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Backlash over border closure: Ghanaians clamp down on Nigerian businesses

The closure of Nigeria’s land borders is having ripple effects on businesses within West Africa, and manifesting bitterly in Ghana, where what appears to be reprisals is becoming obvious.

  • Lock up 300 shops in Kumasi, 50 in Accra
  • Order Nigerian traders out of markets, allow other foreigners
  • Accuse Nigerians of selling fake, sub-standard goods
  • We’re being targeted – President Nigerian Traders Union

At dawn on Wednesday, August 20, 2019, scores of Lagos-bound travelers were turned back by a Nigerian bus company in Accra, Ghana, on the premise that the Nigeria-Benin border was shut temporarily for security reasons.

The manager of the company said it was probably only going to last just two days, and the border would be re-opened, as it was on previous occasions when the government got an unfavorable security information.

Later that evening, social media was awash with news of stranded travelers at the Seme border. Hundreds of commuters could neither leave nor enter Nigeria, because the border was completely shut.

By the next day, the picture became clearer-the western border had been closed temporarily to imports and exports, commercial goods were not allowed to enter or leave the country. The freeze on human movement had been lifted by then.

Information was that the action was taken to curb the influx of illegal weapons into the country. As days went by, other reasons began to emerge. Abuja had decided to stifle activities of smugglers who were using the corridor to smuggle rice, petroleum products and some other edibles into the country. Nearly three months later, the restriction has remained,  as Abuja extended the closure to January 31, 2020.

Businesses crumbling

Although the Nigerian authorities have persistently explained to their Ghanaian counterparts that Ghana is not their target, but that the exercise was intended to curtail monumental illegalities along the common border between Nigeria and Benin, the sister country is not insulated from the dire consequencies of the closure. Ghanaian businesses have been writhing in pains under the effect. About 100 trucks of goods belonging to Ghanaian traders have been locked up in Nigeria. Even the promised window of opportunity to allow Ghanaian goods into Nigeria is fast slipping away. More than three months after Abuja made the promise, nothing has been done.

For retailers commuting between Nigeria and Ghana to buy goods such as fabrics, cosmetics, spare parts, non-alcoholic beverages, the closure of Seme border has had a huge toll on their livelihoods. Transporters are not exempted from the sting of the action of the Nigerian government.

The manager of the transport company in Ghana said transporters have been counting their loses.

“Business has been bad for us since the border closure. Aside transporting persons, the company also transports goods. Since this issue of closing Seme border, the company’s income has halved. People are not travelling to buy and sell. Even those who normally send their goods without accompanying them no longer use our services, it is really bad,” he told Daily Trust Saturday.

According to him, goods have been abandoned inside the station. The owners have been unable to retrieve them since August.

“We are talking about livelihoods, some of these people borrowed money to fund their business trips, only for the goods to be tied down in one place till God knows when. It is very unfortunate,” he lamented.

Annabel Botwe runs a retail outfit in Lapaz, a bustling business community in Accra where she sells hair extensions and other accessories. She recounted that the business was thriving until just recently. She made good sales and travelled monthly to Lagos, from where she bought her goods.

“Business was very good. My customers like the hair products I bought from Nigeria. Every month, I went to the Trade Fair somewhere in Lagos to get my things. But since the closure of the border, I have not brought new stock. Business has become bad. My customers are now going elsewhere to buy their goods,” she said.

She expressed fears that her business would collapse unless she looked for an alternative, saying, “I have to look for money to start travelling to China to buy things. If not I will lose all my customers, the closure of the border is very bad,” she said.

John Boye runs a thriving farm on the outskirts of Dodowa in the Eastern Region of Ghana. He grows predominately fruits and business had been extremely good with sales increasing since the farm was established three years ago.

But not anymore, Boye told Daily Trust  Saturday that he was extremely worried about the future of his farm, and the fears are tied to the continued closure of the Seme border.

“I have been having sleepless nights recently, because 90 percent of the mangoes and water melons we grow on the farm are sold in Nigeria. If the border is not re-opened soon, my business will collapse,” he said.

