Ten months after a series of high-level bilateral talks between the Nigerian government and authorities in Ghana aimed at addressing the nearly decade-long controversy that led to the closure of Nigerian traders’ shops in Ghana, the issues have taken a turn for the worse, Daily Trust investigation reveals.
Dozens of Nigerians have lost their sources of livelihood because of the blockade even as they called on the federal government to deploy other options to resolve the impasse.
It was gathered that between September 20 and 24, members of the Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) had locked up additional shops belonging to Nigerians as part of a purported protest against foreigners who operate retail shops in their country.
During the recent onslaught, retail traders located at New Juaben South Municipality were the target.
The attackers said relevant laws of Ghana do not allow foreigners to engage in the retail market.
Dozens of shops have been locked this time in addition to the over 250 shops belonging to Nigerians locked in December 2019, July 2020 and December 2020.
Many of the affected traders said they were stranded and had to beg to feed. They were however reluctant to come back home despite a window created by the federal government to facilitate their safe return.
They said there was nothing concrete to sustain them when they come back home. At the centre of the lingering controversy was a $1 million (N410m) levy imposed on Nigerian traders and other foreign investors to pay Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) before the shops would be opened.
Some of the traders said the levy was more than the capital they have and described the tax as a deliberate attempt to force them out of Ghana.
The conditions set by the Ghanaian authorities had triggered a debate in Nigeria and within the African sub-region, which many considered as a breach of ECOWAS’ trade protocols.
After receiving a formal complaint from its citizens at the onset of the imbroglio, the Nigerian government had set up a ministerial committee to find a lasting solution to the plight of the traders but it appeared not much had been achieved.
The committee was made up of representatives of the ministries of Interior, Trade and Investment, Foreign Affairs and the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM).
After a meeting with a delegation of the Nigerian traders, the committee resolved to engage the Ghanaian government in every way possible to end the crisis, with a promise to evacuate any trader who may wish to return home.
Despite these efforts, the President of the Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana (NUTAG), Mr Chukwuemeka Nnaji, said there was hope in sight.
“Things are getting worse, members of the Ghana Union of Traders locked up more of our shops yesterday night (a fortnight ago),” he said.
“After the visit of the government delegation from Nigeria, the Ghana Ministry of Trade invited us for a meeting with GUTA and a task force was formed and inaugurated. We had second and third meetings and we could not continue because of the way the whole thing was going,” he said.
Resumption of hostilities
In a joint committee meeting of Ghana and Nigerian traders, the committee on foreign retail trade asked the leadership of the Nigerian traders to provide it with the data of their membership and other relevant documentation on their businesses.
The Nigerian traders asked for time to produce the documents and which was granted, it was learnt.
However, NUTAG reportedly failed to provide the needed information and told the committee that they could not comply with the request of the joint committee.
This move, it was learnt, prompted a press statement by GUTA which was issued on September 13.
It was signed by its Secretary-General, Alpha A. Shaban in which he said that NUTAG completely rejected the special dispensation offered to them by the government of Ghana after a series of diplomatic efforts by both Ghana and Nigeria governments.
“This incongruous attitude of the Nigerian traders in Ghana is not only an affront but also a well-orchestrated ploy to frustrate the committee, state and people of Ghana.
“Because of this, we, of the Ghana Union of the Traders’ Associations wish to appeal to the committee on foreign retail trade to, as a matter of urgency, resume its operations without any delay as the behaviour of the Nigerian traders has seriously provoked Ghanaian traders and reignited agitations in the markets.
“We hereby want the world to bear witness to the fact that we (GUTA) have given some concessions to our Nigerian counterparts, but they have failed to accept for which there is nothing more we can do than to call for immediate continuation of the operations of the committee on foreign retail trade to ensure sanity in our markets.”
In a swift response, Mr Nnaji said, “We were invited for an emergency meeting during which we were handed a document which states a specific task we are expected to perform.
“It said NUTAG should go and collect all the business documents of our members, including their tenancy agreements of the respective shops or stalls.
“That the concession now is just to allow our members who have not registered with the GIPC to stay out the remaining days, months or years of their tenancy agreement after which they are supposed to pack out because the rent for those shops shall not be renewed and will not be allowed to rent shops anywhere in Ghana.
“After politely raising objection to the stance by the other side of the committee to profile Nigerians first without first opening the shops or considering our legitimate concerns as prescribed in the ECOWAS protocols, we were vilified,” he said.
The president said the threat was unfortunate and called on the President of Ghana, his counterpart in Nigeria, the ECOWAS Commission and the international community to strongly condemn the ugly development.
Over 3,000 traders threatened, lost over N2.9bn so far
Speaking on the number of traders affected, the Secretary-General of the Nigerian traders in Ghana, Comrade Evaristus Nwankwo, said, “I can only talk about the union because thousands of Nigerians in Ghana do not belong to NUTAG. Over 5,000 Nigerians are trading in Ghana but the union has a little over 3,000 members”.
On the estimated loss arising from the closure, Nwankwo said they were still collating the figures.
