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Charles Asiegbu

August 24th, 2023

Lithium could fuel the next conflict in Nigeria

11 comments | 51 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Charles Asiegbu

August 24th, 2023

Lithium could fuel the next conflict in Nigeria

11 comments | 51 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Newly discovered reserves of lithium are raising hopes of a new mining boom in Nigeria. But, as Charles Asiegbu writes, this also has the potential to lead to violence as people fight for control of the new commodity.

Nigeria is known for its substantial oil reserves. But beyond petroleum, the country has over 40 commercially viable natural resources. Recently, Nigeria discovered enormous reserves of Lithium, a highly reactive metal used in energy-dense rechargeable batteries used in cell phones, electric vehicles, and grid storage.

Given the increased interest in renewable energy, the lithium market has surged as governments seek to phase out fossil fuel vehicles in favour of emissions-free electric cars. The cost of a tonne of Lithium has risen from £4,600 in 2020 to over £61,000 in 2022.  According to the World Bank, the demand for essential metals such as Lithium and cobalt will increase by roughly 500 per cent by 2050. The global electric vehicle market alone is projected to reach £646.23 billion by 2030

Most of the world’s Lithium is produced in four countries: Australia (the world’s largest producer), Chile, Argentina, and China. However, these countries do not produce enough to fulfil the expanding worldwide demand. As a result, the search for Lithium has moved to Africa and is already being extensively mined in Zimbabwe (Africa’s largest producer), Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Ghana.

Today, the quest for Lithium is gaining traction in Nigeria, with competition becoming increasingly fierce. In Nigeria, lithium is currently mined in Nassarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Ekiti, and Cross River States. In 2018, Kian Smith Trade & Co, a Nigerian mining company, announced the discovery of 15,000 tonnes of commercial lithium in Nigeria.

Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer and clean energy company, expressed interest in forming a trade relationship with the Federal Government of Nigeria to mine lithium, but the offer was declined. The government stated that it would agree to this request only if Tesla established a battery factory in Nigeria. But Kaduna State in Nigeria has authorised a Chinese company to build a lithium-processing factory to create batteries for electric vehicles. There is growing demand for Nigeria’s lithium and interest in control of the resources, how they are exploited, and by whom.

History of resource disputes

Nigerian history is strewn with conflicts over natural resources. These range from low-level tensions to large-scale insurrections and are aggravated by disagreements over access and management of the resources and the unequal distribution of the benefits generated by them.

Nigeria has long been a case study for the “resource curse” where despite large amounts of natural resources the country gets poorer, not richer. Despite substantial revenue earnings, Nigerians suffer from poor infrastructure, insufficient healthcare services, and a dearth of basic necessities. Over time, Nigeria’s reliance on its ample natural resources such as oil has resulted in growing poverty, unemployment, and corruption.

The presence of large amounts of in-demand resources also attracts groups looking to fund illegal activities. According to the United Nations, terrorist groups benefit from the illegal trade in natural resources, including gold, precious metals and stones, and oil. This is already evident in Nigeria’s Zamfara state, where illegal gold mining has become a major driver of banditry. The collaboration between some high-profile Nigerians and foreigners has festered this activity. Across the country, illegal resource extraction is deepening conflict requiring urgent intervention.

Lithium fuelled conflict

Across the globe, countries that have discovered Lithium have become susceptible to violence. In India, the People’s Anti-Fascist Front issued a threat, stating that it would not tolerate the “exploitation” and “theft” of Lithium discovered recently in Jammu and Kashmir. According to historical and empirical evidence, the discovery of high-grade Lithium in Nigeria is likely to trigger violence.

Lithium-fuelled conflict could manifest itself in three ways. First, there may be intra- and inter-community disagreements about who owns the land where the resources are located and who should benefit from the exploration. An example is the lethal conflict between Enugu-Otu Aguleri in Anambra East Local Government Area of Anambra State and Ashonwo/Odeke in Ibaji Local Government Council of Kogi State over oil-rich boundary lands. The violence resulted in the killing of seven people and the destruction of 52 homes.

Second, there may be a conflict between the communities, exploration companies, and the government due to neglect, contamination, or non-payment of reparations. Disputes between oil companies and host communities in the Niger Delta region have resulted in violent attacks, protests and, in many cases, legal tussles after land was taken over for oil exploration and local people didn’t get what they felt they deserved in return.

Illegal mining activities will form the third flash point. Organised armed groups, especially terrorists, may be at the forefront of this violence because of their proclivity to invade areas where natural resources are found. As seen in Zamfara State and other parts of Nigeria, terrorists had infiltrated gold and lead-zinc mining sites, causing legitimate investors to flee the sector.

The government response

The Nigerian Geological Survey (NGSA) is the government body responsible for mineral exploration and mapping. The NGSA focuses on projects that create data, particularly on important minerals, to increase investor interest in the mining sector. The main thrust of the government has been to focus on apprehending illicit miners and defaulters. But the government lacks a holistic response to managing lithium and mitigating violence. As a result, the potential for the escalation of lithium-related violence needs to be taken seriously. It may already be happening; the governor of Nigeria’s Nasarawa state recently raised concerns over the violence that lithium mining is attracting to the State.

Many stakeholders have already recognised the significance of lithium and are urging the government to make relevant interventions. For example, the chairman of the Solid Minerals Development Fund, Uba Sa’idu Malami, has requested that the Nigerian government formulate policies to control lithium exploration, exportation, mining and production in Nigeria.

This suggestion requires significant legislation covering lithium exploration, production and use. Environmental Impact Assessment, safety regulations, community involvement, and equitable benefit distribution must all be strictly enforced by legislation.

Lithium is a valuable mineral with multiple uses in the emerging green economy. Nigeria can potentially become a major player in the global lithium market, but it faces several challenges and risks. Improved regulatory frameworks and rigorous monitoring of Nigeria’s natural resources, particularly lithium, are essential to ensure sustainable growth, environmental preservation, ethical trade, and national security. If proper regulation and supervision are not adopted, Nigeria’s lithium treasure may be lost owing to unlawful mining, instability, and violent conflict. Nigeria has the opportunity to learn the lessons from its oil boom, but it must do so quickly to seize the opportunities from this new commodity and prevent violence.


Photo credit:  used with permission CC BY 2.0

About the author

Charles Asiegbu

Charles Asiegbu

Charles Asiegbu is a researcher, policy analyst and development practitioner. He works at the Nextier Group as a senior policy and research analyst. Charles is a Bridge Fellow of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group.

Posted In: Conflict | Economics

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