Ghana and Nigeria: a sibling rivalry

Despite being separated by both Benin and Togo, the two largest economies in Western Africa might as well be neighbours. Should we view each nation through the other’s eyes, Ghana is often seen as the submissive, over-achieving younger sibling, whilst Nigeria is the loud and brash older brother. 

Over the past 60 years, the two countries have often entertained friendly rivalries fuelled by ferocious football matches between the Ghanaian Black Stars and the Nigerian Super Eagles. At historical junctures, however, this amicable competition has broken down into the mass deportation of each other’s citizens. Sometimes siblings do fall out.

The two countries are a select few in West Africa with a history of English colonial rule; their common language of English, rather than French, is often cited for being their unifying factor. The first inkling of sibling jealousy came in 1957 when Ghana was granted independence a full three years before its bigger brother. Ten years later, the success of Nigerian traders in Ghana and the consequent struggles of competing Ghanaian business led to antagonism between migrants and natives. The result? A mass expulsion of 2.5 million undocumented Africans from Ghana, the vast majority being Nigerian nationals.

While tensions died down through the turn of the millennium, there remain two sore points felt particularly strongly by either side.

Fast forward a few years, and a global collapse in the price of cocoa devastates Ghana whilst the discovery of vast oil reserves provides a much needed boost to the Nigerian economy: cue the influx of Ghanaians into Nigeria. In the early 1980s, it is reckoned that every school in Nigeria had a Ghanaian teacher, and every market a Ghanaian trader. Then in 1982, as is now predictable in this ever swinging relationship, global oil prices plummet causing Nigeria to lose 90% of its foreign reserves. The ensuing financial crisis squeezed every last dime out of the Nigerian government’s pocket and the mass deportation of over two million Ghanaian aliens begins. 

Thus goes the historical relationship between the two English speaking giants of West Africa. Whilst tensions died down through the turn of the millennium, there remain two sore points felt particularly strongly by either side. Ghanaians maintain that the crucial difference between the 1967 exile and the 1983 exile are that the former saw wealthy Nigerian business owners return to a stable home, whilst the latter forced impoverished Ghanaians back to a famine ridden wasteland. Nigerians, meanwhile, are keen to point out that whilst they apologised fervently for the 1983 exile, they have received no such return apology for the protectionist actions of 1967.

Now, with the world grappling a major pandemic, tensions are rising again. Midway through last year, Nigeria closed its border to Benin in a bid to prevent the importation of sub-standard and illegal goods. Experts believe the move was also an attempt to promote a “Made in Nigeria” policy in an attempt to stimulate the local economy. President Afuko-Addo of Ghana said the border closure was not in the spirit of ECOWAS, the economically liberal West-African bloc; Former Nigerian Ambassador Suleiman Dahiru replied by asking “what has Ghana to do with the closure of our borders?”. 

Both Ghana and Nigeria will likely dominate sub-Saharan economics for decades to come, yet they need to co-operate in order firstly to minimise the damage of COVID-19.

In Ghana, a recent shift in policy in the last few months, which echoes the protectionist agenda of the 1960s, now prevents any non-Ghanaian (i.e. any Nigerian) from running a retail business on Ghanaian soil. The only concession is if investments of over half a million USD are made, yet this is far beyond the means of most Nigerian migrants. Once again, entrepreneurial Nigerians are being denied access to prime real estate in Ghana’s street markets.

Predictably, the recent tensions largely come down to politics, with market stall quibbles being amplified at a national level. However, it must be noted that although siblings bicker often this does not mean that they cannot get along. The relative ease of Ghanaian-Nigerian relations for thirty years until very recently proves this point. Ghanaian president Afuko-Addo stressed that the current diplomatic feuds are ones which “friends should be able to sit down and resolve”. 

Both Ghana and Nigeria will likely dominate sub-Saharan economics for decades to come, yet they need to co-operate in order firstly to minimise the damage of COVID-19 and secondly to bring Africa into the globalised economy. Competition between the two is encouraged, particularly on the football pitch, but street level rivalries cannot be seen to infiltrate national politics. 

Yes siblings often bicker, but when they work together a shared history and a brotherly instinct will take over. An allied Nigeria-Ghana relationship will quickly rise to the forefront of global politics.

By Ollie Geffen

Image: by Edward Wake via Flickr.

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