One million dollars levy is xenophobia in disguise — Say Nigerian traders in Ghana

It’s not the best of times for Nigerian traders\business owners in Ghana, as the authorities have in recent weeks stepped up enforcement of the $1million levy imposed on foreign-owned businesses venturing into the retail sector. This has resulted in agitations, with Nigerians, who are mostly on the receiving end of the law, petitioning their home government to intercede. Gboyega Alaka examines the issues.

WHAT is it about Nigerians that makes them attract so much hostility wherever they settle? That may well be the welling question in the mind of many observers or victims of what is currently playing out across Ghana. Non-Ghanaian-owned shops, which incidentally belong majorly to sojourning Nigerians in that country, are being shut down on account of their owners’ inability to meet up with the $1million investment registration fee/levy placed on foreign businesses.

At the last count, well over 300 Nigerian businesses- that’s according to Chukwuemeka Nnaji, President, Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana – have been shut across Ghana. Some other sources put the number at more than 400. Even as this interview went on Tuesday evening, Nnaji was quick to add for emphasis that: “As we speak, they are locking up shops in Ashanti Region and the exercise will continue tomorrow.”

Like have happened in South Africa over the past decade, Nigerian residents in that English-speaking West African country have been on the receiving end of what they have variously described as ‘economic strangulation’, ‘annihilation’ and ‘xenophobia in another form;’ and it seems that brotherly affiliation that both nationals are wont to flaunt is currently non-existent – or perhaps, never counted for much.

In a video that has gone viral, a Ghanaian shop owner could be seen pointing out Nigerian-owned shops to members of the task force in a market complex and insisting that they be locked.

In another, even Ghanaian shop owners suspected to be fronting for Nigerian businesses are being harassed and made to show proof of ownership of the business or face immediate action.

According to Chukwudi, who runs a phone accessories shop in Tiptoe Lane at Kwame Nkruma Circle, Accra, “The new law is like a sentence to hunger and death. Yes, you may say they are not attacking us physically, but is there anything that kills faster than hunger and poverty? As I speak, my shop is under lock and key and this is coming right after Covid -19 lockdown. If they want us to leave their country, they should be bold and say it outright. Where do they expect me to raise one million dollars from? Who’s going to lend me that kind of money?”

To cap it up, Chukwudi said his two relatives in the country, one in the same Tiptoe Lane complex and another in Kumasi, who may come to his aid, have also had their shops locked. Even his friend and neighbour, who operates a salon in a nearby corner street is also out of work.

According to Evaristus Nwankwo, Secretary, Nigerian Union of Traders Association in Ghana (NUTAG), “The situation is very tense and a lot of people are in a quandary. I don’t know how they expect small businesses like ours to raise one million dollars. As far as I am concerned, it is an impossible task. In fact, it is a way of saying ‘We don’t want you here anymore, go home.’”

He also said the law is sweeping. “There is no exception –whether you operate a corner shop, a grocery store, small salon, food store, or even a taxi business. For a taxi business, you are required to have five taxi cabs or more to be able to operate – because the law says the retail business is reserved for the citizens. It’s such a suffocating law, and this is irrespective of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) protocol, which Ghana is a signatory to and which grants citizens of member nations the right to go into member countries and manage enterprises.

“As we speak, Ghana is practically reneging on that agreement. In fact when this whole clampdown started, the president, Nana Akufo-Addo openly said the law is on the people’s side, even though he cautioned that they must not take the law into their hands. But he never ordered that the illegally locked shops be reopened. As I speak with you, shops are being locked in the motor parts market in Kumasi, Ashanti Region. The secretary of our traders union there just called to inform me.”

Isaac Osahon Ekhator, National Secretary, All Nigeria Community (ANC) in Ghana, said, “The problem stems from the implementation of sections 27 and 28 of the local GIPC (Ghana Investment Promotion Council) law. Section 27 stipulates the activities and businesses that are reserved for nationals; while section 28 stipulates the amount you’re supposed to come in with to embark on retail business as a non-Ghanaian, along with other provisions. The law states that if you are not a Ghanaian and wish to engage in trading and retail business, you come in with an amount not less than one million US dollars or its equivalent in equity – if the business is going to be fully owned by you.

“However, because most Nigerian businesses here are the traditional enterprise and sole proprietorship, this has constituted a big problem for our people, as the one million dollars requirement is way beyond their reach.”

Ekhator, a Banking and Finance graduate, who is into financial forecasting, technical and fundamental analysis for enterprise businesses in Accra, however said the onslaught is not new.

