In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene looks at the fraught relationship between Ghana and Nigeria, which underlies the current tensions over the closure of some Nigerian-owned shops in Ghana.
We see them as too loud, and abrasive and chaotic and we believe they think they can outsmart everybody, especially Ghanaians.They think we are too submissive, not very smart, always punching above our weight and nothing upsets them more than Ghana defeating Nigeria, in anything.The Ghana-Nigeria rivalry has been around for as long as both countries have existed.When I was a child, there was a Nigerian in every town and village in Ghana.I went to school with them and there was the Nigerian woman – “Mami Alata” they were called – who sold everything and you could wake her up in the middle of the night to buy three cubes of sugar.
The Nigerians were especially visible in the retail trade sector and in the diamond mining towns.The two countries do not share borders, but it has always felt like we did. That we are separated by Togo and Benin has never really mattered – we feel like we are neighbours.Obviously, something to do with the two countries being English-speaking and British colonies in the midst of French-speaking countries.
Until independence, we had the same currency and airline, and the same apex
court settled all judicial matters.There were regular sporting competitions between our Achimota School and their Kings College.I know of one lasting marriage that came out of those sporting meetings.Then in 1955, came the 7-0 thrashing by Ghana of the Red Devils, as the Nigerian national football team was called at that time.It is the stuff of legends, and for years, it hung there behind every conversation, every argument, private or national, between our two countries.
Then Ghana got her independence in March 1957 and our Nigerian cousins got theirs in October 1960.This did not feel right – for many Nigerians, they were bigger and should have got their independence before small Ghana.They might be bigger, but at the time, Ghana felt and was richer than Nigeria – before oil was discovered.
We kept up the neighbourly rivalries and friendships.Then came the Progress Party government’s Aliens Compliance Order of November 1969, which ordered all undocumented aliens to leave Ghana.Even though there were Togolese, Burkinabes, Ivorians, Nigeriens and other West Africans in the country, Nigerians, mostly ethnic Yorubas from the south-western states of Nigeria, formed the majority of the foreign population in Ghana then.
Some of them had been living here for years and were into their second and third generations. It felt like the exercise was aimed at Nigerians and their journeys home were not pleasant.Then oil came to Nigeria and as they became rich, Ghana’s economy collapsed and from around 1974, the exodus to Nigeria was on.University professors, architects, engineers, carpenters, masons, tailors, hairdressers, maidservants and our classrooms were emptied of all teachers from kindergarten, primary, secondary and tertiary.