Caught between legality and diplomacy: Pathetic story of Nigerian traders in Ghana

The predicament of Nigerian traders in Ghana have in recent time been an issue of debate nationally and within the West Africa sub-region. This is due to the controversial Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) $1 million levy that mandates every foreign investor in Ghana to either provide the huge sum in cash or as raw materials before legally being recognised to do business in the country. Olugbenga ADANIKIN who recently visited Ghana reports on the dilemma of Nigerian traders.

It was 2:44 pm, on a sunny day of December 6, 2020. Godwin Anthony had just returned from the ‘street,’ sapped out. “Abeg, give me malt,” he reached out to Eric, a fellow Ghanaian trader but his request was cunningly disregarded.

Anthony, a Ghanaian by birth, trades in mobile phones and phone accessories at the popular Kwame Nkrumah Circle Market in the Greater Accra Region, Ghana. His father, a Nigerian, from Imo State married from Ujape, a local community in the Volta Region, Ghana.

Besides being born in Ghana, the 36-year-old father also married a Ghanaian, just like his father but prefers to be identified as a Nigerian and has suffered similar prejudice as scores of Nigerian business owners challenged by the $1 million investment levy promulgated by the Ghanaian government for foreign investment in the country.

His stall was shut since November 2019 by the multi-stakeholder enforcement Committee on Foreigners in Retail Trade; as a result, he lost over 80 per cent of his customers and survival has been a great challenge. He now roams street around the popular market to eke out a living.

His ties with his country of birth and marriage to a Ghanaian spouse did not spare him from the GIPC policy, mostly considered prejudicial on Nigerian businesses in the country. Nevertheless, he would sometimes help his friends involved in the same line of business to import goods from China to Ghana.

The story of alleged hostile treatments meted out at foreigners in Ghana, especially Nigerians have remained a burning discussion of public interest, and perhaps a regional concern. These worries evidently became more pronounced following the decision of the Nigerian government to shut its land borders at Seme, Illela, Maigatari and Nfun in August, 2019 – a move the federal government attributed to increased smuggling of arms and agricultural produce.


Nigerian traders in Ghana
One of the locked-up stalls belonging to a Nigerian at the Circle Market, Accra. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

The Ghanaian government was displeased with the border closure such that, Nana Akufo-Addo, the Ghanaian president appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to consider Ghanaian businesses affected by the policy.

In September, 2020, Patrice Talon, Benin president also sought the suspension of the policy, but the federal government appeared adamant, as the policy remained active until December 16, 2020 – more than a year after the decision was taken.

Nigerian traders in Ghana, consequently, believed the apathy was exacerbated by the land border closure. Moreover, the decision came at a time when the continent was aiming at trade integration.

“The whole drama started around November 2019,” says Anthony, “I will tell you they basically focus on Nigerians because there were Lebanese whose shops were left untouched.”

The perceived attack, he said, led to demonstrations. Representatives of the Nigerian traders ran to the Nigerian High Commission for possible interventions. Few meetings were held by governments of both nations but nothing productive eventually emanated from the interventions.

“If a customer visits your shop and sees it locked, he will probably look for an alternative. From there, you have lost that one,” Anthony adds emphasising on the ripple effects of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) law.

Like several others affected by the policy, he has lost hope, yet, he resolves to remain on the street, at least, to satisfy family needs until the policy is overturned – that is, if it would. Still, he acknowledged legal provisions in the Ghanaian law which prohibits foreigners from engaging in retail trade.

“Foreigners interested in trading business in Ghana ought to be wholesalers while Ghanaians do the retail trade. Their law disallows trading enterprises in the market,” he said.


Nigerian traders in Ghana
Locked-Up and Open Stalls at the popular Abusiokahi Market, Accra, Ghana. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR


Its Jealousy against Nigerians

Blessing Ogomeana engages in the same business as Anthony. He hails from the Niger Delta Region, Nigeria but resides in Ghana. In 2018, Ogomeana commenced his phone repair business with great expectations. He subsequently incorporates the trading of phone accessories, yet unmindful of the legal implications.

