Inside Marsabit's dangerous illegal gold mines

Illo gold mining

Drone shots of Illo gold mine fields in Moyale sub-county on May 27, 2023. Residents want mining activities to be closed by the government citing environmental, health, and security risks posed to the region.

Photo credit: Jacob Walter I Nation Media Group

In the belly of at least 5,000 acres in Illo, Dabel division, Moyale sub-county, lies the tantalising precious metal, gold.

Thousands of miners toil and risk their lives to find a few grammes in the hope of striking it rich.

According to Dabel resident and miner, Adan Robo, Illo Mines has rapidly grown to become one of the largest gold producers in the Horn of Africa just a year ago.

"We are concerned about the environmental, health and safety risks associated with continued illegal mining at the Illo gold mines and call on the government to close the mines as a matter of urgency," says Robo.

There are more than 1,000 active mines in the area, and 90 per cent of the gold mined is smuggled into neighbouring Ethiopia. A gramme of gold can fetch as much as Sh7,300, depending on its purity, and can sell for even more.

Robo claims the influx of foreigners into the gold mine was encouraged by government officials, the security apparatus and self-centred politicians.

Unfortunately, this gold rush has yet to benefit the host county, or even the national government, because the mining is illegal and the area is not yet registered as a gold mining area.

At least 30,000 miners have camped in the area to dig for gold, leaving the area tightly dotted with shacks.

Most of the miners are from various parts of Marsabit County, but many also come from Ethiopia. The mines have also attracted hundreds of workers from as far as Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Tanzania.

Others are gold buyers from the Middle East and Europe.

The Moyale-Dabel road has recently become a beehive of activity as hordes of miners drive or ride to the site to seek their fortune.

Some men have set up camp in the area with their families.

Illo Gold mines

Drone shots of Illo gold mine fields in Moyale sub-county on May 27, 2023. 

Photo credit: Jacob Walter I Nation Media Group

The Illo gold mines have also opened the floodgates to child labour, with children flocking to the area for work. Despite the dangers and laws against working under the age of 18, the children are easily spotted among the adults, busy digging for gold.

Some young girls are reportedly dropping out of school to marry the miners, while local marriages are breaking down due to the miners.

A woman expresses concern about her 16-year-old daughter, who left school to elope with one of the miners.

She is unhappy that mining in the area had opened the doors to sexual immorality, claiming that some women have left their homes to sell their bodies in the mining camp.

The woman says despite several reports from the community elders, her concerns have been dismissed by the national and county governments.

The bad news is that the continued proliferation of miners in the area has seriously compromised sanitation and hygiene as people defecate in public, and has led to a cholera outbreak.

At least 15 people have died of cholera in the past three months, according to unofficial reports.

However, the deadliest of the results of the mining in Illo could be the influx of illegal firearms from Ethiopia that end up in the hands of civilians.

Ibrahim Adan, a resident of Misa location, tells the Nation during a visit to the mining fields that the slightest provocation between rival miners could spark a deadly conflict.

A week ago, for example, a group of miners clashed, reportedly brandishing guns and threatening one another with death.

In an attempt to defuse the tension, the government issued a one-week holiday notice ending on May 25, 2023, but few miners heeded it. 

Even our presence there angered some of the miners, who publicly expressed their displeasure, with one old man bluntly asking why we wanted to ruin their lives by reporting on the dangerous situation in the mines.

Narcotic drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and shisha have also found their way into the mines, according to Robo. Miners reportedly abuse the drugs to overcome the fear of entering the gold shafts, some of which are up to 30 feet deep.

Nearly 30,000 people have settled in the gold mines, which now resemble refugee camps. The number has risen dramatically from 3,000 in January 2023.

Despite the dangerous conditions, the Illo gold mines continue to grow into a small town.

Businessmen have also seized the opportunity to provide necessities such as water and food.

In a region where high unemployment and climate change have made people vulnerable, Illo's gold mines have increasingly become the last resort for many unemployed men and women.

To mix the gold extracted from the ore, the miners use mercury, which most of them handle with their bare hands, even though it is highly toxic.

The mercury is used to compress the gold, which is then burned to get rid of the mercury.

The toxic smoke is released into the atmosphere and inhaled by the miners and the local community.

Illo Gold mines

Drone shots of Illo gold mine fields in Moyale sub-county on May 27, 2023. 

Photo credit: Jacob Walter I Nation Media Group

Studies show that when inhaled, mercury attacks the vital organs of the body and gradually kills people.

However, few of the miners are aware of the risks.

The foreign gold buyers, and even the buying companies operating in the Illo mines, are not vetted or certified by the Kenyan government and, therefore, have no buying permits.

There are also no enforced provenance regulations on the conditions under which the gold is mined.

Even when the end products are sold to other parts of the world, the conditions under which they were mined are not known.

The chairman of the Dabel Health Centre, Abdi Boya, is concerned about the bleak future of young people who have been caught up in the mining craze in the area.

Most of the miners have contracted malaria after being bitten by mosquitoes.

Lack of water and poor sanitation have also led to major outbreaks of disease in the Illo mine settlements.

At least five people have been admitted to the Dabel Health Centre with cholera or malaria, despite a massive shortage of medicines, electricity, sophisticated radiological diagnostic equipment and an acute shortage of doctors.

Disturbed by the inhumane conditions in the Illo minefields, Boya has appealed to the government to close the mines as a matter of urgency.

He is concerned that despite the dangers, more and more miners are flocking the area.

He adds that the mining continues to pose massive dangers by destroying the land, which is already fragile.

The huge amounts of mercury and cyanide used by the miners continue to contaminate the earth's surface and the ground water.

Boya fears that mercury will seep into nearby water sources, exposing the miners and even the surrounding population to cancer.

Despite the allegedly massive amounts of gold being mined in the area, the region has remained marginalised, with no significant transformation and a poor transport network. Our team was stuck in the mud with other motorists for almost three hours.

Some rogue miners, in their mad quest for gold, are reportedly digging pits in public buildings such as schools. Dabel Primary School and Dabel Airstrip are some of those affected.

Sakuye community spokesman Haasan Tepo says the only way to avert further environmental and health risks is for the government to institutionalise gold mining so that locals can benefit from the riches of their land, or close it down altogether.

He is unhappy that the government has done nothing to prevent environmental and health risks in the gold mining area.

He is also angered by the palpable presence of foreigners carrying guns and roaming around Dabel.

A week ago, unidentified persons threatened to attack the Sakuye community living in the area in order to force them out of the region.

The director of the Indigenous Strategy Institution for Development (ISID), Mohammed Dida, called on all Marsabit communities to ensure their land is registered.

"We appeal to all communities in Marsabit County to expedite their land registration processes to avert any illegal dealings and encroachment by strangers," Dida says.

Marsabit County Commissioner Nobert Komora, in his reaction to the calls by Dabel residents, says they supported the closure notice issued by the Moyale sub-county Security Committee.

The closure was informed by the cholera outbreak reported in the region, he says and assures residents that after the Madaraka Day celebrations, the county security team, accompanied by mining, health and National Environmental Management Authority officials, will visit the area to assess the level of risk posed by mining activities.

"We will visit the area after the Madaraka Day celebrations to determine the final steps to be taken," Komora promises.