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Nigeria taps into the global lithium market

Ben Shemang in Abuja | Isaac Kaledzi in Accra
October 18, 2023

For years, Africa's largest economy relied mainly on oil, but is now placing its bets on its mining industry. Nigeria wants to bank on the booming global lithium market.

Lithium in rock
Lithium is also known as 'white gold'Image: Robert Michael/dpa/picture alliance

Nigeria is tightening rules around mining its lithium minerals countrywide following the rush for it by foreign mining companies.

The government said no company would be allowed to mine and export raw lithium unless they set up processing and refining plants in Nigeria.

Dele Alake, Nigeria's Minister of Solid Materials, told DW that the government would "do everything possible to discourage the carting away of our solid minerals without value addition."

The much-coveted mineral lithium is used in the production of rechargeable batteries and electric vehicles. With discoveries of large lithium deposits in Nigeria, Africa's largest economy wants to profit from the billion-dollar global lithium market.

Lithium is currently mined in Nassarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Ekiti, and Cross River States.

The mineral is also being mined extensively in Zimbabwe, Africa's largest producer, as well as in Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Ghana.

Reaping locally from the raw mineral

"I want to emphasize the fact that the era of exporting raw solid minerals from Nigeria is over. Any company wishing to come and invest in the solid minerals industrial sector in Nigeria henceforth must add local value," Alake said.

With new licensing requirements, mining companies must show business plans that benefit local communities before being granted licenses.

Alake said that the move is critical to help create jobs. "I am glad to mention that such an initiative is already on stream as some companies have already commenced operations in Nigeria."

Ganfeng Lithium Industry Ltd., a Chinese company, is building a lithium processing plant in the central Nasarawa state.

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The plant is to process about 18,000 tons of lithium ore per day to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles. The government said this is an example of the desired type of investment.

Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, is also rich in gold, limestone, and zinc, but its mining industry is underdeveloped. It contributes less than 1% to the country's gross domestic product.

Shifting away from oil

The government wants to diversify the country's economy, shifting away from its massive reliance on oil.

But it is not only the revenue from lithium that is a focus for Nigerian authorities. They say they also want to ensure that the mineral isn't mined to the detriment of the environment.

They have already warned foreign nationals like the Chinese to avoid engaging in the illegal mining of lithium. 

Engineer wearing a hard-hat at a lithium mine in the Czech Republic.
Lithium mining in the Czech RepublicImage: Petr David Josek/AP Photo/picture alliance

Still, the government has previously been blamed for disregarding the impact of illegal mining of some other minerals across Nigeria.

The country's mining association said the federal government must crack down on illegal mining activities that destroy the environment.

Dele Anyoleke, president of the Miners Association of Nigeria, told DW that health and safety issues involved in mining newly discovered materials are not always addressed. In addition, "whenever there is a discovery of a new mineral, all these artisanal miners would swing into such a place. They don't need to dig. They don't need to blast."

He said governmental agencies often fail to end such activities.

Protecting the environment

According to some environmental experts, uncontrolled mining leads to environmental degradation with dire consequences for the population.

"When mining, you need to protect the environment. How do we protect the environment? There are five ways to make mining more sustainable: lower impact mining techniques, reusing mining waste, eco-friendly equipment, rehabilitating the mining site, and shutting down the illegal mining site," Nafisatu Mohammed Sani, a geological consultant in Abuja, told DW.

Minister of Solid Materials Alake said the mining industry is being modernized and that the government is investing more than $19.6 million (€18.6) over seven years to generate data on the mining sector through the National Integrated Mineral Exploration Project (NIMEP).

"The preliminary reports from this project have unraveled massive discoveries which have literally put Nigeria on the world map of lithium-rich countries," Alake told the gathering at the Nigeria Mining Week event this week.

The Nigerian government said that controlling mining and not having a repeat of events in the oil-rich Niger region — where oil activities destroyed the environment — is critical.

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Edited by: Louisa Schaefer