He has enjoyed a steady growth in the business until 2019 when he started encountering confrontations from the Ghanaian traders at the market. “The people were harassing us,” he said in a troubled voice. “They will say you are a Nigerian; you should return to your country,”he added.

Some of the traders were executive members of the Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) working with the GIPC law enforcement committee. He said they would clamp on their stalls and shut down shops of those flouting the business registration requirements.

Ogomeana’s stall was eventually shut towards November 2019, just like Anthony. “They came to raid at about 1 am when we least expected,” he said. “We were caught unaware and at some point, the Ghana police joined in the action,” he continued. Due to the unpleasant experiences, he concluded the action against Nigerian businesses was premeditated and fuelled by “jealousy and envy”.

He averred that some Nigerians had satisfied the required conditions but were still made to face similar pitiable treatments and that even though retail trading by foreigners is prohibited in Ghana, the legislation was not new, only that it was not being enforced as at the time he commenced his business. The ICIR subsequently visited selected markets where the alleged prejudice against Nigerians was carried out but could not find a Nigerian who had met with the most controversial requirement. Though most had their tax payments receipts and other tickets from the municipal area council, the $1 million was an issue.

The ICIR’s observations show most business owners including the Ghanaians only occupy small stalls at the markets. As a result, paying the $1 million levy was a challenge to most foreign traders, particularly those who are into mobile phone and automobile spare parts businesses. Some of the affected Nigerian business owners have since resolved to sublet their shops to Ghanaians,others engaged the locals to manage their businesses while those who could not take the risks, resign to their fate; actions that are indirectly creating more jobs and opportunities for Ghanaian citizens.

Endkojo Nkrumah, Ghana’s Minister of Information, had in September, denied allegations of maltreatment against Nigerians and Nigerian businesses in his country. Responding to earlier reactions of the Nigerian government through Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, Nkrumah accused Nigerians of violating the Ghanaian laws. He listed some of the offences to include, “tax evasion, immigration offences, trading in sub-standard products, violation of the GIPC law and improper registration of firms.”

He alleged Nigerian business owners among other nationals engage in “underpayment of business operating permits and falsification of documents.” Earlier, on August 24, 2020, Joseph Obeng, GUTA president also reacted alleging ‘80 per cent of those who deal in illegal trade’ were Nigerians.

Nevertheless, Ogomeana was one of those who disagreed with the claims. He presumed that the prejudice was because Nigerian businesses were flourishing than those of their Ghanaian counterparts. He also suspects that Ghanaians are becoming worried about the increasing population of Nigerians in their country. Since the border closure remains inclusive, Anthony, Ogomeana like many other foreigners have lost hope.

We will leave once we can no longer cope – NUTAG

Prior to The ICIR’s visit to Ghana, the leadership of the Nigerian Union of Traders in Ghana (NUTAG), had accused the local media of partial reportage on their predicaments. In an interview with Chukwuemeka Nnaji, NUTAG’s President, he accused the Ghanian authorities of unfair treatment against Nigerians. He said, “I must tell you, it has not been easy,” decrying how members of the association were harassed and in some situations, ‘beaten’. He said there is no fair play once it comes to doing business in Ghana, as every other national living in the country is better treated than Nigerians.

Nnaji is married to a Nigerian, but relocated to Ghana almost three decades (25 years) ago, where they had their children. By 2006, Nnaji started his automobile business and for 14 years, majored in the imports and exports of vehicle parts. He said his business is now on the verge of collapsing due to what he described as ‘hostility’ against Nigerian businesses in the English neighbouring country, describing the situation as unfortunate.


Nigerian traders in Ghana
Chukuwuemeka Nnaji, President, Nigerian Union of Traders in Ghana (NUTAG) during an interview with The ICIR. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

Nnaji had travelled to Nigeria in November 2020, when he received a call that his shop and 39 others had just been locked up. He said he was restless when he heard the news, but particularly concerned about his members. He is currently helping to raise funds that would help stranded traders who want to return to Nigeria to do so and has called for urgent action from the ECOWAS Commission and the Nigerian government.

“I’m ready to die if it comes to the worst situation,” a frustrated Nnaji said, explaining, “In 2020 alone, over one million Ghana Cedis was paid as taxes. I’m even the least, there are several others who import larger containers”.

