Nigerian traders in Ghana: Caught between a rock and a hard place

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This is not the best of times for Nigerian traders in Ghana whose businesses are facing existential threats following the insistence of the authorities in that country that they must have $1m business equity, among other requirements, before they can continue operating their commercial ventures in the former Gold Coast. The authorities premised their demand on the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre 2013, Act 865.

According to Section 27(1) of the Act, a person who is not a (Ghanaian) citizen or an enterprise, which is not wholly-owned by a citizen “shall not invest or participate in the sale of goods or provision of services in a market, petty trading or hawking or selling of goods in a stall at any place.”

Section 28(1) provides that “a foreigner may participate in an enterprise other than an enterprise specified in Section 27 if that person, in the case of a joint enterprise with a partner, who is a citizen, invests a foreign capital of not less than $200,000 in cash or capital goods relevant to the investment or a combination of both by way of equity participation and the partner, who is a citizen, does not have less than 10 per cent equity participation in the joint enterprise.”

The law further stipulates that a person, who is not a citizen, may engage in a trading enterprise if that person invests in the enterprise not less than $1m in cash or goods and services relevant to the investment. The investor is also required to employ at least 20 skilled Ghanaians.

On its face value, the Ghanaian government may be applauded for protecting and preserving the livelihood of the generality of its citizens from being taken over by foreigners as it has happened in Nigeria and other African countries, where the retail business is largely dominated by foreigners.

However, the crude manner in which the Ministry of Trade and the Ghana Union of Traders Association have been going about the enforcement of the law gives the impression that it is targeted at Nigerians, who are perceived to have the upper hand in the local market space in Ghana.

The onslaught against Nigerian traders started in 2018 when their Ghanaian counterparts began clamouring for foreigners to stop retail trade. The situation degenerated in November 2019 as GUTA members shut over 300 shops belonging to Nigerians in Kumasi, Magazine, Alaba, Kejeta, Edum and Suame areas.

The same thing happened in Accra, where about 50 shops were locked up by the Ghanaian traders, while 15 others were sealed off at the Opera Square.

After an engagement between Nigerian and Ghanaian officials, the shops were re-opened. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, had summoned the Ghanaian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ambassador Rashid Bawa, and the issue appeared to have been resolved until a video trended online a few days ago showing officials forcefully locking up a shop belonging to a Nigerian in Accra.

The hapless trader showed the officials his business registration certificate and other documents, but the enforcement team was adamant as the officials insisted on shutting his premises.

Onyeama again summoned the Ghanaian mission officials to explain the reasons for the latest harassment of their African brothers. He faulted the action and said the Federal Government might consider retaliatory actions, including dragging Ghana before the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, if found to have breached the sub-region’s Protocol of Free Movement of Peoples.

However, many Nigerians were dismayed by the minister’s phlegmatic reaction to what was considered Ghana’s penchant for testing Nigeria’s patience and resolve.

Only in June, a Ghanaian businessman, aided by the authorities, brazenly demolished a building on the premises of the Nigerian Mission in Accra. His armed acolytes were said to have threatened to deal with any staff member that dared to intervene.

Distress calls to the police by the private security guards at the mission went unanswered, a clear indication that the assault on the diplomatic property had official backing. Many individuals were outraged by this criminal violation of the Nigerian territory in Accra.

However, those who were expecting a sharp rebuke to Ghana only heard a murmur of protest from the Nigerian foreign affairs minister, whose alleged diplomacy of acquiescence has become sauce for jokes among retired diplomats.

Unimpressed by Nigeria’s weak remonstration and perhaps buoyed by the prospect of getting away with another aggression against her due to lack of deterrence for past affronts, the Ghanaian Ministry of Trade insisted that Nigerian traders must pay the required taxes and other fees imposed on them.

Speaking on a Ghanaian radio station, Star FM, last week, the Head of Communications, Ministry of Trade, Prince Boakye Boateng, said the Nigerian traders had failed to honour an ultimatum to meet the requirements.

“It cannot be that we’ve been insensitive; if that is what they’re saying, I’ll be disappointed, because I’ll rather say they have rather been unfair to us as a regulatory body, because we have given them (Nigerian traders) more time than enough to the extent even the Ghanaians thought that the ministry was not even on their side or the ministry wasn’t ready to even enforce the law,” he stated.

Many have posited that Ghana’s hardline on the $1m business equity requirement might be a reprisal for the closure of Nigerian borders over a year ago, which has impacted on the local economy. But the acting Vice-President of GUTA, Clement Boateng, denied the link, stating that each country was simply protecting its economic interests.

He alluded to the fact that his country was pained by the refusal of Nigeria to re-open its borders and argued that the Federal Government was not fair to its neighbours as it did not inform them ahead of time before the closure.

“But our problem was that if Nigeria was going to close the borders, it was fair that it informed the member states of the ECOWAS and gave them prior notice on the closure of the borders so that whoever was doing business must have finished by that day. So, we don’t want Nigeria to link the closure of the border with the closure of the shops (in Ghana), which is happening now; they are two separate issues,” he stressed.

From the disposition of the Ghanaian government, it is apparent that Nigerian businesses had to comply with its directive or consider exiting the West African nation. The traders are obviously caught between a hard place and a rock and the Federal Government appears to have no silver bullet.

The President, Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana, Mr Chukwuemeka Nnaji, said many shops were locked on August 10, 2020, and the traders were given a 14-day ultimatum to cough out the $1m or face eviction by August 24.

“If there is no settlement, I think Nigeria should go to court to get an interpretation. But it’s like when you take your landlord to court, you will eventually leave the property, whether you win or lose,” he said.

Speaking on the crisis, the Executive Director, United Global Resolve for Peace, Shalom Olaseni, said, “The Nigerian government must approach the Ghanaian government with a view to amicably arriving at a compromise as this is no time for grandstanding or pretence as both countries are in fact guilty of strangling the trade relations between themselves.”

Summing up the general consensus on the impasse, a former Director of Trade and Investment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Rasheed Akinkuolie, noted that Ghana imposed the regulation on Nigerians in reaction to the closure of Nigerian borders.

“The economies of West African countries depend on Nigeria and when you close the borders, which is against the ECOWAS Protocol, then the affected countries may invoke the principle of reciprocity and this is what Ghana has done,” he submitted.    ,,

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