A miner stands on a mound of dirt to make a phone call, at a gold mine in Bouda, Burkina Faso. (Photo: AP)
Jihadists burst into the gold mine where Moussa Tambura worked in Burkina Faso, forbidding everyone from smoking and drinking. It wasn’t long before the men returned and leveled the place to the ground.
“They attacked the site, killed people and burned houses,” said Tambura, 29, clenching his fists.
He was able to find work again after fleeing to Bouda, another town in country’s north that still has small-scale mining. Still, he struggles to provide for his family since his new job isn’t as lucrative as his old one.
Jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization have been overrunning gold mines like Tambura’s one by one as they try to gain control of Burkina Faso’s most lucrative industry. The extremists are then collecting a “protection tax” from communities living around the gold mines and also forcing the miners to sell them the gold exclusively, which is then smuggled and sold across the border in places like Benin, Ghana or Togo.
The violence already has shuttered many small mines across the volatile north and the government also has tried to shut down other small-scale mines in the east so that they can’t be used by extremists to finance more attacks.
Mining Minister Oumarou Idani has called the measure a necessary step in the “fight against terrorism.” But some of the remote sites continue running anyway as they escape the reach of the national government in Ouagadougou, other officials and analysts said.
Some are warning too that the government’s strategy to cut off the flow of money from the east may also backfire, as unemployed miners falling deeper into poverty could become more sympathetic to the jihads’ recruitment messages of marginalization.
“You’re opening up the gates to push people to the terrorists,” said Oumarou Ganemtore, secretary for the National Union of the Artisanal Miners Association of Burkina Faso.
“How do you expect these guys to make a living. What will they do? Where will they go?”
Some 1.5 million people are believed to be working in small scale mines across the country, according to government estimates. Many of them are young and know the surrounding area well, making them ideal recruits, analysts say.
The mines are more than just a source of revenue and new members for the jihadists — they are also being used as hideouts, said Desire Nikiema, a local mining consultant who works in the region.
“Terrorists can hide in the mines and be anonymous and collect information about the area and feed it back to their networks,” he said.