On May 10, 2021, three men stood in the dock in the quietude of the Koforidua Circuit Court, awaiting their fate.
Their options were limited. It was either freedom or prison.
Alhassan Abass, 28; Ibrahim Mohammed, 45; and Munkaila Djebo, a 38-year-old Nigerian, had been on trial for three years, charged with conspiracy to commit crime and mining without a license— breaches of Section 99 (2) of the Minerals and Mining Act, 2006
An anti-illegal mining (galamsey) taskforce had arrested the three at an illegal mining site at Tentenku No.8 near Kofi Pare in the Ayensuano District.
They were among hundreds of Ghanaians and foreign illegal miners arrested in a crackdown on illegal mining, the degradation of forests and the pollution of water bodies with toxic chemicals including mercury and cyanide.
In their defence, the three claimed they had nothing to do with the mining on the one and half-acre land that had contributed to the heavy pollution of the Ayensu River.
They, therefore, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Court documents show that the first accused, Abass Alhassan, claimed he was an excavator mechanic hired to repair a broken-down excavator while the third accused, Munkaila Djebo, told the court he was there to sell shoes.
But the prosecution made its case, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the trio were guilty.
In the end, the presiding judge, Mercy Addie Kotei, found the three guilty and sentenced each of them to five years imprisonment.
She also ordered that Munkaila Djebo, the Nigerian, should be deported after serving his sentence.
In a case with similar facts but in a different location and culprits, a Takoradi Circuit Court on June 9, 2021, jailed three accused persons—Joseph Donkor, Charles Ewusi and Joseph Paul. They were sentenced to 15 years each and also fined GH₵ 720,000.
They were arrested in February. Within three months, their trial was over.
The presiding judge, Abigail Animah Asare, described the sentence as lenient as she had given the minimum sentence of the law because the three convicts had cooperated with investigators and the court.
Similarly, on May 10, 2022, the Daily Graphic reported that eleven persons who were involved in illegal mining in the Atewa Forest in the Eastern Region were given between five and 15-years jail terms.
Data for 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020, which The Fourth Estate received from the Ghana Prisons Service through a right-to-information (RTI) request showed that 220 people were jailed for illegal mining offences.
These were mainly Ghanaians and other West African nationals.
Ghana’s renewed fight against illegal mining between 2017 and 2021 saw the arrests of hundreds of Chinese illegal miners either as sponsors or workers at illegal mining sites.
However, statistics of foreign nationals in Ghana’s prisons, which the Ghana Prisons Service provided to The Fourth Estate, showed that as of July 2021, only two Chinese nationals were in Ghana’s prisons.
This does not come as a surprise to many because some of the biggest Chinese culprits in illegal mining and illegal logging, whose arrests dominated national headlines for weeks, were set free under inexplicable circumstances.
The prosecution of two Chinese women heavily involved in galamsey and the illegal harvesting and export of rosewood was surreptitiously aborted and the two were deported at different times.
In July 2019, Huang Yanfeng, aka Helena Huang, who was standing trial for transporting large quantities of rosewood to Tema for illegal export to China, was deported and her prosecution was discontinued.
According to the Ghana Immigration Service, Huang was deported for engaging in an illicit business.
The most infamous case that outraged the nation involved another Chinese woman who was described as the “galamsey queen”. En Huang, for that was her name, was arrested on May 9, 2017, together with her gang of four other Chinese nationals.
Aisha Huang, as she was popularly called, was charged with three counts of undertaking small-scale mining operations, contrary to Section 99 (1) of the Minerals and Mining Act, 2006 (Act 703); providing mining support services without valid registration with the Minerals Commission, contrary to the Minerals and Mining Act, 2006 (Act 703); and the illegal employment of foreign nationals, contrary to the Immigration Act, 2000 (Act 573).
The other four accused persons were charged with disobedience of the directives given by or under the Immigration Act, 2000 (Act 573).
This was two months into the heat of the campaign against illegal mining, a campaign championed by the Media Coalition Against Galamsey.
Aisha was arraigned before the court on May 9, 2017, for engaging in galamsey activities at Bepotenten in the Amansie Central District in the Ashanti Region.
However, on December 19, 2018, the Attorney General filed a nolle prosequi to discontinue the trial.
She was also deported.
The then Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Kwaku Asomah Cheremeh, provided an excuse that the government’s critics described as irresponsible.
“Our discretion was to the effect that the trial of Aisha Huang should be truncated to afford her the opportunity to go to her country. That was in line with the laws of our country. The Attorney General is clothed with the capacity to enter nolle prosequi in respect of this matter,” Asomah-Cheremeh told JoyNews.
In April 2019, the then Senior Minister, Yaw Osafo-Maafo, told Ghanaians at a town hall meeting in the United Kingdom that the government didn’t want to sacrifice its diplomatic relations with China.
He said the Akufo-Addo administration intended to partner with China in key infrastructural projects, including the $2 billion Sinohydro deal.
“Today, the main company that is helping develop the infrastructure system in Ghana is Sinohydro, it is a Chinese Company. It is the one that is going to help process our bauxite and provide about $2 billion to us,” he said in justification.