“We have lost over $5m (N2.9bn) in forfeiture of rents already paid and goods that expired with the shops under lock and keys. This is not to talk of human lives as a result of inadequate medical treatment because of lack of money,” he said.
Recurring bilateral talks
Daily Trust recalled that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had during his last visit told Nigerian traders in Ghana that the Nigerian government was not aware that their shops had remained closed after President Muhammadu Buhari spoke to President Nana Akuffo Addo of Ghana.
Osinbajo made the statement when he visited the Nigerian Community in Ghana after participating in the Extraordinary Summit of ECOWAS on Mali’s political impasse.
Prof. Osinbajo, who was received by the executives of the Nigerian community, corporate bodies and a high powered diplomatic team led by the Nigerian High Commission, assured the Nigerian community that justice will be done while urging them to remain calm and not retaliate. In a follow-up, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, had last year summoned Ghana’s Chargé d’Affaires to Nigeria, Ms Iva Denoo and discussed the closure of shops of Nigerians in Accra to address the issue.
Onyeama described the action taken by the Ghanaian authorities as politically motivated but his Ghanaian counterpart, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, countered, insisting that the crackdown was on illegal foreign retail businesses in Ghana.
Also, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and the Speaker of the Ghanaian Parliament, Mr Albert Bagbin, had a zoom meeting on April 2, 2021, in a bid to find lasting solutions to the trade dispute.
During the meeting, Gbajabiamila updated his counterpart on his visit to Ghana towards the end of 2020, to douse tensions and extract commitments from the Ghanaian government.
Also, following the Daily Trust story in May this year, President Muhammadu Buhari directed that a ministerial delegation led by the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo, be sent to Ghana to resolve the lingering conflict.
Legal, political and economic dimensions of the crisis
Speaking exclusively to Daily Trust on the latest development, the Executive Director, Centre for Trade and Business Environment Advocacy (CTBA), Barrister Leonard Otuonye Ugbajah said there were many dimensions to the problem.
He said there was a legal ground to challenge the discrimination against Nigerian traders in the ECOWAS Court of Justice but added that for some reason, Nigeria had not followed this course.
Ugbajah said: “There is a lot of talk about the rights of Nigerian traders as ECOWAS citizens to reside in and trade in Ghana. However, the non-discrimination provision of the Protocol allows member states to make an exception.
“If for a specific activity a member state is unable to accord such treatment, the member state must indicate as much, in writing, to the executive secretariat. Other member states shall then not be bound to accord non-discriminatory treatment to nationals and companies of the state concerned.
“To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think Ghana has taken this route. Rather, they have gone ahead to enact the Ghana Investment Promotion Act, which is the main bone of contention. The Act has placed an extremely high threshold for community citizens (Nigerian included) who have been traditionally engaged in open market trading in Ghana.”
On the political dimension to the crisis, Ugbajah said, “Ghanaian traders and government officials are quick to remind us that the Nigerian government does not also abide by its commitments under the ECOWAS Treaty and various instruments. For example, policies or measures like import prohibition, border closure, among others, in some ways, violate Nigeria’s commitments under ECOWAS instruments. So, Nigeria lacks the moral authority to pontificate on this matter.
Speaking on the economic dimension, he said, “You can’t fault their concern from a purely economic survival standpoint. If the tables were turned, Nigerians would probably do the same.”
Asked if the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could address the imbroglio, he said there was nothing new in it that could solve the problem.
“Nigeria could negotiate with Ghana to reduce or eliminate the capital requirements and other conditions for Nigerian traders in Ghana in exchange for some bilateral concessions to Ghana,” he said.
We’re not aware of recent onslaught- Diaspora commission
When contacted, the head of media and public relations of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abdur-Rahman Balogun, said he was not aware of the latest development.
He said the committee set up by President Buhari, which had the ministers of foreign affairs, trade and industry, internal affairs and Nigeria in Diaspora Commission, with the representatives of Nigerian traders in Ghana had interceded.
“They met and visited Ghana to iron out all the grey areas and they came back and submitted their report to Mr President.
“So, I am surprised to hear that they started closing Nigerian businesses in Ghana… I am surprised”.
When asked about the government’s feelings on the recent closure despite the diplomatic intervention, he said, “As a matter of fact, until I have the details. But, it is wrong because Ghana and Nigeria are countries that have come a long way as brothers and on this matter, the two presidents have met, the two vice presidents have met, the two speakers of the parliaments have met, ministers of foreign affairs of the two countries have also met and the committee set up by the two countries have also met and they are taking the matter to ECOWAS to mediate,” he said.
Also, the Ghana Ministry of Trade and Industry has called for calm between GUTA and the traders. The ministry asked GUTA to rescind its decision to close down all shops belonging to Nigerians as authorities from both countries were set to meet to address the matter.
In a statement quoted by Ghana web on October 2, the ministry said representatives from Ghana International Trade Commission and the Nigeria High Commission met on three occasions to address the impasse but the outcome was inconclusive.
The ministry said it has scheduled a meeting for October 5.
By Sunday M. Ogwu, Hamisu K. Matazu & Balarabe Alkassim