Manufacturing sector gains dwindling

Checks also revealed that the manufacturing sector in Ghana has been worst hit. According to industry sources, the action of the Nigerian government has adversely affected production, because most of the goods until recently, eventually ended up in Nigeria.

“It has seriously affected production in the country, because most of the goods produced are unsold. So those manufacturing and cannot export have to cut down production. The market for the goods has been shut down, so there is a big revenue loss.

“Aside the revenue loss, we are also talking about loss of production and production capacity. If this trend is not reversed soon, some companies may resort to downsizing their labour strength,” a government official said.

Kasaprako, Ghana’s leading alcoholic beverage maker for instance, has been bemoaning its losses since August 20.

According to the company’s Head of International Business Development, Francis Holly Adzah, as at October 21, the company had lost $2million.

“We managed to send three trucks of products to the Nigerian market before the border was closed. Four other trucks–one at the border and the others at the premises of the company have been grounded.

“In September, we lost $1 million to the closure. October is almost ended and our checks show a loss of another $1million. The situation is getting out of hand and very serious,” he said.

The spokesman of Ghana Union of Traders, Mr. Joseph Paddy, told Daily Trust Saturday that the financial losses stemming from the closure of the Seme border was huge, even though the leadership was yet to arrive at a definite figure.

“It will be difficult to quantify the losses. We have sent our customs officers to the border. We have asked the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) to also quantify those exports, so that we can have an estimate. We on the GUTA side are also adding up the figures. So I cannot give a figure at the moment but I can say it is huge,” he stressed.

The Acting Commissioner for Foreign Trade at Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA), Mr. A.D Yakubu, also bemoaned the losses to government as well as businesses. According to him, revenue from Aflao, the western corridor border town has dwindled since August.

“We have lost revenue that should accrue to government from import duties. The amount of foreign exchange that the Ghanaian government should have earned from import duties is being lost daily,” he said.

A workable roadmap coming

Yakubu is however optimistic that a workable roadmap is being developed to handle the challenges encountered on both sides, stressing, “We are coming to an agreement with Nigeria. We will be sharing information on cargoes going to either country, so that we can monitor the goods and ensure legitimacy of goods that enter both countries.”

He said the customs of both countries intended deepening their collaboration and information sharing to facilitate movement of goods to both countries.

What Nigeria should have done—GUTA spokesman

Joseph Paddy further spoke on the closure of the Nigeria-Benin border, and its implication on  regional integration and the free continental trade agreement, as well as progressive measures Nigeria should have adopted to tackle smuggling.

“I believe the government should have informed member states so that we prepare for it. Our people have travelled to be locked out there. Some of them have gone for loans from banks. Some deal in perishable goods,” he said.

 Some of the locked shops
Some of the locked shops

The trade unionist expressed disappointment with the manner Nigeria handled the situation, arguing that Nigeria should have sought the intervention of ECOWAS in handling the challenge, which he said is a common problem in the sub-region.

He alleged that the Nigerian government has not been sincere in its dealings with Ghana over the border closure. He said when he accompanied the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Ms. Shirley Ayorkor Botchwy and the Minister of Trade, Mr. Alan Kyeremanteng, to meet with their Nigerian counterparts, they were asked to make a proposal on what Ghana could do in order to give a corridor to their businesses, but Nigeria was yet to respond to the proposals.

He added that all entreaties from the Ghanaian authorities for Nigeria to re-open Seme border for a week so that the goods trapped there could come out and vice versa were rebuffed.

Paddy blamed the action of the Nigerian government on institutional failure and ineptitude, stressing, “With the Nigerian issue, it is institutional failure. Because if the institutions are not working, the thing wouldn’t have come. The people doing the smuggling are human beings, so the institutions have failed.

“The security network has failed. If your security network is not working well and people can move in and out of your country, which is a threat to your country, it is an indictment on your security. And instead of looking inwards and apprehending the people perpetrating the illegalities, you unilaterally shut down the border,” he posited.

