In moments of tension between two countries in their bilateral ties, official assignees as mouthpieces of affected countries may not be the best agents to anchor troubleshooting. Rather, back channels of engagement could be more effective in striking a truce. That seems a lesson to learn from ongoing efforts at rapprochement between Nigeria and Ghana in their strained relations.
There’s been no pretenses in recent times that these aren’t the best of times between both West African neighbours, with the latest sticking point being the lock-out of Nigerian traders from their shops in Ghana by that country’s authorities. But in the last one week, there has been some de-escalation of tension and fresh burst of enthusiasm for reconciliation. Much – to be sure, not all – of that result could be linked to the ‘legislative diplomacy’ initiative of Nigerian House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and his counterpart for the Ghanaian Parliament, Mike Oquaye. Gbajabiamila led a delegation to Accra last week to confer with Ghanaian lawmakers on pathways to mending fences.
Nigerian traders had complained that they were being targeted for harsh treatment and persecution despite fulfilling prescribed conditions for their residency and making a living in Ghana. They noted that they often fell under heavy hand whenever Accra had bones to pick with Abuja. Thus in the last few weeks, some 250 shops operated by Nigerian retailers in Ghana have been locked up by that country’s authorities for allegedly failing to meet up the $1million minimum equity stipulated in the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) Act for foreigners going into retail business in the country. But the traders argued that despite the stipulated equity being out of reach for many of their members, even those who managed to pay had their shops locked up. Besides, they alleged, Nigerian traders were being singled out for implementation of the requirement.
While meeting with Ghanaian lawmakers last week, Speaker Gbajabiamila said the challenges faced by Nigerian traders in that country were a cause for deep concern to all arms of the Nigerian government and Nigerian people as a whole, and he called for urgent action to end the hostility. Noting that ties between Nigeria and Ghana were about the most important in Africa, he canvassed that legislations be spearheaded by both countries’ parliaments to ensure mutually conducive environment for bilateral trade. Speaking along similar lines, his Ghanaian counterpart, Speaker Oquaye voiced optimism that the parliamentary approach would lead both countries to amicable resolution of thorny issues. Meanwhile, about the same time in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, Ghanaian Minister of Trade and Industry Allan Kyeremanteng was leading a delegation of his country’s government in a parley with their Nigerian counterparts led by Industry, Trade and Investment Minister Adeniyi Adebayo to brainstorm ways of improving Nigeria-Ghana relations. The cumulative effect of those engagements was renewed hope that the ice in both countries’ relations will soon be thawed.
Prior to that new rally of mutual search for truce, Nigeria and Ghana had engaged in cold war altercations. You could see relations were near rock bottom when conversations were jacked from the conventional remit of foreign affairs ministers of both countries, known for restrained diplomatese, by their information counterparts whose strength is typically in bullish case-making.
Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed fired a strong-worded statement penultimate weekend by which Nigeria accused Ghana of routine “acts of hostility” and “harassment” of its citizens residing in that country, warning that the Nigerian government would no longer tolerate the trend. He cited the acts of hostility by Ghanaian authorities to include the seizure of one Nigerian Mission property and demolition of another in breach of the 1969 Vienna Convention; aggressive and incessant deportation of Nigerians from Ghana; erratic lock-up of Nigerian traders’ shops over the years; “residency permit requirements on which the Ghana Immigration Service has placed huge fees, far higher than the fees charged by the Nigerian Immigration Service;” and “outrageous” stipulations in the GIPC Act by which a foreigner was required to invest $300,000 minimum equity and also employ 10 Ghanaians when it was enacted in 1994, but which has been amended twice – with the 2018 GIPC Act raising the minimum equity for foreign-owned businesses to $1million.
The minister took particular note that though the law is targeted at foreigners, GIPC’s definition of foreigners seems to be Nigerians. He also alleged media war against Nigerians in Ghana, saying negative reportage of issues concerning Nigerian residents was fuelling xenophobic attitude towards Nigerian traders and Nigerians in general; and there is “harsh and openly-biased judicial trial and pronouncement of indiscriminately-long jail terms for convicted Nigerians.” He added that the Nigerian government would like to put on record that, on the other hand, more than one million Ghanaians who reside in Nigeria are not subjected to the kind of hostility being meted out to Nigerians in Ghana.
Barely 48hours after Mohammed’s statement, his Ghanaian counterpart, Endkojo Oppong-Nkrumah, issued a rejoinder in which he described most of the allegations as “not factual” and gave point-by-point counter-narrative to the issues highlighted. Highpoints of his arguments include that Nigeria neither had valid lease agreement nor title deeds on identified Mission property; that only Nigerians convicted of criminal activities were deported; that all foreigners in Ghana pay same amounts for residency permits; and that the Ghanaian judiciary is indifferent toward nationalities in the application of the country’s laws.
In further making his case, Oppong-Nkrumah alleged that rather than Ghanaian media plying negative reportage against Nigerians resident in Ghana, it is some Nigerians in high places who ply negative reportage against Ghanaian government (he called out Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister and “a Nigerian businessman with political interest in Ghana” in this regard). To underscore the depth of estrangement between both countries, the Ghanaian official noted that the statement by his Nigerian counterpart was “a clear departure from the manner in which officials of the two countries have related with each other in the past.” In regard of the GIPC equity requirement for foreign retailers in Ghana, he argued for protectionist sovereignty of respective country, citing the unilateral decision by Nigeria to shut its borders last year over smuggling despite that it badly hurt other member-nations of the sub-region.
The blunt narratives by Nigeria’s Lai Mohammed and Ghana’s Endkojo Oppong-Nkrumah were obviously not the stock of diplomatic conversation. They rather symptomise cold war confrontation. Ideally at a time like this, it is Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama that should be leading the Nigerian narrative. Only that he himself apparently compounded misgivings with an alleged statement that the crackdown by Accra on foreign retail businesses in the country was for political gains. General elections are imminent in Ghana and sensitivity is high in that country’s partisan dynamics. This is why it helps that lawmakers in both countries have taken up the initiative to chart the path to peace. It is important, however, that whatever deals are struck in ongoing bilateral engagements are followed through for diligent and consistent implementation as would benefit ordinary citizens of both countries in the long run.
A word about the new tariffs
Amidst crushing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, tariffs are being hiked all around on Nigerians. Marketers last week unveiled the deregulated pump price of petrol at an average of N161 nationwide, following from government’s fixture of the price at N151.56 per litre effective from 2nd September. Electricity distribution companies (DisCos) across the country, on 1st September effected a ‘cost-reflective’ tariff that would see some consumers pay nearly double the charges they used to previously. Naturally, the cost of food and consumer items have gone off hinge in response to these and other stimuli.
There is acute hardship in the land, and that is by no means ‘politicising’ the measures that have fuelled wild inflation in the economy. Government must be sensitive to succor the citizenry – not by tokenistic cash handouts to so-called ‘poor of the poor,’ but by a comprehensive policy framework of inflation curtailment. There is always a tipping point that incurs unrest and we must not get there.
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