By Tareq Hassan
Despite largely prosperous diplomatic and trade relations over the last few decades, relations between Nigeria and Ghana have soured in recent months. Unless cooler heads prevail, the wide-ranging dispute may threaten growth and democracy in West Africa’s two most powerful nations.
Considering the political and economic repercussions of previous feuds, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic, it’s surprising that the Ghanaian government under incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo and the Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari have failed to quell public anger.
While the Akufo-Addo government in Ghana pleads ignorance of any wrongdoing, Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) officials have been locking Nigerian-owned storefronts, seizing warehoused goods, and demolishing trading centres. So far, GUTA officials have forcibly closed 600 Nigerian shops in 2019 and 250 Nigerian shops in 2020. According to Nigerian business owners, recent government regulations have made it near-impossible for foreign nationals to receive approval for a retail trading permit.
Despite widespread condemnation from Ghana’s own Trade Ministry, Akufo-Addo — in what is likely an attempt to curry political favour with Ghana’s industrialists — has obstructed any attempt to find a civilized solution. Akufo-Addo’s government has also been implicated in the seizure and demolishing of a building in the Nigerian High Commission compound in Accra. Under international law, this unscheduled destruction of a diplomatic compound is in contravention of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Aside from international legal questions, the Akufo-Addo government has also been accused of illegal deportation of Nigerian citizens.
In a strongly-worded official statement, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information & Culture denounced Akufo-Addo for his incendiary rhetoric and tepid engagement with Nigerian representatives. In the same statement, the Federal Ministry of Information & Culture formally accused Ghanaian authorities of unlawful persecution of Nigerian-born foreign nationals and repeated breaches of the Vienna Convention.
With tensions between Nigeria and Ghana threatening to boil over, representatives of the Nigerian government have been diplomatically obstructed and stonewalled. Akufo-Addo’s impulsive treatment of Nigerian representatives is a microcosm of a broader trend of his government’s inattention and neglect amid an election year – a trend that has now turned a minor trade dispute into a major political crisis.
Ironically, by prioritizing his own reelection campaign, Akufo-Addo has allowed a diplomatic row with Nigeria to escalate to the point where it now threatens to undermine crucial bilateral economic relations. After a COVID-19 induced economic contraction sent Ghana’s growth forecasts to a 37-year low, mounting tensions with Nigeria threaten to hurt Ghanaians jobs and incomes as the country rely heavily on Nigerian imports and trade.
Over one million Nigerians work in Ghana, an important part of the labour force in the West African nation. Ghana’s $165 million worth of exports to Nigeria could also suffer from the tensions, weighing heavily on Ghana’s jobs and incomes. Ghana’s crucial imports from Nigeria are also predicted to decline if a diplomatic solution is not reached. Last year, 17% of Ghana’s total imports came from Nigeria, including food and beverages, minerals, and even boats to support Ghana’s fishing and maritime industries. A breakdown in trade relations between Ghana and Nigeria would likely leave Ghana reeling – a weakened budget, expensive food, and labour shortages.
Mindful of the looming public relations nightmare, Akufo-Addo has turned to the media to shore up crumbling public opinion. Even as diplomatic channels are left unattended, the Akufo-Addo government has had no problem leveraging its influence over state-run broadcasters and friendly radio channels to snipe at Nigerian policymakers and attack the Nigerian business community in Ghana. This is especially concerning due to the Nigerian accusation of a “Media war against Nigerians in Ghana.”
Akufo-Addo’s National Patriotic Party’s brazen appropriation of public communications is especially disheartening considering that Ghana was once regarded as a regional bastion of democracy and press freedom. In the last three years, Ghana has seen the closing of radio stations tied to opposition groups, and broadcast contracts awarded to the close friends of influential NPP members like Kennedy Agyapong and Gabby Asare Otchere Darko.
If conditions on the ground in Ghana continue to deteriorate at their current pace, what started as a modest diplomatic row regarding foreign-owned small businesses could quickly escalate to a serious regression in bilateral relations between Nigeria and Ghana. The dramatic downturn in bilateral relations between the countries could isolate Ghana’s economy, increase prices, and crush the local job market. As Akufo-Addo nears the end of a divisive re-election campaign, he needs to understand that Ghana does not need an economic feud with Nigeria.