical group, has revealed videos on social media and WhatsApp of militant leaders boasting that they are so powerful that Chinese workers wishing to operate in their areas must pay them “rent”. They have taken over swathes of northwest Nigeria, turning the region into the country’s bloodiest conflict zone.
Insurgents discuss the payments on social media. Sources on the ground in the states of Zamfara and Katsina have confirmed that, in the words of Ikemesit Effiong, SBM’s head of research, “these guys are perfectly willing to pay off whoever needs to be paid off and have no qualms about it and are allowed to carry out operations”
In one pocket of Zamfara, researchers found, interaction with militants runs so deep that some serve as runners for Chinese miners who have spread throughout Nigeria, controlling digs for gold. The country has some of the largest gold reserves in the world.
Often operating informally in small groups as contractors registered to clearing-house companies, they speak local languages and can stay for years at a time living in remote areas that western companies consider off-limits.
Chinese engineers and staff on hydroelectric dams have described the “hell on earth” of being kidnapped, amid local perceptions that they carry wads of cash. Miners attempt to blend into their host communities but are nonetheless targeted, notably in the case of seven Chinese men who spent more than five months in captivity last year after a militant group in June stormed their mining site at Shiroro in Niger state, leaving 48 people dead.
Chinese mining contractors, who local communities have accused of abuses and paying pitiful wages, often smuggle minerals out of the country illegally and are sometimes arrested. In 2020, 27 miners, including 17 said to be Chinese, were arrested in Osun state. Last October a Chinese citizen, Gang Deng, 29, was jailed for five years after being found with 25 tonnes of a mineral thought to be lepidolite, containing lithium, which is used in batteries.
SBM also found Chinese workers involved in the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria’s northeast, with a case of a Chinese smuggler being paid to help a jihadist group move metal ore out of the country.
Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs select committee and the China Research Group of MPs, said reports of Chinese companies funding militant groups were “deeply concerning”. She called on the British government to assist Nigeria in “strengthening regulatory oversight and governance of Chinese companies in the sector”.
Separately, large Chinese state-backed companies have turned to Erik Prince, founder of the private security company Blackwater, for help. Prince, a one-time close adviser to Donald Trump, became a controversial figure after four Blackwater security contractors were found guilty of killing innocent civilians in Iraq during a shooting rampage in 2007.
Prince is behind a private security company, Frontier Resources Group, which specialises in helping Chinese companies work in Africa. It has a branch in Nigeria and has been awarded contracts.
Nigeria looks set to continue to choose Chinese investment over that of the West. Yemi Osinbajo, the Nigerian vice-president, pointedly lauded the benefits of Beijing’s support after the African tour by Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, this month, while the incoming President Tinubu has already met the Chinese ambassador.
However, China faces a job to protect its businesses. In the case of miners, analysts predict that kidnappings may continue to rise because their deals with militants are breaking down, either because the militants want more money or are positioning themselves before a change in Nigeria’s government. Effiong called northern miners “sitting ducks”.
By Richard Assheton/The Times