Abuja, Nigeria – Perhaps nothing captures the sheer absurdity but real weight of the footballing rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana better than the appellation “Jollof Derby”.
For one, it tells of a very real, very storied rivalry between two nations, with nuanced geopolitical and socio-cultural undertones, has come to be represented by a spicy rice dish that originates in neither country, but among the Wolof people of Senegal and The Gambia.
Secondly, both countries are also separated by two others – Benin Republic and Togo – and therefore not direct neighbours, contrary to the sentiments of siblingship often expressed between them.
However, to think of it entirely in those terms would be to miss the spirit of this derby. It really is all about one-upmanship and has been so for decades, stretching to whatever lengths either side is willing to take it.
The first footballing encounters between Ghana and Nigeria date back to the 1950s, but it was Ghana’s passing of the Aliens Compliance Order in 1969 that led to a simmering of proper animosity between both nations. Naturally, and in the spirit of the rivalry, Nigeria would enact a similar law in 1983, enforcing a large-scale eviction of Ghanaian citizens.
A healthy rivalry
And so it has continued. When one side pioneers something, the other puts forward a competing alternative so both sides are trapped in a bizarre love-hate dance while, ironically enough, seeking the validation of the other.
Nothing is off-limits.
There have been arguments over the origins and influences of Afrobeats music, so much so that when popular Nigerian artist Oluwatosin “Mr Eazi” Ajibade, who had schooled in Kumasi, opined in 2017 that Nigerian Afrobeats was influenced by Ghanaian sound, he came under heavy censure from his countrymen.
More recently, there has also been petty beef between other more contemporary acts as well: Ghanaian musician Shatta Wale and Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy got into a heated online debate in 2021 about the former’s comments dissing Nigerian artistes, prompting the latter to offer to “fight one on one” in order to settle things.
The Jollof War is keenly contested as well, with everything from the type of rice and the amount of spice used as well as the presentation. Amusingly enough, it is a debate that has elicited reactions from diplomats and politicians alike, but there remains no proper consensus on which version is superior.
This desire for supremacy has also found expression in criminal practice, unfortunately. Nigeria has gained notoriety in international circles for the activities of internet fraudsters – known as “Yahoo Boys” – through the decades, and Ghana has felt the need to follow suit, with their “Sakawa Boys” increasingly offering stiff competition in that space.
Of course, given the shared colonial history between these two peoples, there are bound to be areas of cultural overlap, and these commonalities are often forgotten rather than celebrated.
However, neither side is eager to admit their similarities due to pride: the concept of one side being seen to look to the other for inspiration is close to taboo, as that would be a tacit admission of inferiority.
To concede ground in one area is to do so in all.
Winner takes all
The first leg of the Jollof derby failed to produce much spice and left fans unsatisfied after a goalless draw under loud and humid conditions in Kumasi.
In that 2022 World Cup qualifying playoff, the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi was bursting at the seams with spectators geared up for the visit of Nigeria, bullish in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
Not even the current state of Ghanaian football, which saw the Black Stars exit the Africa Cup of Nations in the group stage and led to mass disillusionment with the national team, has been enough to humble them.
The braggadocio was replicated on the other side, with Super Eagles captain Ahmed Musa boasting that Nigeria would “show them who is king” in advance of that tie.
Excluding friendlies and unofficial competitions, the tally of wins between Ghana and Nigeria currently stands at six apiece. Before the second leg in Abuja on Tuesday, the winner of the 51st instalment of this West African derby like no other, will have more than football supremacy as the prize.
The stakes are simply too high: first, a place at football’s biggest showpiece in Qatar, but perhaps just as importantly, also preventing an old frenemy from getting there. As far as bragging rights go, it’s a winner-takes-all situation.