“In 2007, Nigerian shops were locked at Kumasi and other places. In December last year, some shops were locked around the Circle Area in Accra and they remained locked for 7 to 8 months. Unfortunately, the Lebanese, Indians and Chinese are here going about their businesses, although I’m not able to confirm if they are also paying this kind of money. If the focus is on those dominating the retail sector, then those should be the first target and not Nigerian enterprises. Clearly the law says foreign nationals, but it seems the targets are Nigerian-owned businesses.”

Ekhator and Nwankwo

Ekhator conceded, though, that this might seem so “because Nigerians have businesses everywhere.”

He also submitted that the contentious law is not in tandem with the spirit of ECOWAS.

Is the situation so bad that Ghanaians are not able to do business?

Nwankwo answers in the negative. “One thing you guys back home in Nigeria need to know is that these people don’t love us, even though we deceive ourselves with the brother tag. A lot of Ghanaians are really doing well and prospering; I mean, you go to a complex of about 4,000 shops and you find only 100 shops or businesses owned by Nigerians. The other time, the agitators went to an electrical appliances complex to shut foreign-owned shops and we could only count 31 Nigerian-owned shops, out of over 3000 shops. And some of these 31 could not even qualify for shops, as they were under staircases and on top of two-storey buildings. The question you’re therefore forced to ask, is: Where is the threat? So if you ask me, I’d say they just don’t want us around anymore.”

Alternatively, you ask. “Is it that Nigerians have exported their excessive flamboyance to that country and are outshining the indigenes and taking over their girlfriends and wives?

But Nwankwo again answered: “No, no, no. Those are minor issues and far from the truth.”

How about having a meeting with the authorities to negotiate?

To this, he gave a cynical reply: “Maybe if you’re resident here, you would understand what we’re talking about. These people don’t even regard us as humans, let alone consider us worthy of such invitation or negotiation. The only time that ever happened was when they wrote to our High Commission in Ghana that they were going to embark on an exercise and the High Commissioner went with us to meet with the deputy minister.”

Xenophobia in another form?

Pretty much, Ekhator sees this whole onslaught as ‘xenophobia in disguise.’ Although there have not been physical attacks on Nigerians, the All Nigeria Community in Ghana secretary is of the opinion that when you annihilate a people’s means of livelihood to the extent that they are not able to meet basic needs like feeding, then you’re inadvertently saying they are not wanted around anymore.”

In his opinion, that spirit of Nigerian enterprise may well be the problem. “Ghanaian traders are complaining that Nigerians are taking over their businesses. What they tend to forget or are deliberately ignoring is the fact that competition is good in a capitalist economy, because the people benefit in the long run. If you ask me, the average Ghanaian is not complaining. In fact, I’ve heard a good number of them saying the government should leave Nigerians alone. The main people behind this whole agitation are the GUTA (Ghana Union of Traders Association) people. They are insisting that the GIPC law be implemented to the letter.”

In addition to the one million dollars requirement, Ekhator says such businesses are also expected to employ a minimum of 20 skilled Ghanaians. This, he argues, makes the whole thing more burdensome. “How can a common shop owner or table-top business owner meet up with such conditions?”

Nwankwo of NUTAG also confirmed that there have not been any notable attacks on Nigerians, despite the sweeping clampdown. Nwankwo and many others credit this to President Akufo-Addo’s caution to citizens not to take laws into their hands.

“There have not been any attacks but the task force carrying out the shut down comprises the police, the immigration officers, the secret police and other officials. In the video of a previous exercise at Kwame Nkruma Circle that went viral, a policeman was seen physically dragging a Nigerian out of a shop, while a woman’s voice was heard complaining that ‘What else do you people want from us? You asked us to pay a tax, you closed our shop for eight months, we borrowed money and paid, yet you will not let us rest. I’m not coming out.’”

Initially, Nwankwo said the assault used to be over 30% tax, which was determined by a Ghanaian auditor. But PRO of the Trade Minister recently went on air to say that it didn’t matter anymore if you had met the registration and other requirements, and that any foreigner willing to do business in Ghana must come up with the One million dollars or evidence of its equivalent in equity.

President of the Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana, Nnaji, who has lived in that country since 1995, said the requirement used to be $300,000 but was raised to N1million in 2013, following a review of the law.

Asked why the implementation seems to be suddenly gaining momentum, Nnaji said, “They’ve always enforced it. The government institutions came in from time to time – at different times in 2007, 2012 and 2013, our people’s shops were closed. During those times, we petitioned ECOWAS, which sent its delegation to arrest the situation. We thought that would be the end, but lo and behold, they have kept coming back.”