Spiral effects on Nigerian traders in Ghana

The GUTA spokesman maintained that the way forward was a regional collaboration towards stemming the scourge of smuggling and other crimes being perpetrated within the sub-region should not be unilateral and extreme measure that could erode regional cooperation.

Amidst the tension raised from the decision by Nigeria, it appeared  that GUTA members chose to resurrect  squabbles with Nigerian traders in both Kumasi and Accra, interpreted by many as reprisal attacks. But GUTA the spokesman denied that, saying it was mere coincidence.

“I don’t think it is a retaliatory measure. This has been ongoing,” he said.

300 Nigerian shops shut in Kumasi

Over 300 shops owned by Nigerians in Kumasi were closed by the Ashanti regional chapter of the Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) on Monday, October 28. The angry traders had  chased Nigerian traders out of their shops before padlocking them.

Shops in several locations were affected, including Alabah, Kejetia, Adhye, Edum and Suame Magazines, all in Kumasi.

The timely intervention of commanders deployed to the various units saved the situation. They acted swiftly and mobilized police officers who thwarted the activities of the local traders. By the end of the day, all the shops closed at Alabah, Adhye, Edum and Kejetia were re-opened.

The same could not be said of Suame Magazine. It was gathered that the commandant assigned to the market did not cooperate with the Nigerian traders and the shops remained locked until early this week. Some concerned residents intervened and mobilized some youths to break padlocks from the doors of the shops.

Currently, no shop owned by an Nigeria in Kumasi is locked, Daily Trust gathered.

Government promptly condemned the action of the traders through the Deputy Minister of Trade, Mr. Carlos Ahenkorah, who cautioned them to desist from acts of lawlessness.

50 Nigerian shops shut in Central Accra

The dust raised by the action of Kumasi traders had hardly settled, when the Electrical Dealers Association, Opera Square at Central Accra on Monday decided to close over 50 shops owned by Nigerians.

It was gathered that the action at Opera Square actually commenced on Friday, November 1, when the traders locked up about 30 shops. The Nigerians had complained to the police who came and opened all the affected shops.

Same day, the Public Relations Officer of the Electrical Dealers Association, Mr. Samuel Addo, gave foreigners till Monday, November 4, to leave the market or face their wrath. He explained that the association would no longer tolerate their continued engagement in retail trade.

Businesses foreigners should not do in Ghana

Section 27910 0f Act 865 of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) outlines activities foreigners are allowed to participate in. They are barred from the sale of goods or provisions of services in a market, petty trading or hawking or selling of goods in a stall at any place.

Other activities not permitted for foreigners include:

1 Operation of taxis or car hire services that has a fleet of less than 25 vehicles

2 Operation of a beauty salon or barber’s shop

3 Printing of recharge cards for use of subscribers of telecommunication services

4 Production of exercise books and other basic stationery

5 Retail of finished pharmaceutical products

6 Production and retail of sachet water.

Traders carry out their threat

As promised, on Monday, they went out to execute their threat. By noon, over 50 shops owned by Nigerians had been sealed with padlocks, but other foreigners, including Chinese were allowed to continue with their businesses.

The president of the Nigerian Union of Traders Association in Ghana (NUTAG), Chief Chukwuemeka Nnaji, attested to this in an interview, stressing, “Let it be on record that the little over 50 shops that were closed belong to Nigerians.”

He said the attack was targeted at Nigerians, adding, “GUTA does not lock up shops owned by Chinese and Lebanese or Indians, even if they own shops on the same building with Nigerians. They always go straight to Nigerian shops and lock them.”

At the time of compiling this report, the shops were still locked. However, there were indications that the impasse would be resolved soon, following the parley between NUTAG and the Ghanaian authorities.

Incessant attacks on Nigerians

The incessant attacks on Nigerian businesses and their owners is worrisome, some Ghanaians said. Nigerians have lived in Ghana and operated businesses all over the country for over 200 years. From the early settlers who traded in commodities like kola nuts, textiles and food items, there is no gainsaying the cordiality that existed amongst them. Most of the early settlers have acquired Ghanaian nationality.

How it began in 2002

The friendship suffered a huge setback in 2002 during the tenure of President John Kufuor. Ghanaian traders, for the first time, protested against what they described as the dominance of visitors in commerce.

But what began like a child’s play nearly two decades ago has become well entrenched in the commercial landscape of the country. The indigenes are increasingly becoming restive over the presence of Nigerian traders.

By 2010, members of GUTA had intensified their activities and started to lock up shops owned by Nigerians. The first occurrence was at Opera Square, Ghana’s biggest electrical gadgets market. Someone dubbed it as “Ghana’s version of Nigeria’s Alaba International Market in Lagos”. It is the largest trading outlet for electrical gadgets and accessories in the country. Most importers off-load their goods in the market. Nigerians control some of the biggest wholesale outfits in the market. When the first incident happened in 2010, several businesses owned by Nigerians were locked up. Ultimately, months of diplomacy by the Nigerian Mission in the country resolved the crisis, though some of the traders never recovered from the setback. They packed up their wares and left the country, Daily Trust Saturday gathered.

In 2011, the face-off reached a crescendo. It became a regular feature. The indigenes habitually shut down Nigerian shops in markets, particularly in the build-up to major elections in the country. It is largely believed that the closure of shops has become a major bargaining tool for traders. They always tabled it before the ruling party and the main opposition in the run-up to each presidential election. In 2012, it went on and off. Businesses at Tip Toe lane, at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Kantamanto and Okaissey both inside the Makola International Market were regularly disrupted, because local traders closed them down. The crisis lingered for two months.

 Angry members of GUTA locking up a shop in Acrra- Source Myjoyonline
Angry members of GUTA locking up a shop in Acrra- Source Myjoyonline

ECOWAS digs in

On one instance, delegates from the ECOWAS Parliament came on a fact-finding mission to Ghana. During the talks, members of the parliament had implored the Ghanaian authorities to allow community citizens to ply their trade alongside the nationals.

The community parliament also recommended that ECOWAS citizens should not be treated to some of the conditions specified for foreign investors. For instance, they argued that they should be exempted from the provision that an aspiring investor must be made to invest $1 million or satisfy its equity in investments in the business.

The community parliament had cited instances of citizens of members states engaged in businesses in other countries, stressing that if Ghana should implement the legislation for ECOWAS citizens, it would set a bad precedence for other states.

A short reprieve

The reprieve that came was short-lived, because the clamour by local traders never abated. A former Minister of Trade and Industry, Hon. Haruna Iddrisu, in 2014 constituted a 13-member committee to enforce the legislation on retail trade. The inter-ministerial team also included members of the Ghana Police Service and GUTA. A roadmap was given to the body to implement the legislation.

GUTA’s spokesman concurred that a roadmap indeed had been set for the implementation of the law regulating local trade in the country, even as he revealed the crux of the agitation against Nigerians.

“What the authorities and the people are trying to do is to protect the economy. If you allow a foreigner to come and do taxis, hairdressing salon, petty trading like hawking, you are leaving your economy in the hands of foreigners. In Ghana, our service industry is in the hands of foreigners, the banks, the telecoms, construction, mining are all run by foreigners,” he said.

“In those days only a few people were coming in. Now they come en bloc. Those days, we had a few Nigerians. In Abbosey Okai, I had six Nigerians with me doing spare parts, very good friends. But now, they go and bring their brothers. Over seven million Nigerians are in Ghana, it is a worrisome situation. This why we are feeling it more,” he declared.

Thus, it has not come as a surprise that the agitation against Nigerian traders is gathering momentum in recent times. Kumasi has become the hotspot in the unending feud. Perhaps 2018 was one of the most difficult years for Nigerian traders. The traders operating at Suame Magazine and Opera Square were the most affected. The Kumasi issue lingered for long. The matter dragged for nearly a quarter of the year. The Ashanti regional arm of GUTA was adamant and determined to expel Nigerians from their markets. This year alone, Nigerians have been attacked several times in that market. The major occurrences that made the headlines were in January, June and just the recent closure nearly a fortnight ago.