Findings by The ICIR revealed Nnaji’s assertion about Nigeria’s contributions to the Ghanaian economy was valid. In 2019, Nigeria exported $4 billion worth of goods to Ghana while Ghana’s export to Nigeria in the same year was valued at $164.06 million. These trade volumes were based on data sourced from the United Nations Comtrade on International Trade in January 2021.

Nigeria imports from Ghana 1996-2019. Infographic by Damilola Ojetunde, The ICIR

Data from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission also showed Nigeria’s huge contribution to the region.  Nigeria accounts for 76 per cent of total trade in the region, followed by Ghana with 9.2 per cent and Cote d’Ivoire 8.2 per cent.

“The trade surplus of the region, estimated at about $47.3 billion is attributable to Nigeria ($58.4 billion) and Côte d’Ivoire ($3.4 billion) when all other Countries have a deficit in the trade balance,” the regional trade report reads.

So, as for Nnaji, the perceived hatred for Nigerians is not due to the border closure policy. Though it might have worsened the relationships between both countries, he strongly believes there was more to it.

“Since 2017, Nigerian traders have been harassed by Ghanaian traders,” he told The ICIR. The challenge, he said became worse as the Ghanaian authorities and the traders’ union allegedly became unwilling to dialogue, not to mention of reaching a consensus with the Nigerian traders and NUTAG leadership.

Nigeria’s export to Ghana 1996-2019. Infographic by Damilola Ojetunde, The ICIR

Heavy Revenue Loss

Our findings show that Nigerian stalls took the largest percentage of locked-up shops in the markets across Ghana, especially in Accra, resulting in heavy revenue loss for both the Nigerian businessmen and the Ghanian authorities. While the NUTAG President says 270 Nigerian-owned shops affecting over 1,000 traders have been shut as at December, 2020, Anthony puts the total number of Nigerian stalls shut in 2019 alone by the Ghanaian authorities at 600.

The Nigerian information minister had accused Ghana of locking up 300 shops belonging to Nigerians in 2018, 600 in 2019 and 250 shops in 2020, but responding, his Ghanian counterpart had said, “It is an incontestable fact that there are widespread abuse and disregard for local laws and regulations governing retail trade by some foreigners, including Nigerians, which need to be addressed without discrimination”.


Nigeria’s balance of trade with Ghana 1996-2019. Nigeria’s export to Ghana 1996-2019. Infograph by Damilola Ojetunde, The ICIR

Most Nigerians engaged by this reporter in the course of this investigation have argued that Nigerians should not have been a subjected to the heavy $1 million levy, considering the diplomatic relationship between both countries, and like the fact that Ghana, as an ECOWAS country, is signatory to the ECOWAS free trade and free movement treaty.

Ghanaians on the other hand, have maintained that as a sovereign nation, they are at liberty to develop a law and enforce it without interference.

The ECOWAS trade treaty, however, places emphasis on ‘rules of origin.’ This implies the treaty gives preference to products produced from member states. The ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme created in 1979 initially covered agricultural products and hand-made crafts, but, by 1990, it was extended to industrial products, which should comply with the ‘rules of origin.’

Due to non-compliance with the trade agreement, the National Approval Committee from the 15 member states met with other stakeholders last year November, between 11 – 12 to proffer lasting solutions. They re-emphasised on seeking a certificate of origin.

The ICIR further attempted to speak with Sandra Oulate, ECOWAS Director of Communications, regarding the trade dispute but she directed the reporter to send a text message as she was out of the country. The questions were forwarded to her, but she responded on January 19th, 2021, saying she was on leave and would refer our reporter to an appropriate authority. The next day, an email was sent to her as a reminder but she maintained her initial position. Her response read: “I am presently on leave with limited connectivity.”


What the GIPC law says

No doubt, foreign business ventures in any country are guarded by regulations. In Ghana, satisfying the GIPC requirement is cardinal. The law establishing the Centre created in 2013, prohibits foreigners from engaging in a retail business. And beyond this, the framework also outlines conditions that must be satisfied by foreign business owners before they are allowed to operate in Ghana.