Nnaji also sees some sinister agenda playing out, which he says the indigenes have used overtime to displace foreigners, particularly Nigerians of their hard-earned investments. “If you go by history, I think Nigerians have been here for over 300 years; and if you follow that story back, you’d realise that they kept chasing Nigerians out of their country after a while. In 1964 and 1969, which are recent occurrences, this was the kind of strategy they used to take over Nigerian properties. I’ve met a Ghanaian who told me that his fore-fathers’ house was built by Nigerians who left the country in frustration because of this kind of crisis. As we speak, a lot of Nigerians have invested in property in this country.”

Nwankwo toes Nnaji’s line of thought, when he said, “It’s a very small section of this country that are pursuing this agenda. They are the ones who formed this trade union. There is a document a Ghanaian lawyer friend showed me, which showed how this union used the 1969 Aliens Compliance Order to drive Nigerians away from the country in the middle of the Nigerian Civil War. I’m not surprised that they are starting this again in the middle of Covid-19, when national borders are closed and there is no business. They’re literally sentencing us to death by hunger, especially with no means of travelling back to our country.”

We respect ECOWAS protocol but we’ll not jettison our local laws – Ghanaian minister

Meanwhile, Ghanaian Foreign Affairs Minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchway says the government will continue to enforce laws governing the country’s retail business sector, despite agitations by aggrieved Nigerian traders operating illegally in the country.

Botchway

Despite being co-signatory to the ECOWAS protocol, which allows free movement by nationals of member nations in member countries, Botchway in an interview granted a local television in Accra, said Ghana, as an independent country, has its own local laws, which would not be jettisoned. She however admitted that both Nigeria and Ghana may have to dialogue to find a balance to resolve the quagmire.

She insisted that what Ghana has done, which is preserving its retail sector for her nationals is not different from what Nigeria recently did when it shut its borders in spite of the same ECOWAS protocol, citing arms and rice smuggling.

Way forward

In the words of Ekhator, the way forward is for Nigerians to begin to adopt new business models.

“We can circumvent the law – and I’m not saying we should break the law – by forming corporations, where 20, 30 people pull their resources together and operate under one business name. If you go to China mall, you’ll realise that that’s what they’re probably doing – several businesses\entrepreneurs under one name. Our people can easily adopt this, except that we just like the traditional one-man business model, where each man is CEO and makes all the decisions. Unfortunately, what this situation is telling us is that that model can no longer work for us in the 21st century.”

Besides, Ekhator is of the opinion that businesses these days are done online, and as such, his compatriots should follow the trend and transact their business online, thereby staying away from unnecessary government harassment.

He said the All Nigerian Community in Ghana as a body, is already meeting with the NUTAG leadership and selling these and other survivalist ideas to them.

“It’s either the foregoing,” Ekhator said, “or the Nigerian government intervenes through diplomacy. And if that fails, we apply the policy of reciprocity. We have Ghanaians who are into all sorts of businesses in Nigeria and this kind of law is not in existence to frustrate them.”

Ghanaians share their views on contentious law

SOME Ghanaians have also been sharing their perspectives on the issue. Bright Kofi Buami, who teaches at Tema Technical Institutes, Tema, Ghana, who says he has only listened to discussions on the matter on national television, said the government made the arrangement to make room for local traders to thrive in the retail sector and avail them of opportunities of livelihood as SMEs

“The deduction I made indicates that many foreigners, (including Nigerians) have veered off the distribution lane into retail areas, flooding the market with cheaper goods (at distributors’ prices), thereby pulling customers away from local retailers. According to a cross-section of Ghanaian traders, this renders them jobless in their home country. They also bemoan the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities in enforcing the trade bylaws, giving vent to the recent industrial action.”

That said, Buami is of the opinion that both countries need each other for positive development. Quoting popular Nigerian pastor of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, T B Joshua, he said, “No one can go it alone. You need me. I need you. God has made it this way, so no man can boast.”

He therefore submitted that Nigerians doing legitimate business being shut out, will impact Ghana’s economy negatively, as there would be no competitive pricing in the market, resulting in price hikes and severe hardship on the citizens.

Buami

Emmy Aryee, an Accra-based freelance journalist, is however of the opinion that the $1million levy, (if a levy is necessary at all) is ‘just too much.’

She however confirmed that Nigerians are fast taking over the retail business sector in the country, giving cause for concern.

“If you go to the Kwame Nkrumah Circle for instance, the majority of male traders there are Nigerians. They deal in all manners of trade, including bags, shoes and mobile phone accessories. And you know why many people, including me, would buy from them? Their wares are very affordable, compared to those sold by Ghanaian traders. Whatever item you need, you will get it from a Nigerian shop.”

