Nigeria might have become a “sleeping giant”, but remains a formidable regional power. Abuja must respond strongly to Accra’s diplomatic breach, and use this opportunity to tackle Ghana’s xenophobic disposition at the bilateral level and within ECOWAS’s mediation structures.
On June 19, several armed Ghanaian citizens demolished the residential building of the Nigerian High Commission in Accra with a bulldozer. This incident shocked the Nigerian community in Ghana, and the Nigerian administration of Muhammadu Buhari, which condemned the attack. Ghanaian president, Nana Akuffo-Addo, apologised for the incident, called for investigation into it, and promised to rebuild the embassy housing. Even though information emerged that the Nigerian government had failed to obtain the land title-deed for the property, this situation should have been dealt with diplomatically. This unusual act may not have fallen under what West Africans would term a traditional act of “rascality.” However, it is the height of lawlessness and an affront to Ghana’s commitment to the rule of law. Once again, the West African sub-regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), failed to react to this indirect act of aggression towards Nigeria.
While the attack constitutes a threat to diplomatic principle, it can be located within the broad xenophobic agenda of the Ghanaian state, its media, and population against West African migrants, particularly those from Nigeria. Currently, about two million Nigerians reside in Ghana, while an estimated 500,000 Ghanaians live in Nigeria. The persistent, subtle, and violent xenophobia unleashed on Nigerian citizens has been transferred to the country’s diplomatic building in Ghana. The response by Ghana’s foreign affairs ministry calling the attack “a breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations” was lame. Since 2013, the government in Accra has been beating the drums of xenophobia without any significant reaction from ECOWAS.
Xenophobia often depicts a crisis of moral panic; illusionary, irrational and perceived fear; or “fear of the unknown”. The source of such xenophobia lies in the threats that migrants are perceived to pose to local population due to competition over jobs, as well as the alleged involvement of migrants in social ills like drugs and prostitution. As in South Africa, migrants thus become the scapegoats and targets of aggression from the local population. Disconnection from African historical antecedents, extreme nationalism, economic protectionism, and government failures, have also all contributed to a resurgence of xenophobia.
These acts flagrantly violated the 1979 ECOWAS Protocol on the Free Movement of People and the rights of West Africans to trade and residency. In December 2018, Nigerian citizens in Ghana were attacked on the basis of the alleged “disappearance” of a Ghanaian national.
Historically, migration in West Africa represented a way of life, devoid of identity assertiveness or extreme nationalism. Ironically, Ghana was home to the foremost Pan-Africanist of the 1960s, Kwame Nkrumah, who conceived the vision of a “United States of Africa.” In contrast, Ghanaian prime minister, Kofi Busia, implemented the “Aliens Compliance Order” in 1969. The intention was to hand Ghanaians firm control over their economy. An estimated 140,000 Nigerians were expelled from Ghana at this time, along with about 60,000 other foreigners. Since then, the Ghanaian government has continued to reinforce individual, systemic, and institutional anti-immigration sentiments.
More recently, the 2013 Ghana Investment Promotion Centre Act prohibited migrants from owning certain business enterprises, including getting involved in petty trading. This law also required that foreigners possess $500,000 to run business enterprises. Local traders, aided by state security agents, have since attacked foreign traders who failed to comply with the law, and closed their businesses. These acts flagrantly violated the 1979 ECOWAS Protocol on the Free Movement of People and the rights of West Africans to trade and residency. In December 2018, Nigerian citizens in Ghana were attacked on the basis of the alleged “disappearance” of a Ghanaian national. Between 2018 and 2019, 723 Nigerians were expelled from Ghana due to allegations of social and financial crimes.
Nigeria expelled over one million Ghanaians (and nearly two million other mostly West Africans) between 1983 and 1985, in the notorious and jingoistic “Ghana Must Go” xenophobic frenzy that blamed foreigners for the crime and economic crisis in Nigeria. Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone have displayed hostilities toward West Africa migrants. In July 2002, Nigerian-owned businesses in Freetown were attacked by the local population. Freetown was no longer “free”. In 2005, 44 Ghanaians were allegedly killed in Gambia by security agents. In Côte d’Ivoire, former President Laurent Gbagbo reinforced the concept of “Ivoirité” (meaning, Ivorians first) to generate xenophobic sentiments during the 2010 election. In October 2019, Nigeria arbitrarily shut its land borders with Benin under the guise of protecting local agricultural markets. This also contravened ECOWAS’s principle of free movement of people, goods, and services.
ECOWAS should also support the resurgence of Pan-Africanism at the regional and global levels. If left unchecked, the divisiveness caused by xenophobic incidents across West Africa may deter ECOWAS’s goals of achieving regional development, peace, and security.
ECOWAS was created in 1975 to foster socio-economic cooperation and integration across West Africa. The 1979 ECOWAS Protocol provided for the free movement of persons, and the right of residence and establishment of businesses. The introduction of the ECOWAS passport in 2000, allows intra-regional mobility without restrictions or an entry visa. Yet, xenophobia has continued to rage across West Africa.
In the absence of the establishment of political and legal mechanisms by ECOWAS governments to ensure mutual respect and effective mediation between local populations and migrants, xenophobia continues to be rife. The success of regionalism in West Africa, however, depends on the integration of the 385 million citizens, and not just of governments. Thus, efforts should be directed at sensitising local populations on their shared history and the imperative of free mobility. Just as the ECOWAS Parliament condemned the 2019 xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa, the Parliament should compel the ECOWAS Commission to be decisive in combating xenophobia in West Africa.
ECOWAS should also support the resurgence of Pan-Africanism at the regional and global levels. If left unchecked, the divisiveness caused by xenophobic incidents across West Africa may deter ECOWAS’s goals of achieving regional development, peace, and security. A protracted diplomatic crisis between Nigeria and Ghana – West Africa’s two largest economies – will negatively affect the viability of ECOWAS. Nigeria might have become a “sleeping giant”, but remains a formidable regional power. Abuja must respond strongly to Accra’s diplomatic breach, and use this opportunity to tackle Ghana’s xenophobic disposition at the bilateral level and within ECOWAS’s mediation structures.
Adeoye O. Akinola is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.