Sections 27 and 28 of the GIPC law detail business entry requirements for foreigners and enterprises. It exclusively reserved retail trade for Ghanaians. For instance, Section 27.1. A says, “a person who is not a 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. (A) allows joint partnership business with a Ghanaian but the partner must provide at least $200, 000 United States as foreign capital in cash or goods to the business; for a foreigner to wholly engage in trading enterprise, he or she, according to Section 28.1.B, must invest, “not less than $1 million US in cash or goods and services relevant to the investment.”

For the purpose of the above-mentioned sections, ‘trading’ includes the purchasing and selling of imported goods and services. Sub-section 3 of the law adds that the trader must employ at least 20 skilled Ghanaians in addition to satisfying the compulsory business registration requirement.

Foreigners who marry Ghanaian spouses are not excluded except if such an individual has been married to the Ghanian spouse for at least five years or holds an ‘indefinite’ resident permit. Some of these provisions showed the business laws have existed over time until strict implementation commenced in 2017.

Sections 40 and 41 of the GIPC law, also, clearly spelt out penalties for flouting the law. The sanctions extend to Ghanaians who serve as fronts to foreigners who want to evade the laid out requirements.

“The effect of this provision is that a person who is not a citizen of Ghana who engages in retail trade without meeting the minimum capital requirements set out in Section 28 of Act 865 commits an offence under Act 865. Ghanaians or non-Ghanaians who let out a stall or a store in a market to a foreigner also commit a breach of Act 865,” the GIPC states further on its official website.


We can’t compromise the law because Nigerians are our brothers – GUTA National Organising Secretary

Nana Kwabena Peprah, the National Organising Secretary, Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) and member of the enforcement committee, was firm in making clear, positions on the matter. He said part of the mandates of the committee is to look at the investment law of Ghana and enforce it to the latter.


Nigerian traders in Ghana
Nana Kwabena Peprah, National Organising Secretary, Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) during an interview with The ICIR at his stall in Abbosey Okai Market, Accra, Ghana.


“All the Committee is doing is to uphold the law,” Peprah told The ICIR. “The law says if you want to do business in Ghana, you register with the GIPC. Once they issue a certificate, it will indicate the location as to where you can do business.”

According to him, GIPC emphasis has been on business locations and the $1 million levy, even though the same law prohibits foreigners from engaging in retail trade at the markets. He explained that the issuance of a certificate to an investor or foreigner implies that he/she has met all the requirement and is free to do business.

However, on the certificate, the location at which such an investor could operate would be indicated and the certificate is renewed biennially. It is from this stage that business owners could proceed to register with other agencies such as getting a work permit and the tax collection body.

“The law has come to stay and the payment is part of the major requirements which investors must satisfy, otherwise, their activities are considered illegal and could be disrupted,” Peprah maintained.

The ICIR raised a notable issue of how the global pandemic has affected nations, crippling economies and exacerbating poverty. The $1 million, for instance, could be a tough one for foreign investors, especially young entrepreneurs; but this appears to be of no concern to the official.

“No no…, it doesn’t follow,” he said with a bold face. “Are you telling me now that because Nigeria is going into recession, you are changing your laws to suit foreigners? Have you seen Ghanaians in Nigeria opening shops in your market?”, he queried.


Is the perceived attack on Nigerians a payback?

Since the Ghanaian government and trade union began to implement the GIPC law, public perception has been that the law was targeted at the Nigerian business owners and our findings revealed most Ghanaians appeared uncomfortable with the increasing population of Nigerians in their country and robbery cases, allegedly linked to Nigerians.

Recall that in early 2017, there were cases of robberies which after arrests, turned out that most of the suspects had Nigerian surnames. Two years after, a similar incident happened at Koans Estate, Amasama, Accra. Since then, coupled with the sad history of massive deportation of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983 which gave birth to the “Ghana Must Go” phrase, some of the locals have continued to demand that Nigerians found guilty of breaching the laws are repatriated.

In 1969, former Ghanaian Prime Minister, Kofi Busia invoked the Aliens Compliance Order which led to the deportation of about 2.5 million African migrants, mostly Nigerians. Aremu Johnson and Ajayi Adeyinka, both from the Department of History and International Studies, Ekiti State University, in their paper published in a United Kingdom journal, attributed jealousy and xenophobia as factors that led to the 1969 expulsion. More Nigerians today believe the row between both nations has lingered for decades.

Nigerian traders in Ghana
NIGERIA – 1982: Ghana Refugees leaving Nigeria waits at the border to enter Benin as part of their journey back to Ghana(Photo by Michel Setboum/Getty Images)

“The general sentiment has been that Nigerians should be sent back to their country,” a Ghanaian lady who pleaded anonymity told this reporter.

Somewhere around Osu Town, Accra, a Nigerian lady identified as Gladys painted almost similar scenario. After her Degree programme in Turkey, she decided not to return to Nigeria but chose to reside in Ghana for a while. Sharing her experience, she said “There is this unusual hatred once they know you are a Nigerian,” she told The ICIR. “It is worse, if you are probably doing well in a chosen career, they still feel threatened somehow and the attitude can be irritating.”

The stories were similar in the Ghanaian markets. Nigerians are perceived as naturally adept at wooing clients to their stalls. Their business skill is considered sharper and astonishing. They would not wait until customers walk into their stalls, unlike the Ghanaian counterparts. This marketing strategy and enterprising acumen, incidentally, is a common phenomenon in Nigerian markets. In what now appears like a business chain, young boys are strategically positioned to scout for customers and they get rewarded once a buyer buys a product from the stall.

As at 2019, the unofficial figure says there are over 2 million Nigerians residing in Ghana. The increasing population is more than other nationals, and due to this factor, it is believed more Nigerians would be affected by the policy. Still, GUTA members from other parts of the country want the GIPC law sustained to protect their local businesses.

On September 3, 2019, Speakers of Ghanaian Parliament and the Nigerian House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Aaron Michael and Rt. Hon. Olufemi Gbajabiamila met in Ghana to propose a lasting solution to the trade issue caused by the GIPC Act but no clear solution has emerged from that meeting. Ghana’s Trade Minister, Alan Kyeremanteng, at the meeting insisted the GIPC law was not meant to target any particular national.

Marick Garick, a Ghaniain development expert, advised that the trade disputes should be seen as an avenue to build opportunities and consensus among the four neighbouring countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Benin Republic – since the last two countries are emerging markets and Nigeria has the largest market share in Africa. The trade problem, he said, could pose a threat to the African Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA) initiative.

“Why will I want to have diplomatic tension with a nation that will deliver the best business opportunity to my people? As a matter of fact, if we play this well, we could use Benin and Togo as a trading buffer and convert this rivalry to opportunity,” he reasoned.

Nigerian traders in Ghana

Entrance to Nigerian High Commission in Ghana. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIRDead silence from Nigerian High Commission 

    To understand interventions made by the Nigerian High Commission in Ghana, several efforts made to the embassy by The ICIR proved abortive.

    In November last year, The ICIR sent a letter to the Embassy requesting permission to interview Mrs. Esther Arewa, the Charge d’affaires. The letter was received. Secretary to Arewa identified as Vider advised the reporter to check back the following week. This was done repeatedly through re-appointments and phone calls but the envoy was still unreachable. An office staff member told our reporter that the envoy was not still available and no specific time was given for her availability. An email sent to her at [email protected] on December 30, 2020, was neither acknowledged nor replied.

    Ferdinand Nwonye, Spokesperson of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs told this reporter he was not privy to any new information concerning the trade issue, except that, “the matter was being discussed at the highest level.” When asked if there were efforts to seek reduction in the $1 million levy, he simply responded, “not at the moment.”

    While both governments continue to explore options for a resolution of the situation, the ultimate desire expressed by Nigerian traders in Ghana, is that the GIPC law is favourably reviewed, and that the Nigerian government creates a more permanent solution by reforming the country, creating more opportunities for Nigerians to thrive in Nigeria.

    Olugbenga heads the Investigations Desk at The ICIR. Do you have a scoop? Shoot him an email at [email protected]. Twitter Handle: @OluAdanikin

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