By Tanu Jalloh
When, in recent days, Ghana chose to get extremely nationalistic in her approach to safeguarding what she felt were some basic rights in the form of opportunities provided by the state for local petty traders, I felt the move could undermine diplomatic reverence in the West African sub-region.
Was the decision by the government, to fully implement Section 19(3) of the country’s Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC) Act 478, 1994, that safeguards, if not protects, Ghanaians from being pushed out of the retail trade, nationalistic of outright protectionism? It would depend on who takes the decision and on whose behalf. If for example the traders were to take up the matter as an association, the effect is industrial but if politicians were to do so, on their behalf, the intention could be suspect. The reasons are obvious.
While that decision was being rescinded contingent on the outcome of an ECOWAS intervention which is expected to find a lasting way out of a potentially egocentric and contagious economic policy in the next four months, the tendency for similar attempts to rally around such so-called sense of patriotism and nationalism are almost certain in politically charged but deprived communities in the sub-region. Elections years make them saleable and highly profitable.
In Sierra Leone the last time any attempt to go the Ghanaian way reached an acme, though in words and not in action, was in August last year when the controversial minister of youth and sports, Paul Kamara, told a dialogue forum for youth leaders in West Africa at the British Council Hall in Freetown that “local petty traders were not protected at all” by the laws of the country.
He blamed all efforts to retain the Petty Traders Act of 1964 if it could not sufficiently ensure that “foreign businessmen whether black or white must do wholesale and not retail. ”In essence, “foreigners” must not do retail as well as wholesale at the same time, thereby undermining small scale local entrepreneurs. He recalled that in the 1970s, when bad businesses erupted with foreign dominance in Sierra Leone, it resulted in the undermining of state economy and inducing unemployment.
Lest I forget Sierra Leone has got an Investment Code of 2005 that effectively addressed the treatment of foreign investors, thereby creating the basis for an economic culture that would eventually launch the country as one of the most favourable on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2012.
Yet the government would suggest that the minister has got good reasons to be concerned but his may not be entirely different from the concerns of the domestic private sector. In a 2010 joint programme document the government said it was committed to addressing them and intended to expand the role of the private sector in economic development. However, one major challenge was that private sector representation in Sierra Leone is fragmented and uncoordinated.
Therefore, the youth and sports minister may be right to point out the weakness in such a crucial but deliberately forgotten socio-economic issue. In fact when the United Indigenous Commercial and Petty Traders Association (UICPTA) of voluntary groups was formed in 1968 to cater for the welfare of petty traders and market women, one of the objectives of its founding statute was: “to ensure that certain commodities whether imported, locally produced or exported are only retailed by Sierra Leone businessmen and women. This also to exclude foreigners without a working permit.” By 1984, it was the largest and most active of many such groupings in the country with an official membership size of 25,000, thus making it a politically viable bloc to reckon with. Some 28 years later in 2012, the petty traders and almost all such organisations of the economy remain equally valuable. Recently, for example, crowds strewed all across Freetown to converge on the National Stadium for ‘a million-man march’ organised by the president of the Sierra Leone Importers’ Association.
Almost all governments since 1984 would attempt to curry favour from petty traders. When they had problems with the then All Peoples Congress, the Bubakai Jabbie Commission of Enquiry was set up to massage their ego. One of its recommendations, to be implemented by a three-man committee of powerful ministers at the time, was to regulate the traders. The then Freetown City Council failed to allow the arrangement to take effect, so the stalemate that characterised the relationship between the council and traders continued. After the 1992 coup, the stalemate was settled (New Citizen,1993) and the National Provisional Ruling Council empowered the petty traders in return for their support. It tells you how much powerful petty traders were likely to become in African politics where populism is sold on the altar of nationalism and patriotism.
That was just one case. Several others are likely to be inspired and engendered by similar such statements and actions from policy makers as was the case in Ghana and Sierra Leone. In June this year, Tanzania had the cause to look back at could be become a petty traders’ legislation but the piece of proposal should attract comments from the Ghanaian scenario ahead of deliberations. It should try as best as possible not to seem to contain any discrimination against other nationals whether impliedly or expressly. Meanwhile, the National Assembly has approved an application to table the very motion that would make petty traders be recognised as formal contributors to the economy. It was the people who called for it. That in itself should represent the result of a mutual social contract genuinely characteristic of today’s democracies.
Interestingly, Ghana had promised to vigorously pursue the implementation of the ECOWAS’ trade liberalization scheme to facilitate trade within the sub-region. Does that scheme silent on the recent actions of the government to chase especially Nigerians hawkers with unbelievable conditions? I would think so. Under the said scheme, about 22 Ghanaian industrial products were to be approved so that they enjoy the benefits of the scheme.
A programme, under the theme ‘Understanding and appreciating regional integration,’ was organised by the Africa and Regional Integration Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration to afford Ghanaians the opportunity to reflect on the status of the regional integration process and the opportunities it provides.
Back to the basis for the decision of the Ghanaian government, GIPC law also states that: “In the case of trading enterprise involving only the purchasing and selling of goods, which is either wholly or partly owned by a non-Ghanaian, there shall be an investment of foreign capital, or its equivalence in goods worth at least $300,000.00 by way of equity capital, and the enterprise shall employ at least 10 Ghanaians. ”The Nigerian government has dismissed this sentiment as completely inconsiderate.
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone petty traders should not wait for the government to take such decisions on their behalf. But a UNDP/UNIDO Joint Private Sector Development Programme found out that compared to other countries in the sub-region with effective private sector associations, the major business associations in Sierra Leone are not sufficiently vibrant and proactive and they lack wide membership and the capacity to deliver to the expectations of their membership.
Consequently, a consultative forum for public-private dialogue does not exist for private sector voices to be heard prior to legal and administrative policy formulation processes. In the absence of such a forum, government policies and strategies cannot sufficiently reflect the views and concerns of the private sector.