ACCRA, Ghana — Nigerian street vendor Ike Egbon complains that Ghanaians often treat him as if he’s one of his country's notorious internet fraudsters.
He says some Ghanaians here in their capital city refuse to sell him lunch because he doesn’t speak the local language and taxi drivers sound off when they hear his accent.
"They say 'You are Nigerian. Nigerians are no good, no good. Why don’t you go to your country?' " says Egbon, who sells African hand drums. "They don’t help me. Ghanaian people are in Nigeria. We are treating them fine."
The tension between Nigerians and Ghanaians was highlighted when Nigeria’s high commissioner to Ghana charged recently that the news media in Accra overplays crime stories involving Nigerians.
It’s the latest chapter of a Hatfield and McCoy-type relationship between these West African states. Hostility in the past escalated to mass deportations. Ghana expelled 100,000 foreigners — mostly Nigerians — in 1969 and Nigeria banished 1.2 million Ghanaians in the 1980s.
Right now more than 1 million Nigerians live in Ghana, which has a total population of 23 million, according to the Nigerian High Commission here in Accra.
The current aggravation with Nigerians in Ghana is the result of a regional power shift, say some observers. Ghana's fortunes are on this rise as its democracy appears stable and the economy is on the verge of receiving a boost in oil revenue. Nigeria, on the other hand, has become synonymous with internet scams, corruption and violence.
Further, Ghana in July will host U.S. President Barack Obama. It’s his first official stop in sub-Saharan Africa, giving Ghana continental bragging rights. Meanwhile, Nigeria has launched another public relations campaign to reshape its image. Despite huge oil reserves, Africa’s most populous state remains stuck in poverty and corruption.
“Every country has its weak points,” said Ken Aigbovo, president of the Ghana chapter of the Edo State Association. “You can’t say everyone who is Nigerian is bad. I’m proud to be Nigerian.”
Aigbovo co-founded the association three years ago to help fellow Edo State Nigerians acclimate to Ghana and establish businesses, often by co-signing for loans. The organization has 50 members and holds cultural events and collects clothes for orphans.
“We are paying tax to the government,” Aigbovo, a clothes designer, said in response to the criticisms of Nigerians in Ghana. “They are forgetting that we contribute to Ghana.”
Nigerian banks have a strong foothold in Ghana, home to more than 1 million Nigerians, many of whom were attracted to Ghana’s growing economy and safe living conditions. Nigerian investments in Ghana’s economy total $1 billion, according to Nigeria’s High Commission in Accra.
“They are making very positive contributions to the Ghanaian economy,” said University of Ghana sociology professor Thomas Antwi Bosiakoh, who has published papers on Nigerian migration. “Ghanaians generally have a good relationship with Nigerians. It is only sometimes when these things are coming up.”
Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, encouraged Africans to live and work in Ghana — a young Robert Mugabe worked as a teacher — but when Ghana's economy failed Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. Foreigners, especially Nigerians who controlled the markets, were blamed for Ghana's economic problems and three years later many were expelled.
Nigeria in the early '80s deported an estimated 1.2 million Ghanaians who had come in to take advantage of the Nigerian oil boom. Ghanaians were blamed for Nigeria's economic and social problems, including rising crime rates, said Bosiakoh.
Their shared colonial heritage — both were British colonies and English is their official language — facilitates business and tourism. Several Nigerian airlines fly daily into Accra and just 220 miles separates Lagos and Accra, as do French-speaking Benin and Togo.
Trade disputes frequently arise. Ghanaian officials complain that Nigeria maintains unreasonable restrictions on Ghanaian goods. Nigerian banks in Ghana are being forced to recapitalize ($60 million minimum) by the end of this year, while Ghanaian banks have an extra year.
Culturally, Nigerian — or “Nollywood” — films that flood the Ghanaian market are blamed for corrupting young Ghanaians because of their risqué themes. Ghanaian filmmakers, meanwhile, lose business because they abide by Ghana’s censorship laws.
“They are not going by the rules of the game,” said filmmaker Socrate Safo.
Nigerians who operate internet fraud schemes have branched out to Ghana and elsewhere because an address outside Nigeria gives them more credibility in the eyes of the victim.
The manager of an internet café in Accra said he suspects Nigerians use his shop for the scams, but that Ghanaians are involved as well.
“It’s a problem,” he said, asking that neither his name nor business be published. He suggested an identification rule for clients because right now enforcement is impossible: “You can’t sit beside them and watch what their doing.”
But both sides say new initiatives ultimately will strengthen the relationship. Safo is spearheading an effort among Ghanaian and Nigerian film producers to fight piracy, for example. And both governments have agreed to establish a joint Chamber of Commerce.
Aigbovo, the civic organization president, is confident neither state would consider citizenship initiatives that resulted in mass deportations in the past.
“Such a thing would not happen again,” he said. “West Africa is coming together as one.”
Philip Eze, a 33-year-old Nigerian who sells cell phone cards near Makola Market in Accra, says locals sometimes hassle him if he sets up shop in a good location.
“Sometimes I get upset. Sometimes I laugh,” he said. “The wise ones know that Ghanaians and Nigerians are the same.”
More GlobalPost dispatches on Ghana:
Will Michelle Obama wow Ghana?
Ghana banks on cell phones
Ghana weighs boosting gold taxes