The deaths of illegal miners reveal a social fault line in Africa

OBUASI, Ghana Every few months Daniel Spies finds dead bodies. The managing director at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.

OBUASI, Ghana

Every few months Daniel Spies finds dead bodies.

The managing director at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.’s mine at Obuasi, in central Ghana, arrived here soon after the 2004 merger between the AngloGold Ltd. and Ashanti Goldfields Ltd.

The first interloper to die during Spies’ watch jumped off the back of a truck filled with quartz that he had been pillaging. He miscalculated the dismount and was crushed beneath the lorry wheels.

Another was discovered when workers followed their sense of smell to a decomposing body in an underground shaft.

Others have been found hacked apart by machetes, set upon by fellow thieves seeking their booty.

Most recently, on February 18, Spies received an anonymous phone tip telling him that a trespassing crew of illegal workers was trapped in a deactivated part of the mine.

The procedure was routine: dispatch a rescue team and security personnel, arrest anyone caught trespassing, get the injured to hospital, search for bodies.

Six men carrying mining tools, weapons and bags of quartz were arrested.

Others escaped and took three men to hospital in nearby Kumasi, said Spies.

“We understand those people say they were involved in a car accident,” he said with a wry grin during an interview at AngloGold’s headquarters in Obuasi on February 21.

The injured and the arrested never help the search-and-rescue teams, he explained.

But “informers” do come forward.

One man, on condition of anonymity, led a team into an abandoned shaft, where they found a mass of limbs that might have been one body, or two.

“Our people went in and they took a photo of one corpse,” said Spies.

“There was a leg or something sticking out, but you cannot make out whether that leg belonged to the same person because he dropped down into a hole.”

The workers were probably injured and killed when the shaft collapsed beneath them, into another shaft deeper underground, he said.

Conditions are too unstable to recover the bodies, said Spies.

“We believe, totally, we’re going to kill more people if we go in there.

“We have at least determined that there are no people that are captured alive, and that two are missing.”

Despite the deaths, Spies does not expect illegal mining on AngloGold’s property to stop.

It’s been a problem for more than 100 years, since the first holes at Obuasi were drilled in 1897, he said.

Looters used to trespass only at the surface, prospecting or digging through tailings.

But when the surface ore played out and the South Africa-based company took its operation underground, black market miners followed.

In recent months they have been digging their own access tunnels through the treed area along the ridge above the mine into abandoned shafts.

AngloGold has sealed off all manmade adits and destroyed the illegal access holes when it found them. But it’s a never-ending task.

The thieves also steal mining equipment, such as bells and electric cables.

There seems to be a new market for copper, because pipes are often stolen.

“They cut off all the copper pipes from this building, on the outside,” Spies said, thumping his hand on a boardroom table.

“There is total theft. If they can lay their hands on, they lay their hands on.”

Spies is the only white man I’ll see today.

He has a South African accent and decades of experience in the mining industry, and he is adamant that AngloGold is committed to safe working conditions and human rights.

His comments were buoyed by the presence of two Ghanaian men, both AngloGold managers who investigated the accident.

The trespassers were not locals, explained general manager Kwesi Enyan.

They were from the Dagarti ethnic group in Ghana ‘s Upper West Region, where there is less industrial development and fewer jobs, compared to southern parts of the country.

Theft happens every day at the Obuasi mine, and AngloGold chalks the losses and extra security expense as costs of doing business in Africa, said Spies.

“It is a symptom of unemployment.”

The latest statistics peg Ghana’s unemployment at 20 per cent, mostly concentrated in northern regions.

AngloGold employs almost 5,000 people, and the company has also invested in two sustainable development projects — fish farming and tree planting – in the Obuasi area, to offer illegal miners a legitimate source of income.

But there’s more money to be made scavenging for gold, despite the risk.

However, the government is poised to crack down.

“We cannot give already-owned concessions to these illegal miners,” said Stephen Asamoah-Boateng , minister of Rural Development, at a news conference following the recent Obuasi incident.

“We have engaged the company to improve the lives of the people in the area.”

As Ghana prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its status as the first sub-Saharan African nation to declare independence from colonial masters on March 6, the trapped bodies of illegal Dagarti miners at the Obuasi mine can’t help but illustrate the north-south disparity that continues to divide the country.

 Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Togo member Katie Moen sits in a sled behind a snowmobile for the ride from the airport to Chief Zzeh Gittlit School. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Coming together: How Old Crow became one of the first communities in the world to be fully vaccinated

Team Togo and Team Balto assembled with a mission to not waste a single dose of vaccine

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. If council moves forward with bylaw changes, eating and drinking establishments could set up pop-up patios in on-street parking spaces. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Patios may be popping up in Whitehorse this summer

City considers program for downtown restaurants and bars

The Yukon Coroner's Service has confirmed the death of a skateboarder found injured on Hamilton Boulevard on May 2. Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News
Whitehorse man dies in skateboarding accident

Coroner urges the use of helmets, protective gear, while skateboarding.

The new Yukon Liberal caucus poses for a photo during the swearing-in ceremony held on May 3. (Yukon Government/Submitted)
Liberal cabinet sworn in at legislature before house resumes on May 11

Newly elected MLA Jeremy Harper has been nominated as speaker.

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve’s baby bison, born April 22, mingles with the herd on April 29. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Yukon Wildlife Preserves welcomes two bison calves

A bison calf was the first 2021 baby born at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve

A map provided by the Yukon government shows the location of unpermitted logging leading to a $2,500 fine. (Courtesy/Yukon government)
Man fined $2,500 for felling trees near Beaver Creek

The incident was investigated by natural resource officers and brought to court.

The site of the Old Crow solar project photographed on Feb. 20. The Vuntut Gwitchin solar project was planned for completion last summer, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Old Crow is switching to solar

The first phase of the community’s solar array is already generating power.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
One new case of COVID-19 in the Yukon

Case number 82 is the territory’s only active case

Flood and fire risk and potential were discussed April 29. Yukoners were told to be prepared in the event of either a flood or a fire. Submitted Photo/B.C. Wildfire Service
Yukoners told to be prepared for floods and wildland fire season

Floods and fire personelle spoke to the current risks of both weather events in the coming months.

From left to right, Pascale Marceau and Eva Capozzola departed for Kluane National Park on April 12. The duo is the first all-woman expedition to summit Mt. Lucania. (Michael Schmidt/Icefield Discovery)
First all-woman team summits Mt. Lucania

“You have gifted us with a magical journey that we will forever treasure.”

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

Whitehorse goings-on for the week of April 26

The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. The department has announced new dates for the 2021/2022 school year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Yukon school dates set for 2021/22

The schedule shows classes starting on Aug. 23, 2021 for all Whitehorse schools and in some communities.

Most Read