When reminded that Nigerians are already seeing the onslaught as xenophobia, Emmy said, maybe, but reasoned that if Nigeria reciprocates by shutting Ghanaian businesses in Nigeria, it will also be termed xenophobic.

She submits that Nigerians being shut out completely from the Ghanaian domestic market would impact negatively on the country’s economy. As a matter of fact, she said it was already playing out. “Recently, I needed to change my phone battery. The one to fix it said he could not get a replacement because only Nigerians sell such items.”

Would this mean that the Ghanaians want Nigerians to be left to ply their trades? Aryee said, “It’s mixed reaction. Some feel it not a good idea while others think it is necessary because Nigerians are taking over all facets of the retail business sector.”

Buhari must step in now! — President, Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana

For Chukwuemeka Nnaji, President, Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana, this is the time for the president Muhammadu Buhari government to step in on behalf of Nigerian in Ghana, otherwise the old pattern of displacing Nigerians of their hard-earned investments and property may just be playing out yet again.

AS president of Nigerian Traders Union in Ghana, what steps are you taking towards resolving this One million dollar obstacle? Have you met with the authorities?

As union leaders, it is very difficult for us to pressure the government to change its law, but as ECOWAS citizens, we believe we should not be made to pay such amount if we are to follow protocol. However, the authorities here have insisted that it is their local law, and as such, bargaining with them is not something we can do. I think it is our government that should come in at this point and intercede on our behalf.

Have you reached out to the government in Nigeria?

Yes, we have written a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari; we have also written to the leadership of The Senate and the House of Representatives and other top people and are awaiting their response.

How long has this one million dollar levy been in existence?

It used to be 300,000 dollars but in 2013 they moved it to one million dollars.

How come it never became an issue until now?

They’ve always enforced it. I’ve lived in this country since 1995. The government institutions came in from time to time – at different times in 2007, 2012 and 2013, our people’s shops were closed. During those times, we petitioned ECOWAS, which sent its delegation to arrest the situation. We thought that would be the end, but they have kept coming back.”

Back then when we first moved to Ghana, we never thought of opening a shop, because business was slow. All we did was give our goods to the locals to sell because of the language barrier. But it got to a time when business started booming and the locals were not showing enthusiasm to grow. Anytime we gave them goods, they just sold; some of them used the proceeds to travel abroad, while some used it to buy cars or build their houses. So some of us started renting small shops to sell our goods and soon realised it was far better than the way they were doing it. It didn’t take long before the agitations started.

Is it that Nigerians have grown so much that their hosts now feel threatened?

If you go by history, I think Nigerians have been here for ever 300 years; and if you follow that story back, you’d realise that they kept chasing Nigerians out of their country after a while. In 1964 and 1969, which are recent occurrences, these were the kind of strategies they used to take over Nigerian properties. I’ve met a Ghanaian who told me that his fore-fathers’ house was built by Nigerians who left in frustration because of this kind of crisis. As we speak, a lot of Nigerians have invested in property in this country.”

You think this might be in pursuant of an agenda to take over Nigerian properties like in the past?

Possibly; but I’m not sure it’s going to work out this time. We have Nigerians who live abroad in Europe and other places, and some of our leaders, who have houses here. This time, I think we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bullied out like in the past.

Are there areas of business that Nigerians are dominating, that could be causing this bad blood?

Dominancy is relative. The only area we can say we have more Nigerian shops than Ghanaians is in the mobile accessories sector. There was a place called Soldier Bar, where people hanged out late in the night and crime and prostitution became rife, causing the government to move in and clear the place. Nigerians moved there to start trading. At a time, they closed over 150 Nigerian shops. But every other place, Nigerians are in the minority. At Abossey Okai, Nigerians own less than 100 shops in a complex of over 3000 shops. At Opera Square, we discovered that the shops owned by Nigerians were less than 50, out of over 2000 shops. So, where is the dominance? At the last count, about 300 Nigerian shops have been shut across the country. As we speak, they are locking up Nigerian shops in Ashanti Region. And the exercise continues tomorrow.

Are Nigerians also being harassed in the formal sector like banking or publishing?

Nigerian banks operating in Ghana are allowed a very low number of Nigerian expatriates. I don’t have the figures but I know that most of the Nigerian banks operating here have Ghanaians as staff. I think that is part of the conditions.

Do you see things getting to a level where Nigerians may be forced to star relocating home?

Yes of course. We’re just waiting for our government’s response. If nothing happens after this week, we may have no option but to start evacuating our people because our lives are increasingly becoming at risk.

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