Kibwabwa Ghati was a Tanzanian farmer. According to his mother, Wankrugati Malembela, he was shot to death on November 6, 2012, while herding cattle. Ghati and his dogs, she says, were trying to coax the slow-moving animals back to his family compound near a hill that served as the perimeter of an operation known as the North Mara Gold Mine. He was almost home when suddenly a group of young men came scrambling down the hill above him. Some were carrying the machete-like blade known in East Africa as a panga, but most had only hammers and buckets—the tools of their illicit trade.
The men describe themselves as “intruders,” people who risk their lives breaking into the mine to steal waste rock containing small amounts of gold. There are hundreds of intruders each night, sometimes thousands. And that night, like many nights before and since, they were being pursued by police and gunfire. The local police officers are an integral part of the mine’s security and operate under an agreement with the company that owns the mine. That company is African Barrick Gold, a subsidiary of Canadian mining colossus Barrick Gold.
It’s unknown whether Ghati was mistaken for an intruder or just got caught in the cross fire that night. Either way, he wound up with a bullet through his head—entering his forehead and exiting out the back. He was 23 years old and left behind a wife and two young children.
“The police then dragged his body into the mine and took photos, saying that he was an intruder,” said Ghati’s mother. “But that was not true. My son never participated in the raids.”
In the past three years, 69 people have been killed by police at the North Mara Gold Mine, according to Wilson Mangure, a local ward councillor who has been tracking the incidents. In that same period, hundreds more have been severely injured. And the violence continues. In the first month of 2014 alone, four more people were killed, he said.
North Mara is located in the the northwest of Tanzania, about 12 miles south of the Kenyan border and close to Serengeti National Park. The controversial mine opened in 2002 and has been in conflict with villagers ever since. Much of this conflict stems from the forcing out of artisanal miners in the area. Many of these small-scale miners had been working the area for generations but did not have a legal claim to the land—either because they were ignorant of the law or because they didn’t have the money to pay the licensing fees.
A Canadian company, Placer Dome, took one look at all the mining in the district and decided to get in on the action, applying for a licence to the entire area. The few miners with proper claims were bought out by the foreign interloper. The majority, who were mining without a licence, were simply kicked out. Many of those men, who were now without a source of income, continued prospecting illegally.
In 2006, Placer Dome was purchased and assimilated into Barrick Gold.
It’s difficult to visit the villages around the mine without bumping into someone who’s been directly affected by the violence. I shared a taxi from Tarime with a young man whose brother, Ryoba Maseke, was killed in 2012. His next-door neighbor, Makima Maruwa, had been shot in the leg, an injury that prevented him from working. Everyone knows someone who has been killed. Many roll up pant legs and sleeves to show poorly healed bullet wounds.
Joshua Masyaga once made his living as an intruder, but gave it up in 2012 after watching three of his closest friends get gunned down by police. It had grown too dangerous for a small-time operator like him, he said. The intruders had gone professional.
According to Masyaga, organized groups of intruders now have contacts among the mine workers and police. For a fee, certain mine workers tell the intruders exactly when and where to go to get the best waste rock. Police are paid to look the other way, shooting and arresting everyone else so that they appear to be doing their jobs, said Masyaga.
African Barrick Gold is currently being sued in the UK by British law firm Leigh Day on behalf of the families of six people who were killed, and one man who was left a paraplegic.
Barrick turned around and tried to start a parallel case in the Tanzania courts, an act that a British High Court justice described as the “Tanzanian torpedo,” because of its seeming attempt to undermine the case in Britain. As a result of documents that were released in court, it recently came to light that at least 14 women had been sexually assaulted by police and security guards at the mine.
Barrick investigated the cases itself, and released its findings to Tarime police, according to the company’s press release. Barrick gave the women cash settlements and other forms of compensation, such as offers of employment with the company.
It’s still unclear whether any of the perpetrators will face justice.
While these court cases proceed and some victims and their families are compensated, there are many more who receive nothing at all. Take Ghati, the farmer who was killed while herding his cattle. His family complained to police, but were told that Ghati was a violent criminal who got what he deserved. They then went to Barrick and began to follow the company’s grievance process but became discouraged when the process dragged on for months. They finally gave up.
Gary Chapman, the general manager of the North Mara Gold Mine, maintained that the conflict is between police and the thieves. The company has built a concrete wall around the site, and entered into a partnership with non-profit organization Search for Common Ground, to work with both sides to bring an end to the violence.
In spite of all the problems, Barrick has a very positive relationship with the community, said Chapman. Several municipal government officials have expressed appreciation for the money that the company has poured into the area.
Barrick spent $1.5 million USD building a new high school in Nyamwaga village, which was opened in January. The company built other schools as well, and is helping repair a local hospital. It has repaired many village roads (although not the heavily trafficked main road in and out of the mine) and has many projects to provide safe drinking water to the communities.
But the area’s member of parliament, Nyambari Nyangwine, isn’t satisfied.
"Right now there are a few examples of community service—there’s the school, clinic, and water projects. But it isn’t enough,” he said.
"The situation is bad because they’re making a lot of money taking minerals from the land while the people of Tarime remain poor.”