Hilo gold mining site
Caption for the landscape image:

From glittering prophecy to curse: inside Marsabit's gold mines of death

Scroll down to read the article

 Miners at the Hilo gold mining site on May 23, 2023.The mines were closed by the government after 11 people were killed during a scramble for gold in March this year.

Photo credit: Jacob Walter | Nation Media Group

In 1996, a respected elder living in Dabel, Marsabit County, prophesied that precious minerals would be discovered in the area. But just how big a blessing and later, a curse it was to become, was not clear to any of the dismissive residents he told.

While the old man died a few months later in 1996, the prophecy came to pass in 2018 when a herder found gold nuggets and sold them, kicking off a mad gold rush in the village located 64 kilometres west of Moyale town at the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

“We vividly remember how one of our elders and a seer prophesied about gold discovery, but we did not take him seriously at the time. After the discovery, we expected to reap big from it,” says Sakuye community secretary Hajj Hassan Tepo.

But the discovery of the precious mineral turned into a curse.

In March this year, eleven people—all said to be Ethiopians—were killed in a clash over how to share the resources. This was after members of two warring communities stumbled on huge deposits inside the mines and failed to agree on how to share them.

Sakuye community vice secretary Mohammed Ali Wario detailed how two rival groups of miners dug tunnels and bumped into each other and began a scrambling for gold that exploded into ethnic conflict.

Fight erupted

“They were digging from the opposite sides and met where the deposits were. When they disagreed and fought inside the mine, a vicious fight erupted among members of their communities outside,” said Mr Wario.

The government, through a Gazette notice published by Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki on March 13, shut down the 13 mines spread over an area of about 50 square kilometres and deployed the military to guard the area.

The mining sites are Hillo Gorgora, Hillo Orofa, Hillo Walkite, Hillo Tanzania, Hillo Irress Abamartille, Hillo Gootu, Hillo Tessum Qalicha, Hillo Karray, Hillo Hudda, Hillo QQoranjido, Shindia, Hillo Rabaalee, and Hillo Godde Haroressa.

Before the indefinite closure of the fields, miners reportedly reaped millions of shillings. There was a massive influx of miners and investors from other parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Dabel became a sort of shanty town teeming with more than 70,000 people drawn from several countries.

According to the miners we interviewed in Moyale, a lot of gold was mined each month.

“Gold mining is a highly secretive business and nobody would disclose how much they made. But going by the kind of business that was going on in Moyale town and the tycoons who drove all the way from Nairobi, traders raked in millions of shillings a day,” said Mr Abubakar Hassan, a resident.

After the closure, the miners said, their lives have been turned upside down with equipment and ore valued at over Sh500 million lying at the sites. They complained that they were not allowed to access or service their machines amid claims some people were still being allowed into the mines and cart away ore.

100 investors

Mr Wote Gayo, who moved into the mines in July last year and employed about 50 people, said he owned a crasher that was still at the site, and was worried that the equipment was being used by other people.

He added that with more than 100 investors like him, they estimated the property held up at the site is worth over Sh500 million.

“My crusher and other investments are worth more than Sh3 million and I am worried they are being misused. It is now two months since the mines were shut and we have not even been allowed to go and service our machines,” Mr Gayo said.

“The warring communities have since resolved their differences and we want the government to reopen the mines, not only for a select few, but for all of us. This is because we fear continued closure could result in further conflict as people try to access the mines by force,” he added.

Moyale Council of Elders Chairperson Shakur Ibrahim claimed that some rogue security officials colluded with businessmen to collect cart away ore and sold it secretly. He added that the ban should not only apply to the common man yet the rich continue to benefit.

“We thank the government for moving with speed and closing the mines when the fight erupted. But at the moment, continued closure is not serving any purpose because the mines are open for the rich who are refining the ore in Moyale and exploiting our resources,” he said.

However, Prof Kindiki reiterated that the mines would not be reopened, and hinted at extension of the closure notice.

“We want all regulations put in place to ensure that there is adequate security so that when the mines are reopened, residents of the area benefit and not a few people. We shut the mines because they had been infiltrated by criminal elements,” Prof Kindiki said in Marsabit on May 10.

Even as the mining activities contributed to impressive growth of businesses in Moyale town and lifted many jobless youths and women out of poverty, Mr Hajji Tepo said the local Sakuye community living close to the mines never benefited directly from this boom.

He said most of the revenues were smuggled through Ethiopia to Dubai and other Middle East countries and expressed concern that poverty rates and inequalities in the community were still alarmingly high despite the resources.

Mr Tepo called on the government to allow the mining to reach its full potential and ensure the local communities have a role in making decisions over the resources.

“When the mines are reopened the sharing of royalties should adhere to the law, where the national government gets 70 per cent, county government 20 per cent and the local community 10 per cent,” he said.

March conflict

Mr Wario said proper mechanisms should be put into place to avert a repeat of the March conflict. “The mines should be reopened only after instituting adequate measures to avert congestion, land degradation, use of cyanide and mercury by miners, and proper hygiene measures.”

Last month, Mining Principal Secretary Elijah Mwangi said the government would formalise the sector, with artisanal miners required to register Saccos that will be licensed to carry out mining activities. Artisanal mining committees would be formed in each county to provide guidelines on the licensing procedures, he said.

Hilo Artisanal Miners Cooperative vice secretary Mukhtar Intalo explained that plans were in top gear to register a cooperative, saying they were ready to undertake regulated mining.

“We are putting strategies in place by registering cooperatives that will ensure there is sanity in the mining sector in Dabel before we embark on pushing the State to reopen the mines,” Mr Intalo said, adding that the Sacco has already registered 3,500 members.

Moyale Youths Association Chairman Bona Adan appealed to the government to reopen the mines to allow the over 70,000 people who have now been rendered jobless to find a source of income.

Moyale Maendeleo ya Wanawake Chairperson Asna Hussein said that when the mining was going on, there were cases of gender-based violence, defilement, rape, and moral degradation. “Before the mines are reopened, these issues, including environmental degradation, should be considered and addressed,”” she said.