In our series of letters to African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohne has a close look at the close relationship between Ghana and Nigeria, which alleviates the current tensions over the closure of some Nigerian-owned shops in Ghana.
We see them as very loud and abrasive and chaotic and we believe that they feel that they can exclude everyone, especially the people of Ghana.
They feel that we are very polite, not very smart, always punching above our weight and doing nothing more than defeating Nigeria in Ghana.
The Ghana-Nigeria rivalry has long been between the two countries.
When I was a child, there was a Nigerian in every city and village in Ghana.
I went to school with him and there he was called by a Nigerian lady – “Mami Alta” – who sold everything and you could wake him up in the middle of the night to buy three cubes of sugar.
Nigerians were particularly visible in the retail trade sector and diamond mining cities.
The two countries do not share borders, but it has always felt like we did. That we are separated from Togo and that Benin has never really spoken – we think we are neighbors.
Apparently, French speaking countries have something to do with the English speaking and British colonization of both countries.
Before independence we had the same currency and airline, and the same top court dealt with all judicial matters.
There were regular sports competitions between our Achimota School and their King’s College.
I know that one of those sports meetings was a permanent wedding.
Then in 1955, they were knocked out 7–0 by the Red Devils of Ghana, as the Nigerian national football team was called at the time.
It is the stuff of legends, and over the years, it hangs behind every conversation, every argument, personal or national, between our two countries.
Then Ghana got her independence in March 1957 and our Nigerian cousins in October 1960.
It did not feel right – for many Nigerians, they were big and they should have got their freedom before small Ghana.
They may have grown up, but at the time, Ghana realized and was richer than Nigeria – before the discovery of oil.
We maintained the rivalry and friendship of the neighbor.
Then came the Aliens Compliance Order of the Progress Party Government of November 1969, which ordered all unspecified aliens to leave Ghana.
Even though the country had Togoli, Burkinab, Ivorian, Nigerian and other West Africans, Nigeria, mostly ethnic Yoruba from the southwestern states of Nigeria, made up the majority of the then foreign population in Ghana.
Some of them had been living here for years and were in their second and third generations. It was felt that this practice was aimed at Nigerians and the visit to their home was not pleasant.
Oil then moved to Nigeria and as they got richer, the Ghanaian economy collapsed and migration to Nigeria continued from around 1974.
University professors, architects, engineers, carpenters, masons, tailors, barbers, maids and our classrooms were evacuated from all kindergarten, elementary, secondary and tertiary teachers.
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If you were a Nigerian family of any denomination, you would have a Ghanaian nanny, a Ghanaian maid, a Ghanaian cook, a Ghanaian gardener and a Ghanaian teacher in school for your children or as a private teacher Was likely to happen.
Then in 1983, the Nigerian government announced the expulsion of all unspecified aliens.
As Ghanaians formed the majority of aliens, it was felt that this was aimed at Ghanaians.
The informal name for the exercise, and for the plastic bag that desperate departed Ghanaians used to take away their possessions, became “Ghana Must Go”.
It was not a pleasant trip to Ghana. We were at our lowest level and we had a ruthless joke when we bought toilet rolls and cooking oil to take home.
Nigerians would never accept this, but it felt that the 1969 Alien Compliance Order of Ghana was hurt.
Gradually, we went back to building a relationship, because we couldn’t really do without each other.
The West African regional organization, ECOWAS, came into existence in 1975 and as the two major English-speaking countries in the group, we needed each other to make things work.
By the time we recognized his “seniority” things were at a standstill. That we had a bad relationship became firmly established.
They stopped Ghana in 1982 by withholding special conditions to sell us oil. We went to beg, and it was restored.
In the 1990s a suitcase filled with $ 2m was sent by Nigeria’s leader General Sani Abacha, some saying $ 5m to his Ghanaian counterpart Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings.
In the early 2000s, Ghana’s President John Kufuor went to see Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and told him that the Ghana Police Service has 100 vehicles named after it and Nigeria has given us vehicles for its police.
But we remain their favorite place for the rich and famous, and they send their children to school in Ghana.
The Black Stars also often did not play according to the script and, every now and again, defeated the Super Eagles, as the national football team of Nigeria was now known.
The current tensions between the two countries are being attributed to bilateral trade differences.
There is a law that prohibits foreigners from retail trade – and Ghanaian merchants do not want Nigerian traders in the markets.
Ghana’s Law and Current Crisis:
- Foreigners in Ghana cannot run small retail shops, but they can do wholesale firms or other businesses, investing around $ 1m (£ 782,000)
- The purpose of the law is to protect small local businessmen and those running small businesses such as barbers or beauty salons, but it is not always enforced
- Market traders have sometimes taken the law into their own hands, which prompted authorities to audit retail outlets in August and close some Nigerian-run stalls.
- Marrying Ghanaian foreigners is free from laws – as in business partnerships with Ghana
As the Ministry of Trade tries to resolve things, matters have assumed diplomatic dimensions.
The Nigerian Federal Minister of Information has spoken some strong words.
Ghana’s Information Minister has issued a comprehensive rebuttal.
The Nigerian foreign minister is busy complaining about the “forced closure of Nigerian merchant shops in Ghana” and reasons for the closure on her Twitter account.
Our Foreign Minister felt that his counterpart removed the mark and called the Nigerian High Commissioner to his office, telling him some options, straight words.
The Speaker of our Parliament stepped into the fray and invited the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Nigeria to Ghana.
He came with a strong delegation and after four days of meetings he said “the problem at hand is basically a misconception and misinformation”.
There have been reports in the Nigerian media that Nigerians are mostly buildings in fancy parts of Accra, Ghana’s capital and this may be true.
They are talking about the number of Nigerian banks in Ghana and the suggestion that we have enough economic muscle to squeeze us where it hurts.
Ghanaian retail traders may not have 100% support among their compatriots about getting Nigerian traders out of the markets.
Because, like “Mami Alta” in Your Days, the Nigerian businessman will remain open to a buyer and will not be closed for three days to attend the funeral.
We are all holding our breath and the feeling is perhaps what we should learn to do without these cousins.
But we have not yet learned how the tongue learns without teeth.
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