Physical assaults on Nigerians

There have been cases of physical assaults on the Nigerians by their hosts, when they attempted to break the locks on the doors of their shops.

Some of them had to seek medical treatment for the injuries they sustained from the attacks.

What Nigerian traders did wrong — GUTA

GUTA had accused them of many things, aside the most publicized infraction on the local legislation that bars them from retail business. According to them, Nigerian traders sell sub-standard and fake products. Hence, they are able to sell at more competitive prices, which discouraged customers from buying Ghanaian goods.

“Because of the new sub-standard and fake parts they sell no one wants to buy the spare parts. Our leaders are not helping us also,” Kwame Debrah, a spare parts dealer said.

Nigerians debunk allegations 

The National President of  NUTAG Chief Nnaji, however debunked the allegation, insisting that it was unfounded and contrived to discredit Nigerians and justify actions against them.

“Coming to the goods, it is only when the border was closed that I realized that Ghanaians also brought goods from Nigeria because the way they go about talking, I never knew that they had anything to do with goods imported from Nigeria. Ghanaian traders are not sincere. I can tell you that majority of Ghanaian traders actually travel to Nigeria to bring their wares. I tell you majority of Nigerians doing business here import from China and pay their duties at the ports. If you have a huge capital you cannot risk it doing business along the land borders. It is very dangerous,” he noted.

He asserted that goods sold in Nigeria are of  higher quality than those in Ghana, largely because Nigerians invest more money in business. Therefore, he said, it is rational for them to invest in high quality goods that would guarantee returns.

GUTA has persistently accused Nigerian traders of operating illegally in the country. The law requires any foreigner intending to establish to, among other things, register their businesses with the Registrar General, register with the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre, be documented at the immigration, and regularize their stay by obtaining the necessary permits such as obtaining the non-citizens card and resident permit.

The president of NUTAG also refuted the allegation, insisting that more than 90 percent of Nigerian businessmen operating in the country were properly registered. Citing the spare parts market at Abbosey Okai, he noted that most of the businesses that were properly registered and paid tax to the government of Ghana are owned by Nigerians.

Daily Trust Saturday findings showed that several pieces of evidence to back up the fact that Nigerians were dutiful in the payment of taxes, import duties and several other financial obligations.

There were instances when one businessman paid as much as GHS220, 000 (N16.6 million) to clear three containers of goods at the Tema Ports. Another receipt documented the import duty of GHC140, 000 (about N9.4 million) on two containers of goods at Tema Ports.

In several locations, Tip Toe Lane, Abbosey Okai and other places, where Nigerians own shops, their tax receipts and other payments are openly displayed inside the shops.

When Nnaji was confronted with the allegation that Nigerians do not pay their tax, as well as other financial obligations to the Ghanaian government, he described it as laughable.

“That is laughable, you know GUTA has formed a gang of hypocritical individuals who go from one radio station to another to lie against Nigerian traders. I have had confrontations with them in some of the stations were we met, and I can tell you without mincing any word that they lie intentionally to attract sympathy from their locals.

“We import goods in containers and sell to wholesalers. We bring our goods in large volumes. These are not what you can sell in piecemeal. We supply those who buy in big volumes. In fact, my goods are in the warehouse. This place is just a meeting point where my clients come to discuss business. The few items on display are basically to advertise my goods so that my clients can see before they buy.”

He argued that several of his colleagues, even the ones whose shops were closed down at Opera Square, were importers like himself who sell goods in large volumes to local wholesalers.

Nnaji argued that because several of their Ghanaian clients could not afford to buy in bulk, sometimes they were obliged to sell to them in small units. Thus, it was misconstrued that they were involved in retail business.

“We have to understand this fact in this context. Ghana has a very small market and it looks like we deal in retail. We don’t sell retail. For instance, you can bring a carton of goods. They want to buy to resell, but they cannot afford it. So when they request for two pieces, even one, we oblige…but they know it is wholesale business. These people have shops where they sell the goods,” he said.

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