As societies across Africa struggle with impacts of COVID-19, escalating tensions between Nigeria and Ghana now threaten to cause lasting damage to the economies of both countries and West Africa as a whole.
In recent months, Nigerian traders and businesses in Ghana, as well as Abuja’s diplomatic mission in Accra, have reportedly faced harassment as the countries’ leaders clash over trade and diplomatic issues. Last year, Nigeria closed its border with Benin to curb smuggling, hurting Ghanaian traders and manufacturers. This year, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo is facing a tight election and has neglected, and perhaps exacerbated, the rising tensions.
In recent decades, West Africa’s two economic powerhouses have had close economic and diplomatic ties, both bilateral and through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). At the end of 2019, Ghana became Nigeria’s largest single trading partner, accounting for 17.2% of Nigeria’s exports.
As the recent confrontation came to a head, the two countries’ leaders should have addressed the underlying issues responsibly and quietly, avoiding public confrontation. But the tensions are now having consequences at the local level. In mid-July, a police officer in Kasoa in the Central Region of Ghana allegedly shot and killed a 27-year-old Nigerian man, prompting a major public outcry.
Public perception of bilateral relations between the two states is especially important as previous feuds have caused tension in the past. In both 1969 and 1983, tensions came to a head and saw the two states deport large numbers of the other’s citizens.
The current escalation is also problematic for the EU, considering that Nigeria and Ghana are the EU’s largest trading partners in West Africa and that the EU has made major efforts to help both states battle corruption and strengthen their democracies.
In 2019, EU trade with Ghana was worth over 4.5 billion euros, according to EU statistics, while the regional bloc’s trade with Nigeria totaled over 3.3 billion euros. For both countries, EU trade represents a significant portion of the economy, meaning the bloc holds major diplomatic leverage.
The EU has also supported Ghana in holding free and transparent elections and has numerous anti-corruption and anti-drug partnerships with Nigeria, some backed with nearly 100 million Euros in funding. But the EU now seems to be allowing Ghanaian President Afuko-Addo to disregard existing economic agreements and initiatives, as well as diplomatic norms.
In the most prominent example, on June 19, armed men stormed a compound inside the Nigerian High Commission in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and forced the demolition of two buildings under construction there. Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama called the incident “outrageous and criminal” and the Nigerian community in Ghana responded with protests.
President Akufo-Addo ordered an investigation of the demolition but offered little explanation and tried to brush the incident aside. Former President John Mahama, however, decried the incident. “It beats my imagination how such a violent and noisy destruction could occur without our security agents picking up the signals to avert the damage,” wrote Mahama, who is the leader of the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) party.
In response, Nigeria has publicly accused the Akufo-Addo government of hostility and harassment towards Nigerians in Ghana, rather than seeking a resolution.
While Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has pursued his own protectionist strategies, Akufo-Addo and Ghanaian authorities have now jeopardized the economies of both countries and West Africa as a whole.
Ghana is currently in the middle of a recession, and while its GDP was once growing at an impressive 6%, it has now grinded to a halt. Ghana’s economic growth rate is now at its lowest rate in 37 years. Since Nigeria is Ghana’s largest trade partner – nearly 20% of Ghana’s imports come from Nigeria – these fresh rounds of diplomatic tensions will slice off some of Ghana’s key economic lifelines.
More than a million Nigerians work in Ghana and support crucial manufacturing and food industries creating products that are then either sold in Ghana or exported abroad. Ghanaian traders and business owners will suffer from this dispute, especially those that rely on exports to Nigeria or on Nigerian labor. During such a sensitive time, it is imperative that Ghanaian authorities mend ties with its close neighbor and fellow regional power to avoid devastating economic effects.
Ghanaian authorities and the Ghana Union of Traders Associations (GUTA) have reportedly carried out a targeted campaign in recent months against Nigerian businesses and traders in the country, claiming they are operating illegally. The Akufo-Addo government recently claimed that 700 Nigerians recently deported from the country were involved in criminal activities – a possible code-name for business violations. This aggressive economic strategy jeopardizes Ghana’s economy as well as that of Nigeria, and it goes against existing agreements among the ECOWAS members.
From the EU’s perspective, both West African countries are trade hubs that hold significant ties with the regional bloc. Akufo-Addo’s disregard for diplomatic norms—as well as his crackdown on opposition parties and Nigerian businesses—serves only to destabilize the region and derides any and all initiatives from the EU.
The erosion of Ghana’s democracy puts the EU’s interests in the region at risk and jeopardizes crucial EU partnerships, including those to help the people of Nigeria and Ghana battle corruption and develop their communities through trade and regional integration. As Akufo-Addo is allowed to push Ghana down a dangerous path of isolationism and authoritarianism, EU taxpayer money goes to waste.
With Ghana heading towards elections in December, Akufo-Addo appears too focused on his reelection campaign and is actively deteriorating relations with Nigeria, which is set to seriously impact regional trade. As two leading ECOWAS partners begin to quarrel, the EU must take a stand and remind the regional leaders of their commitments towards democracy and regional stability.