The Ghanaian authorities may have inadvertently triggered a trade war with Nigeria in their quest to implement a law considered detrimental to Nigerians doing business in Ghana, raising concerns over ECOWAS treaties and protocols, which both countries are signatories to
Leaving Ghana, for him, would be like leaving one’s own country and heading for exile. He could not have felt otherwise having lived in the West African country for more than 41 years. And that is why he just could not contemplate the idea. But that may eventually be the fate of John Ukala, a Nigerian businessman in Ghana if the ongoing exercise to rid the Ghanaian retail sector of foreign players is not halted. Ukala, who is the president, Nigerian Union of Traders Association of Ghana, NUTAG, and deals in second-hand clothing, is in a dilemma, and so are thousands of Nigerians and other non-Ghanaians residing in the country engaged in small businesses.
Their participation in retail business in markets across the country is said to be in violation of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre, GIPC, Law, Act 478 of 1994, which reserves small-scale retail businesses for Ghanaians. The fate of foreign traders was actually sealed on December 14, 2011, at a meeting by John Mahama, Ghana’s vice president with representatives of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, GIPC, Registrar-General’s Department, Immigration Service, Police Service, Ghana Revenue Authority, GRA, and Ghana Union of Traders Association, GUTA, where it was decided that the presence of non-Ghanaians in the markets was detrimental to the business interests of Ghanaians.
The GIPC Act confers the sole right of trading in the market on Ghanaians. The law also bars non-Ghanaians from operating taxi and car hire service unless they have a minimum fleet of 10 new vehicles. Foreigners are also restricted from the business of pool betting and lotteries, beauty salons and barbershops. It was thus decided at that meeting that the Inter Agency Task Force, which was set up to enforce the law should be reconstituted and empowered to enforce the law. The task force, comprising officials of the GIPC, GRA, Registrar-General’s Department, Ghana Police, Immigration Service, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and GUTA, commenced the clampdown on shops of non-indigenes, Tuesday, July 3, following the expiration of the June 27 deadline given by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to non-Ghanaian retailers.
More than 20 shops in and around the Central Business District of Accra were shut down on the first day. Before their visit, many of the shops had already been shut down by their owners who thereafter remained out of sight. But that did not stop members of the task force from adding their own special padlocks to prevent the owners from having access to the shops. They also posted notices on the doors of the shops, which read in part; “The law enjoins all non-Ghanaians, including ECOWAS citizens, who wish to engage in trading to comply with the following: To set up businesses outside places designated as markets, invest a minimum of $300, 000 in cash or in kind, register with the GIPC, obtain immigration quota and employ at least 10 Ghanaians in the business. A breach of any of the listed requirements is unacceptable and consequently your business activity will be retained.” A member of the task force said the exercise would continue for as long as it takes it to enforce compliance with the laws of the country.
To GUTA, the renewed clampdown on foreign retailers is long overdue. The association, which has been mounting pressure on the Ghanaian government to chase foreigners away from the retail sector, recently vowed to embark on demonstration to protest government’s delay in addressing their concerns. George Ofori, president, GUTA, said the union would continue to demand that foreigners be made to respect the laws of the country. The agitation by the Ghanaian traders that businesses reserved for them have been taken over by foreigners must have compelled government to invoke the hitherto dormant law to provide protection for its citizens. However, contrary to their expectation, only the Chinese traders were affected during the exercise, as many of them had their shops locked while they fled to avoid arrest. The Chinese have a significant population in Ghana with many of them involved in business. The Ghanaian traders under GUTA have been protesting the rising number of Chinese traders accusing them of unfair competition. That is the same view Ghanaian traders have about Nigerians, majority of whom are also involved in retail or small-scale business.
But Nigerians escaped last week’s raid much to the dismay of GUTA, which has always considered them as the greatest threat to their business interests. The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, Parliament may have contributed to the reprieve being enjoyed by Nigerians and other ECOWAS citizens through its intervention. The National Association of Nigerian Traders, NANTS, and NUTAG had petitioned President Goodluck Jonathan and copied the ECOWAS Parliament “over the threats, harassment and intimidation currently meted by the Ghanaian authorities on ECOWAS nationals living and doing business in Ghana.” Consequently, a fact-finding team headed by Brima Kamanda from Sierra Leone was constituted to visit Ghana to “gather information on the situation of ECOWAS traders in Ghana and to intervene in the lingering disputes.” The parliament said its intervention would enable it “to further identify issues relating to the protocols on free movement, their implication on regional integration and reinforce the efforts of the ECOWAS authorities in evolving cooperation and integration within the region.”
When the delegation met with Hannah Tetteh, the minister of trade and industry in Ghana last week, to resolve the grey areas in line with ECOWAS protocol which all the 15 countries in the sub region have signed, the magazine learnt that the requirements had been relaxed for ECOWAS citizens but that they were still required to meet the minimum requirements to regularise their stay in the country. “She explained to us that the $300,000 which is the main issue here would really not be applicable to ECOWAS citizens. But their concern is that in as much as the protocol is making provision for citizens of ECOWAS to be resident in any member state, there are certain conditions, which those citizens wishing to reside in another member state should fulfil. They should have a resident permit,” said Kamanda of the outcome of the delegation’s meeting with the Ghanaian minister of trade and investment.
