Ghanaian authorities scrambled Friday to forestall a further escalation of a deportation row that has gripped both their country and Nigeria in recent weeks.
Kwame Takyi, comptroller-general of Ghana Immigration Service, came calling at his Nigerian counterpart Mohammed Babandede's office in Abuja on Friday afternoon, during which both countries discussed issues surrounding deportation of one another's citizens.
The visit comes a week after Nigeria deported four Ghanaians to Accra. The News Agency of Nigeria reported that no formal explanation was publicly rendered for the deportation, which was approved by Abdulrahman Dambazau, the interior minister.
A month earlier, Nigeria had protested mass deportation of at least 723 of its citizens between 2018 and February 2019. The Nigerians were accused of illegal stay, cybercrime, prostitution and other social vices.
Eighty-one Nigerians were deported on alleged cybercrime and illegal stay in January, while 115 have so far been deported in February on the allegation of overstay and prostitution, NAN reported, adding that Nigerian ambassador to Ghana, Michael Abikoye, strongly protested the action to the Ghanaian government in Accra.
Nigeria's objection to the removal of its citizens from Ghana and failure to publicly state the offences of the four deported Ghanaians had fueled speculation that the March 22 decision might have been done in retaliation.
A warning sounded
Details of the meeting between the Ghanaian immigration chief and his Nigerian host were not immediately made public Friday, but multiple immigration officials in Abuja said it was an interaction that elevated Nigeria's standing on the global stage.
Mr Takyi said his visit to Nigeria was to "reiterate his country's special relationship with Nigeria," and quell the raging tension around deportations, an immigration source told PREMIUM TIMES.
A source said Nigeria made it clear that the manner with which its citizens were being treated by Ghana was unacceptable, especially when both countries were widely assumed to be harbouring special diplomatic relations.
The official, who pleaded anonymity because he was not an authorised personnel to publicly discuss the meeting, said Nigeria took the high ground in its handling of Ghanaians, especially on an issue that Ghana had long been found wanting.
"Whenever they deported Nigerians, they usually do so by road, and then dump them at Seme Border, they have done this many times in recent years," the senior immigration official said. "But when we deported their citizens, we buy tickets for them and put them on the plane back to their country."
The official said many Nigerians often suffered serious torture and injuries in the course of being transported by road from Ghana to Seme Border, an act considered inhuman and a violation of extant international conventions on rights.
Mr Takyi urged a return to the era of seamless relations between Nigeria and Ghana, noting that both countries can achieve a lot through brotherly cooperation.
Mr Babandede acknowledged the mutual benefits inherent in such relationship but ultimately made it clear that specific demands that Nigeria should cease further deportation of Ghanaians would have to be escalated to higher authorities within the Nigerian government for consideration.
Sunday James, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Immigration Service, did not immediately return multiple telephone calls and text messages seeking comments about the meeting between Friday night and Saturday morning.
Both Nigeria and Ghana have enjoyed 'special relationship' for decades, but are no strangers to deportation crisis. In the early 1980s, thousands of Ghanaians were forcibly removed from the country by the Shehu Shagari administration, triggering in a chaotic exodus that fueled tensions in the sub-region for years.
Nigeria accused Ghanaians of taking increasingly unavailable jobs and accused many of constituting a nuisance in Lagos and other parts of the country.
Both countries have, however, come a long way since the 1980s fallout, and the latest crisis appeared legitimate on both sides, according to foreign affairs expert Williams Fawole.
"Both countries appear to have serious reasons to deport persons not complying with existing laws in their respective jurisdictions," Mr Fawole, a professor of international relations at Obafemi Awolowo University, told PREMIUM TIMES Friday night.
Mr Fawole said it was not uncommon for Nigerians to overstay their citizenship in Ghana, or for Ghanaians to stay beyond a permitted period, even though the ECOWAS Treaty has clear provisions on migration in member countries.
"ECOWAS only permits you to stay 90 days without regularising your stay within member countries," Mr Fawole said. "But if you do not do that within that period, then you are liable to be deported."
Mr Fawole said Ghana's explanation for deporting Nigerians was tenable, saying citizens must be encouraged to respect existing laws in any country they live.
"It is not a matter to split our hairs about," Mr Fawole said.
He said Mr Takyi might have visited Nigeria to further explain why such a high number of Nigerians were deported, but not necessarily to plead for Ghanaians who might not be living in Nigeria legally or those found to have contravened the laws of their host country.
"It is okay to remove any misgivings that might exist," Mr Fawole said. "However, I do not see this escalating into a serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries."