Popular journalist and Publisher, Ovation Media Group, Chief Dele Momodu, shares with TUNDE AJAJA his thoughts on the recent closure of shops belonging to some Nigerians in Ghana and Nigeria’s diplomatic relations
Ghana is like your second home, could you share with us how your bond with Ghana started?
On July 22, 1995, some people came to my house in Ojodu, Lagos and alerted my wife to an imminent danger that awaited me. The government of the late General Sani Abacha decided that I should be declared wanted and arrested. I was accused of being one of the brains behind a private radio station initially known as Radio Freedom and later changed to Radio Kudirat. But the truth is that I didn’t know anything about it. However, you know that during Abacha’s regime, there was no room for argument and if you were in the country in such circumstances, anything could happen. If it was during Gen Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, I could have managed, after all, during his regime, I was put in detention briefly and that one was okay (laughs).
But with Abacha, anything could have happened, so I had to plan my escape. On July 25, I left Nigeria through the bush to Seme Border to Cotonou and then to Lome in Togo and from there to Accra, Ghana. That was my first time in Ghana, but instantly, I loved what I saw. I spent three days there and left for London on July 28, 1995. I landed at Gatwick Airport, London the following morning. Thus began my exile in London. I was able to prove that my life was in danger, so the British government protected me and my family; my wife and only son at that time managed to also escape. They were nearly arrested at the airport but were allowed to go. The British were good to me and it was there I started Ovation.
At what point did you return to Ghana?
I was there for three years as a refugee. By the time I was leaving England for Ghana, I was so excited because I never liked to live in Europe. Life there was routine; if you pay attention, the same bus you board today might be the same bus you would board in the next 20 to 30 years and many things would never change. I just couldn’t cope with such a cacophonous existence. Once I had the chance to go back to Ghana, I did and was very delighted to make Ghana part of my home. I decided to have an office in Ghana and we launched Ovation there.
At what point did things go wrong again between Nigeria and Ghana?
Ghanaians are very sensitive about Nigerians, partly due to the skirmishes we had in the past. First, Ghanaians chased Nigerians out of their country in 1969. And in 1983, the late President Shehu Shagari sacked Ghanaians from Nigeria, in what was known then as ‘Ghana Must Go’. While Nigerians have forgotten that they were once chased out of Ghana, we only remember ‘Ghana Must Go’, so Ghanaians never forgave us and they never forgot. Till today, they are still very sensitive about that episode. Also, they find Nigerians to be very loud; we are like the Americans of Africa and so wherever we go, not just Ghana, people notice us, and we speak in loud voices and people would think you are quarrelling or fighting them. A Ghanaian can almost break down in tears if you shout at them; they don’t like it, but Nigerians are not like that.
I call Ghana little Europe because it’s a very organised, beautiful and peaceful society. I probably know Ghana more than Nigeria and I have travelled to every part of Ghana by road, up to Wa, which is probably the farthest part of Ghana. Ghana has been very blessed with good leaders; intelligent, brilliant and cerebral, but the biggest problem, which is the sore point, is always this unhealthy rivalry between them and Nigeria. Our students spend so much money to go to school in Ghana and yet Ghanaians always complain that they are too loud, boisterous, flamboyant and I always remind them that for anybody to bring dollars to spend in Ghana, they must be children of the elite and they should not use a few of them to judge the rest of us.
Since you have been close to almost all their leaders, were there times you raised some of these issues with them, maybe during your casual conversations?
Being friends with a leader does not mean you are both discussing countries, because I wasn’t there as a representative of the government, so our discussions would not go along those lines. The discussion would usually be in terms of business, tourism and such things, but nothing political. The closest to me has been John Mahama, whom I can discuss anything with and my attraction was because he was far advanced than most African leaders in terms of infrastructural development.
However, I realise that Ghanaians did not mind us coming as tourists but they do not want us to come as investors. If you are going to invest, don’t live in Ghana and if you must invest, it must be at the highest level and not as a trader. You cannot like our money and not like our face. Sometimes too, we are careless and we take many things for granted. That is the attitude that led to this trouble. That was why they started erecting all kinds of obstacles on the path of our traders. Otherwise, why did they say $300,000 initially and suddenly they took it to $1m. How? If a man has $1m, will he leave his country? With that amount, you would still get a good property in Banana Island. Even in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, if you have $1m cash you are a king. Then, we started seeing videos of them attacking Nigerians and I got angry. From time to time, there have been skirmishes but not this pronounced before now, though it gets worse when their election is approaching, which is on December 7. I think that is what has caused this present one, but like I said, they haven’t forgiven us for the ‘Ghana Must Go’ era. They might not mention it but I think somehow that is the underlying factor. That bitterness is still there, and then they believe Nigerians are boastful and flamboyant while they don’t like too much noise. They also believe that Nigerians are bringing money to corrupt their people, especially women.
At some point, you also lost your money and investment, could you tell us more about it?
I lost a lot of money there when I invested in a restaurant. I believe it was one of the most magnificent restaurants in Ghana and it was in line with the Ovation signature of quality. When we were opening the restaurant, it was a high-profile event that lasted two nights. Our concept was for Nigerians to have a restaurant they could go to. We had a massage parlour upstairs and when your food was being prepared, you could go there for a complementary treat. However, I found out that Ghanaians were getting angry more and more and I came one day to see that my restaurant had been shut down. I couldn’t believe it.
What were your findings?
We went to the Ghana Investment Promotion Council. I had never heard about a situation where an agency that is supposed to encourage investment and investors would be the one shutting down businesses. I asked what my offence was and nobody could tell me anything. For over two weeks, they shut it down and everything in the restaurant got spoilt. All I got at the end of the day was a verbal apology. The man in charge of the agency looked at me and asked ‘Chief, who have you offended?’ and I said how would I know? I had all the approvals, but you won’t believe that there was nothing in my file when I got to their office. That was why the man asked that question. My good friend, the late Alhaji Aliu Mahama, was the vice-president of Ghana and I called him but he couldn’t help. He said he would investigate but nothing happened. My godfather, Alhaji Asuma Banda, one of the richest people, could not solve it too. He drove there to find out what Dele did wrong, nobody could tell him. We all became frustrated. You know if you have information, you would know how to go about it, but nobody would talk to you.
But your friend, the vice-president, could have intervened and ensure they opened the restaurant, especially since you were not found to have violated any law?
No, they don’t have such a culture in Ghana. The vice-president does not have such powers. It’s not like Nigeria. You know they have a very strong radio; they would have descended on him. They might even claim he was selling out his country to Nigerians. So, he couldn’t do anything. The worst part is that in October 2006, I transferred money ($60,000) duly approved by the Bank of Ghana to South Africa to order for my industrial catering equipment because I wanted it to be the best. The equipment arrived at the Tema Port (Ghana) in January 2007 but it wasn’t cleared until 2010. It’s hard to believe it. From the 2006 that I placed the order, I did not set my eyes on the equipment until 2010 and I couldn’t use most of the items again. I had to go and buy other equipment locally, and their tariffs were so high. Eventually, I lost all my investments.
Did they eventually reopen the restaurant?
It was reopened, but by then the deed had been done. I had to move it to another location but it never really survived. I had to shut it down. It is a sad one. Even Ovation magazines, I had to stop taking them directly to Ghana. So, we would first bring them to Nigeria and because the magazines were printed in English and French, we would take the French copies by road to Benin Republic and Togo, and then we would take the English copies to Ghana. Every border you get to, they want to charge tariff, on magazines? How much can you sell a magazine? When you get to Ghana is when you face the highest tariff you can imagine. At the end of the day, what it would cost me to get my magazine to Ghana would be more than the cover price of the magazine sometimes, so that was how I got discouraged.
What other business would I do then? I lost thousands of dollars to Ghana. It was a total waste. Given my connection to the British, I registered with the British investors in Ghana and they were very organised. Most of them were white investors from the UK. We had a club house where we met for meetings. One day, I was sharing my experience with them and one of our members, a white man, marvelled at what I went through; he said he had been in Ghana for over 20 years and he never had such an experience. He said he didn’t even have to register a company. I felt so scandalised, wondering how I, an African, who was also fighting tooth and nail to promote them, was faced with such problems. The same thing happens in South Africa; if you have a British passport and you want to visit South Africa, you don’t need a visa but if you want to go as a Nigerian, you have to wait and wait to get a visa. For Ghana, former President John Mahama was very kind; he was the one who liberalised their visa process and said Africans could get visas at the point of entry.
Nigeria’s President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and the presidents of these other countries that are hostile to Nigerians meet from time to time, could it be that they don’t talk about these things?
Don’t forget that a lot of our presidents, especially in Nigeria, are largely ceremonial. They are not properly briefed, not because they can’t be briefed, but because their aides are even sometimes afraid to talk to them. They have nothing to discuss. A lot of people have complained that a lot of the ministers don’t see President Buhari and he himself actually gave a hint when he said during the time of Mallam Abba Kyari, his late Chief of Staff, that they should go through his Chief of Staff. That is part of the problem. If you have a president that is accessible, who they can explain these things to and he would understand them, that would have helped.
Also, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, would not have gone to Ghana if he had not got a tacit approval from the presidency. If the President had told him that Ghana was maltreating our people and that we couldn’t go there now until the issues were resolved, he wouldn’t have gone. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo would not have allowed such. He is so respected in Ghana that the longest street in Accra is named after him – Olusegun Obasanjo Way. So, nobody would try such with Obasanjo; it’s not possible, because he understands foreign policy. But, perhaps, if any president in Africa calls him (President Buhari) and massages his ego and tells him, ‘Baba, the issue is not like that,’ he would believe them because foreign policy is not his forte. If this interview gets to his desk, I’m hoping that as someone who supported him in the past, he would allow his officials or knowledgeable people to help him. He has a lot of bright minds in his cabinet.
You have a vice-president who would have handled all these things for you perfectly, but if you don’t give him that task, he can’t go there on his own. People like (Babatunde) Fashola, who used to go to Ghana to play football as the Chief of Staff to former governor Tinubu, are there too. So Baba (Buhari) desperately needs to wake up in terms of foreign policy. His foreign policy is the weakest that I know. Diplomacy is not about nice words; it’s about reciprocity. I studied it a bit and I read reports internationally. If I wanted to be the president of Nigeria, definitely, I must know a bit about everything. We are not pursuing diplomacy of reciprocity, and if you don’t pursue it, it means people would take advantage of us all the time. What people are doing is to take advantage of Nigeria’s weakness. For example, the day Buhari threatens to pull out of ECOWAS, you would see that everybody would catch a cold, because Nigeria substantially runs some of those organisations. We are the biggest investor.
If you were Buhari, what would you have done when the story about the maltreatment of Nigerians in Ghana broke?
If I were Buhari, last week I would have suspended our relationship with ECOWAS; let all the presidents in ECOWAS go and talk to their colleague in Ghana to relax. Like I said, diplomacy is not about nice words. You can’t say you are in ECOWAS and you are implementing a by-law or an act that would rubbish it. The excuse some of them are giving that Nigeria shut its borders is not valid because they already made this law; it’s not retaliation. Like (Moshood) Abiola would say, they should stop hiding behind one finger. They started the $300,000 proposition long ago and one of the reasons why I’m angry is that Nigeria would never treat anybody like that, so why should they treat our people like that?
I have Ghanaians working for me in Nigeria and I have them in my house in Ghana. You want us to bring our money, but you don’t want our traders to come to your country and survive. Every part of London you go to today, you would find Nigerians trading. If they are asked to invest $1m, will they be able to do it? There are Ghanaian restaurants in the US and I have been to such in Atlanta, so if they are asked to invest $1m, will they be able to raise it? The answer is no. Let’s say the Nigerian government has said if Ghana insisted on the $1m levy, it would mean their people cannot come here too.
I know many Ghanaian women that come here to trade in fabrics while some bring their Kente here and nobody stops them. If we also tell them to invest $1m before they can set up their business, how many things would they sell to raise the money? We don’t charge them a dime. There was a Ghanaian family in Agbara and the government of Ogun State was going to demolish their house for building their factory on an illegal site. I didn’t know them but they got my number and called me in Ghana. I called the governor on their behalf and the governor stopped the demolition. Nobody would do that for you in Ghana. They didn’t do it for me, though I didn’t mind because I’m a risk taker.
The spokesperson for Ghana’s Trade Ministry said the affected traders were given one-year notice, perhaps the Nigerian traders could have drawn the attention of the government to it?
It is not true, and that is why I said the ding dong has been there for so long. Even the $300,000, those traders can’t pay it. So, it is not the fault of the traders, it’s our government that has to take care of those things. Where would those traders have gone when the government is aware? The Minister of Foreign Affairs cannot take any unilateral decision without clearance from the President, and if the President does not approve, what would he do? I have always advised him (the President) in my articles that I do not expect him to know everything, but if you don’t know something, ask others who know it to do it for you. So, the problem is largely due to the fact that things are not working well, and like the saying goes, without a crack in the wall, lizards would not be able to enter.
We have a presidency that has yet to wake up to its responsibilities in terms of foreign policy. When this thing happened, I sent messages to the relevant officials, but it was understandable that they were handicapped. I believe that if we don’t get the attention of the government, this thing would get out of hand. It got to a stage that I had to organise palliatives. I gave money to all the ones we could identify in Accra, about 111 of them because I knew that a number of such persons couldn’t feed their families without opening their shops. We’re not even talking about those in Kumasi. The money I gave to them was very small but it meant a lot to them and they were very happy. Till today, I have not seen others come up to say they want to help these people, not even the government. If it were other countries, they would have done something to help them.
You said former President Kwame Nkrumah would be turning in his grave in anger seeing what is happening between Nigeria and Ghana, does it mean the present crop of leaders in Ghana don’t have so much respect for Nigeria or Nigerians?
It is strange! I asked Femi Fani-Kayode this question a few nights ago during my interview with him because the current President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Ado, is supposed to be one of the closest to Nigeria. His first wife who had two children with him was Femi’s sister, Remi. Now there is Lady Rebecca, who is the first lady and she’s very close to Nigeria. She has loads of friends here. So, I expect that if no one would understand Nigerians, it shouldn’t be the President and his family. I even heard one of his daughters is married to a Nigerian. Then, a lot of Nigerians are married to Ghanaians, so, you wonder why we continue to fight despite our closeness.