After satisfying this basic requirement, the delegation was told that anyone who wished to trade or do business in Ghana must fulfil other provisions of the law, which include registration of the business with the relevant authority, payment of taxes, and making insurance contributions. Tetteh stressed that government’s action was not targeted at Nigerians but the delegation frowned at the directive that non-Ghanaian traders should relocate their shops from the market centres, as this is not in the spirit of the integration and the protocol of ECOWAS.
To this, the minister said that non-Ghanaians had been asked to vacate the market places for their own safety as they are faced with constant threats by their Ghanaian counterparts who complain that they are taking away their customers, an explanation which the committee found difficult to comprehend as, according to its chairman, “It is the responsibility of the state to sensitise and educate the citizens and also to provide protection for whosoever is provided for to reside in the state.” The committee could not get a commitment from the ministry of trade to stay action on the implementation of the requirement on location as it had already started the clampdown on shops and business premises. But Tetteh said the deadline for ECOWAS citizens doing business in Ghana to regularise their documents has been extended by one month, stressing that if the conditions, which are also applicable to Ghanaians, are met, they would have nothing to fear.
But these assurances are not enough to allay the fears of Nigerian traders as they are not in tandem with the reality on the ground. Kingsley Ebo, national secretary, NUTAG, Tema chapter, noted that long after the minister declared that ECOWAS citizens are exempted from the GIPC requirement on the $300,000 (about N48 million) equity capital, those who went to collect forms from the Registrar-General’s Department were told it was mandatory. The fact is that the law has got to be amended to reflect the new position before it can be implemented and Nigerians in Ghana insist that the bill currently before the Ghanaian Parliament is to further protect the interest of Ghanaian citizens and not to address the concerns of ECOWAS citizens. Indeed, the new bill, GIPC Act 2008, which is intended to replace the GIPC Act 478 of 1994, stipulates that foreign businessmen interested in trading will be required to invest $1 million as against $300,000 and employ at least 20 Ghanaians as against 10 stipulated in the current GIPC Act. Nigerians are thus worried that any verbal assurance given may not alleviate their plight as ECOWAS citizens who deserve to be protected.
Some consider it hypocritical for the Ghanaian authorities to give the impression that an ECOWAS citizen could get resident permit without the burden imposed by the GIPC Act. For Nigerians and other foreign nationals, registering a business is a pre-condition for applying for a resident permit. Not only that, the business must be a limited liability company irrespective of its size, as enterprises are reserved for Ghanaians only. Many thus often find themselves in violation of the laws as they have little understanding of the running of limited liability companies. Johnson Akabuogu who deals in computers said if small business owners are allowed to register enterprises rather than limited liability companies, they would not run into problems with government. “If you ask a small trader to employ 10 Ghanaians, where will he get the money to pay their salaries and remit their taxes? he quipped. They are therefore banking on the ECOWAS Parliament to intervene in the matter. But how far can the parliament go? Tetteh had earlier declared that Ghana would not succumb to pressure from ECOWAS since its parliament has no executive authority in any member state. Mohammed Mumuni, minister of foreign affairs, justified the position of the Ghanaian government, saying that non-Ghanaians have no right to push Ghanaians out of business.
All these unfavourable pronouncements and continued harassment of foreigners have culminated in the apprehension among Nigerians who consider any war against ECOWAS citizens in Ghana as war against Nigerians as they constitute the bulk of the ECOWAS population. Other ECOWAS nationals combined are not considered a serious threat to the business interests of Ghanaian retailers. Since the crisis started, many of them have reduced the scale of their business activities. “I am gradually relocating my business to Abia State. I have decided to return my main office to the landlord. My area, Katamagbo in Accra has not been visited by the task force but I am gradually winding down my business because of fear,” said Ukala.
Ukala said it is difficult to get the statistics of Nigerian businesses closed since the crisis started in 2007 because most of the people affected have since left for Nigeria and a new register of members of NUTAG is being compiled across the 10 regions. But Ebo, whose chapter comprises Tema, Ashiama, Nungwa and Teshi, said there are more than 3,000 Nigerian businessmen in his area, adding that there was massive closure of shops in 2007 and 2008. For those who are still hanging on, they are toning down the tempo of their business. “In 2010 we called on our government and President Jonathan sent Ajumogobia, then foreign minister who came here to observe the situation. After that, he sent a 16-man delegation comprising relevant agencies in Nigeria like the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, Customs, Immigration, and others. There was a bilateral trade agreement drafted, which would have to be signed by the two countries. There was a plan then to have Ghana/Nigeria Chamber of Commerce. But up till now, nothing has been done,” Victor Amaefule, deputy secretary-general, NUTAG, explained.