“So, when there are these kinds of arrangements, there are other things behind the scenes. Putting that lady [Aisha] in jail in Ghana is not going to solve your economic problems.
“It is not going to make you happy or me happy. That’s not important. The most important thing is that she has been deported from Ghana,” he added.
President Nana Akufo-Addo would later describe the decision as a mistake.
“I think the decision to deport Aisha Huang, in hindsight, was a mistake and that is why that process and procedure is being stopped,” he told his audience at a forum in the United States in September 2019.
Aisha and Helena were not the only Chinese to have escaped the jaws of the law.
On June 24, 2021, The Fourth Estate wrote to the Ghana Prisons Service through the right to information (RTI) requesting data including the number of foreign inmates in the country’s prisons.
The service responded in a letter dated July 29, 2021. From the data, The Fourth Estate found that there were only two Chinese convicts in the country’s prisons as at July 2021.
When The Fourth Estate followed up, the Prison Service later declined to provide the crimes that got the two incarcerated.
The two Chinese in Ghana’s prisons is in spite of the hundreds of Chinese illegal miners arrested from 2013 to 2020.
The Ghana Immigration Service (GIS) has refused to respond to The Fourth Estate’s RTI request on the number of Chinese nationals who arrived in the country from 2012 to date and the number deported during the same period.
The GIS told the United Kingdom’s The Guardian in July 2013 that more than 4,500 Chinese nationals were deported after a series of swoops on illegal goldmines in Ghana.
The Ghana Immigration Service at the time indicated that data from the Ministry of Lands and Mines at the time showed that 3,800 submitted themselves for voluntary repatriation in 2014 alone.
It appears the deportations were not deterrent enough, for the Chinese illegal miners returned in their multitudes.
From 2017 to date, figures from some media reports show at least 150 Chinese illegal miners were arrested in Ghana. They were arrested at mining sites in the Ashanti, Western, Eastern, Central, Western and Western North regions.
Data release threatens national security
In August 2021, The Fourth Estate again wrote to the Ghana Prisons Service requesting further details on the crimes the foreign nationals in the country’s prisons had committed.
But the Director-General of the service, Isaac Kofi Egyir, declined to release the data after requesting a meeting with The Fourth Estate team.
His reasons were that such information could compromise the security of the prisons and also that it also had the potential to undermine diplomatic relations between Ghana and countries with inmates in Ghanaian prisons.
Although his predecessor, Patrick Missah, had released part of the information in July, Mr. Egyir said the release of such information was not in the interest of the country.
The Fourth Estate wrote to the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice requesting information on cases in which the Attorney General had decided to discontinue the trial.
The Fourth Estate found that of the 54 cases whose prosecution the state discontinued, none of them involved the cases of Chinese citizens, including the major ones involving the rosewood and the galamsey “queen”.
Taming Judges’ discretion
To make the punishment for breaching Ghana’s mining laws stiffer, the Akufo-Addo administration amended the Minerals and Mining Act in 2019.
The new law explicitly criminalises aiding and abetting illegal mining activities and the use of unapproved equipment for mining in water bodies.
It also prescribes a minimum sentence of 15 years and maximum of 25 years for foreigners who engage in illegal mining.
When he met members of the Council of State in September 2019, the president said the motive for the new law was more than making the punishment for illegal mining stiffer. It was also to take away discretionary powers of judges who were sometimes seen as an impediment to the fight against galamsey.
The president said the reason was “largely because, with the greatest of respect, they are not cooperating on these matters. People are caught, taken to court and granted bail. And then at the end of the day they disappear.
“All these Chinese people are caught, they have been put before court, granted bail, you don’t hear of it again only to hear that they have resurfaced in the country,” he said.
“So, we felt it was important to take over the discretion of the judges. It is unfortunate that that should be so because all of us should be able to trust the judges also to do their bit in stamping out crimes and their consequences in our society,” the president said.
Contrary to the president’s claim that the judges were allowing the Chinese miners to walk free, many of the deportations and discontinuation of prosecution were not ordered by judges. They were decisions taken and justified by the executive.
In the case of En Huang and her countrymen, it was not a judge who discontinued the case. It was the President’s chief legal adviser at the time, Attorney-General Gloria Akuffo.
Ghana is one of Africa’s largest gold producers and is among the top 10 producers of gold globally—a reputation that makes it attractive for both blue chip companies and illegal miners.
So massive is the foreign invasion that, in 2013, the South China Morning Post, for instance, estimated that the number of Chinese miners in Ghana, mainly from China’s Shanglin Province, in the gold hunt, was about 50,000.
Illegal foreign miners have a rather sneaky way of entering the small-scale industry. It takes only seeing the chief of the mining area and paying the lease to him to get mining concessions which, otherwise, are prohibited by the law.
Section 83 of the Minerals and Mining Act states clearly that foreigners cannot engage in small-scale mining.
However, foreigners are allowed into the small-scale mining sector to provide ancillary support in the form of technical support to small-scale miners.
However, in recent times, some of these foreigners including Chinese nationals mistake their licences to mean they can fully engage in illegal mining.
In some cases, some of the legal small-scale miners only take the mining licenses only to front for the Chinese.