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Opinions of Monday, 9 December 2019

Columnist: Kwesi Biney

Ghana-Nigeria’s frosty relations

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The absence of a functioning legal system is a typical expression of state failure, general anarchy and absence of a monopoly power firmly in the hands of government. Police, the judiciary and other regulative systems are in such cases no longer functional (Fragile Peace).

It is not generally the absence of law to regulate the behaviour of society alone which is a destabilizing factor, but when laws are either fashioned to favour the rich and the powerful in society against the weak and the poor, and even when laws are not enforced to achieve social equilibrium, violence may become the only means through which social justice may be attained. And as someone said ‘while it is generally not the poor who cause violent conflicts, however desperate their situation, serious economic disparities and a lack of employment opportunities that pay a living wage do make people more vulnerable to those who seek to foment violence.

Retail trade activities have been part of Ghana’s economic activities since Adam. When I was growing up, a huge number of foreigners were engaged in the retail commerce of our economy, and these ranged from high class commerce to the lowest everyday minute selling and buying within even hamlets. Our markets were dominated by foreigners, particularly our brothers and sisters from Nigeria, especially in the manufacturing goods sector.

The reason, surely being, Ghana’s economy was the most attractive within the sub-region; at least long before and after independence. The Igbos and the Yorubas from Nigeria in particular controlled the retail commerce of this country until the Aliens Compliance Order of 1969 which saw mass exodus of foreigners from various countries out of this country. Subsequent governments relaxed the Aliens Compliance Order. This was followed by the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the late Col. I.K. Acheampong and General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria as the leading architects.

In fact, around that time, Ghana’s economy was sagging and not too attractive to foreigners.

Fast forward, over the past 40 years or more, Ghana’s economy has grown in retail commerce than manufacturing, thus attracting all manner of goods and services from all over the world for our voracious consumption. But even as Col. Acheampong then, was appending his signature to the ECOWAS Treaty, he had asked Ghanaians to “take the commanding heights of the economy.” It may be in this vein that subsequent governments promulgated laws that restrict certain economic activities, particularly in the retail sector, to only Ghanaians.

We went ahead to make a law when the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) was created, to set a minimum capital foreigners have to bring into this country to operate in the retail business. All these laws, I believe, were made to protect Ghanaians and encourage them in the retail business, no matter how small their capital might be.

Over the past few years, Ghanaian traders as represented by the Ghana United Traders Association (GUTA) have had course to complain to various governments, particularly under the Fourth Republic about the blatant violation of the laws governing retail business in Ghana, by foreigners, to the detriment of the local people in the retail sector of our economy. I remember the complaints were made even in recent times when the National Democratic Congress (NDC) was in power and not much was done by the state to enforce its own laws to protect Ghanaians.

Instead of the strict enforcement of the laws, various Task Forces were put in place to address the problem of naked violation of our laws in this country. What the mandates of these Task Forces were, I do not know but what is very well know is the fact that the Task Forces have not succeeded in enforcing the laws that prohibit foreigners from engaging in retail trade in Ghana.

The retail sector of our national economy has been taken over by foreigners, including even the critical petroleum sector of the economy, as if this nation has no laws. Listening to some leading members of the GUTA on the electronic media within the week, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of people operating within the retail sector as far as the laws of Ghana and even the rulings of the ECOWAS Court are concerned.

In the absence of job opportunities in the formal sector of the economic and the justifiable calls by governments for Ghanaians to create jobs for themselves, it behoves on the state to protect such budding business people in accordance with the laws of this country. How can Ghanaians create jobs by themselves if we allow unbridled influx of foreigners who have more capital than their Ghanaian counterparts to compete with them even when our laws do not permit such competitions?

I am personally worried over the excessive commercialization of our economy particularly when most of the goods we trade in are not produced in this country, but it is worse when the dominant operators in the sector happen to be foreigners. In the first place, how much foreign exchange do they bring into this country and how much foreign exchange do they repatriate out of this country?

Take the Igbos for example, retailing is a skill where people are apprenticed to their masters to learn how to trade the way we send our children to carpenters, masons or drivers to be apprentices and thought some artisanal skills. Therefore, in the absence of law enforcement to protect the sanctity of our legislations, the laws in the books become meaningless and weak and aggrieved people may only resort to the use of violence to protect their interest. I do not support violence as a means of attaining redress though.

What is also very disturbing, are sometimes the attitudes of some of the foreigners in this country, particularly some of our brothers and sisters from Nigeria, while I admit that there are very decent and a lot of law-abiding ones among us many of them are also unreasonably aggressive, as if their host nations owe them a living. When it suits them, they quickly mention ECOWAS conventions and treaties. Has Nigeria opened its borders to ECOWAS trade?

I have nothing against the Buhari administration for taking measures he has embarked upon to protect its economic interest and the broader interest of the people of Nigeria, even though that policy is having a negative effect on the economies of some members of ECOWAS. The interests of Nigerians in Nigeria far supersedes the interest of the bigger ECOWAS, he wants his people to consume rice produced by Nigerian farmers and I think it is a very sensible policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria.

In the same vein it is the responsibility of the Ghanaian government to protect the overall interest of Ghanaian traders in accordance with our own laws. It is the inability of our governments to protect the interest of Ghanaians in the retail trade sector being taken over by foreigners, which is gradually making the use of violence by local retailers an attractive option to enforce the laws of this country if the state institutions tasked to do that are not ready to do so.

Yes, any plea to the GUTA members to refrain from the use of violence in addressing the issue is a call in the right direction, but a bigger call to the law enforcement agencies to deal with those who violate our laws would offer some relief to our people.

Daavi, some two tots