But that may not be the end of the story as the ECOWAS Parliament appears committed to resolving the problem. Bayo Ashaolu, president, All Nigeria Community, ANC, in Ghana, believes that with the decision of the Ghanaian authorities to free ECOWAS citizens from the $300,000 burden, they will be able to abide by their promise and stop the harassment of Nigerians. Ukala admits that some Nigerians do not live within the laws of the land but implored the authorities to deal with such people accordingly and refrain from labelling Nigerians as law breakers, adding that Ghanaians are doing retail business in Nigeria unhindered as ECOWAS citizens.
Toyo Ita, a Nigerian IT and Internet service provider based in Ghana, said that the country is misinterpreting its own law and therefore misapplying it. Ita who studied Mathematics and Computer Science in the United Kingdom, UK, and the United States, US, where he lived for 20 years before relocating to Nigeria was compelled to move his business to Ghana due to inadequate electricity supply in Nigeria, which he found very frustrating. According to Ita, it is hypocritical for a government to expect a small player to raise $300,000, which is about $48 million, to be allowed to trade.
Some Ghanaians have also expressed reservations over the issue. Martha Mensah, a dealer in fabrics said the government can build more markets and improve them to international standards to accommodate different nationalities rather than reserve trading in markets for Ghanaians, stressing that there are many Ghanaians engaged in retail activities in many countries of the world, especially in West African countries. Franklyn Cudjoe, executive director, Imani, Ghana and a public policy analyst has described the GIPC Act used to clampdown on foreigners engaged in retail business as a bundle of confusion as it contains a lot of irregularities and contradictions. He also raised concerns over the consequences of enforcing the law for the country’s obligations to ECOWAS treaties.
Ken Ukaoha, president, NANTS, who has been championing the cause of NUTAG stressed that the effective implementation of ECOWAS protocols is crucial to regional integration, adding that if any member country was allowed to flout any of their provisions with impunity, “then we will know that the regional integration efforts and commitments of countries in the region amounts to nothing; It would mean that every obligation of the of the protocol on the movement of people and goods, and establishment are all null and void.” He therefore urged the Ghanaian government to review any aspect of its law that is contrary to the spirit of ECOWAS.
Kamanda said ECOWAS Parliament resorted to dialogue to resolve the conflict. He said the parliament would not dictate to Ghana what steps it should take, but that it was the duty of the parliament to draw attention of the country to the protocols of ECOWAS on free movement of people, goods and services, which all member states have signed and ratified, and seek amicable ways of resolving the problem. In the same vein, Sunny Ugoh, head of information unit, ECOWAS Secretariat, Abuja said that the ECOWAS protocols on free movement of its nationals in the sub-region are clear. “The five rights of ECOWAS citizens are: right of entry; right of stay; right of residence; right of establishment and right of access to the community court of justice.” However, he says ECOWAS has no power of enforcement; rather individual countries are encouraged to resolve their differences amicably. He sees the development in Ghana as “one of the challenges” of integration and implementing the protocols. The expectation of the secretariat is that member states would conform to the protocols but if they do not, they can only be encouraged to dialogue and build consensus. Asked if that does not make ECOWAS a toothless bulldog, Ugoh disagreed, saying, like with the United Nations, the enforcement power resides with member states.
Sam Ohuabunwa, former chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit, said the action of the Ghanaian government completely negates the principle of common union. He believes there should be free movement of goods and services, and the establishment of businesses should be carried out within the confines of the law, “But doing discriminating laws within the same region for me is unacceptable and it is in bad faith,” he stressed. Ohuabunwa noted that Nigeria has been playing the big brother role to all countries in the region, helping out when necessary, and so should not be treated badly by Ghana. John Kufuor, former president of Ghana, had in 2001 come cap-in-hand to Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president at the time, seeking help for his country’s ailing economy. Ghana then had two weeks of foreign exchange reserves and two weeks of fuel, a crippling domestic and international debt and myriads of other burden. Nigeria responded to the need of Ghanaians by restoring their crude oil supplies with favourable financing terms and part financed the country’s portion of the West African Gas Pipeline and made donation of vehicles to its security forces.
The current face-off is not the first time Nigeria and Ghana are squaring up. In 1969, Ghana implemented the Alien Compliance Order, expelling about half a million Nigerians. Nigeria retaliated by deporting about one million Ghanaian economic refugees in 1983. There was a repeat deportation order on Ghanaians in Nigeria in 1985, further straining the relation between the two countries.
Dauda Adebisi-Balogun, managing director, Pegasus Development Limited, described the action of Ghanaian government as unfortunate. “It is unfortunate because that is a nation we sheltered and saved when its economy was in shambles,” he said. To Ita, “If they don’t stop victimising Nigerians, then Nigerian government should treat its citizens the same way they are treating us. The GIPC law is the bone of contention and Ghanaian government officials are misinterpreting it or convoluting it.” Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman of the Diaspora Committee of the Nigerian House of Representatives, has also assured that government would no longer fold its arms and allow illegal acts to be perpetrated against its citizens. For now, nobody knows for sure what to expect because the months ahead will be pregnant with a lot of uncertainties.
Additional reports by Anayochukwu Agbo, Tajudeen Suleiman, Stella Sawyerr and Abiola Odutola