About two million illegal migrants from Ghana were forcibly removed from Nigeria in 1983. They placed their belongings into the popular checked bags commonly known as “Ghana Must Go”, which have since come to represent exclusion and intolerance.
The bags were the ones that shaped Solomon “Acquaye” Asiedu’s perspective. They were inexpensive, everyday bags. They were all checked, came in big and medium sizes, and were available in blue and red.
Nigerian vendors sold all of the bags as crowds fought for the opportunity to cram their belongings into as many as they could.
The bags have traditionally been well-liked since they were roomy, strong, and suitable for long-distance travel.
But the young man realized it was time to depart when people began referring to them as “Ghana must go” suitcases.
The bags followed him home as he traveled through two nations before landing in Ghana, and 36 years later, they are still staring at him from shops on every corner with the same terrible name. They stand for a time of hopelessness that many Ghanaians would prefer to forget.
Acquaye, who is now 67, stated, “I was not prepared to leave.” “I was carrying just one bag”.
The day was January 17, 1983. Acquaye had just heard Shehu Shagari, the long-hat-loving leader of Nigeria, order the expulsion of the Ghana’s two million or so illegal immigrants. They were all half-Ghanaians. They should be arrested, tried, and deported back to their homes if they don’t leave.
Acquaye and the millions of people with no documentation were told to leave within two weeks or fear going to jail. The president declared, “If you breach a law, you have to pay for it.”
On their way back to Ghana, refugees leaving Nigeria stopped at the border to cross into Benin.
Acquaye had arrived in Nigeria two years prior with zero money and a thousand hopes. He had traveled down the road that passed via Aflao, Ghana, Lomé, Togo, and the Seme border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin before continuing on. At that time, everyone left. Money was available in Nigeria.
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As a young, rapidly approaching independent nation with a population of 100 million, Nigeria discovered oil in 1958. Agip, Mobil, and Shell all established offices in Nigeria to conduct commercial oil drilling after Shell.
Despite the terrible military governments that ruined that era, oil money was dependable and aspirations for Nigeria’s prosperity were high. Because of the global rise in oil prices in the 1970s, the economy surged.
The “golden decade” had begun, and the nation had grown to be the richest in all of Africa, earning it the moniker “Giant of Africa.” Nigerian oil wells were spewing out about 2.3 million barrels per day by the year 1974. The quality of life increased.
People from fields moved in droves to the cities; when they traveled, sturdy iron crates were typically preferred over inexpensive plastic sacks. The influx originated not only from Nigeria but also from other countries in the region.
At that time, Ghana was a horrible place, nothing was functioning.
While Nigeria was seeing economic growth, Ghana, its nearest English-speaking neighbor, was experiencing exactly the reverse.
The drop in cocoa prices (Ghana was the world’s largest cocoa producer in the 1960s) and the revolution that overthrew independence leader Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 were the main causes of the fatal confluence of famine and insurgency.
The population of the nation was around seven million at the time, but several million people made the decision to travel to the east and seek their fortunes in wealthy Nigeria.
Dr. Mawuli Adjei, a retired English instructor from the University of Ghana, claimed that Ghana was “hell.”
Adjei, like Acquaye, was compelled to leave Ghana because it was on the verge of collapse. From a garden chair in his Accra home, Adjei declared, “Nothing was working in this country.” When he did have money, he couldn’t use it because it was hard to come by. Food was scarce; he couldn’t even afford to buy a milk tin.
Nigerian recruiters travelled to Ghana in search of candidates willing to teach or work part-time jobs, something Nigerians themselves refused to perform. Adjei, who lacks employment despite having a degree, missed the call.
He travelled by himself to the Yoruba village of Ejigbo in western Nigeria and stayed with an uncle because he was determined. Many people in Ejigbo were also from Ghana, and their use of Adjei’s native tongue, Ewe, made it feel like home.
Acquaye had no formal education, unlike Adjei. That didn’t stop him from succeeding in Lagos, the country’s metropolis at the time, where large bucks were being made. He earned enough money to send his wife and child back home. Building block molding was his first job.
He found another job as a guard in the affluent neighborhood of Victoria Island.
It looked like every Ghanaian family had a member working in Nigeria because so many Ghanaians traveled there. Primary and secondary schools were staffed by Ghanaian instructors, who were renowned for their diligence.
At the time, there were 19 states; there are currently 36. Neighbors from the west flocked into law offices, shoe repair shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and brothels.
The quality of life was good. Acquaye was fortunate to get a modest room in one of the houses that lined Kofo Abayomi Street designated for domestic staff. He made “huge” men his pals there: “I even knew Captain Gowon Junior. I was familiar with him! Acquaye curses and flinches at the remembrance.
The former military leader General Yakubu Gowon’s younger brother is Captain Isaiah Gowon. I was working as a security guard while he was staying at the residence of the governor of the Plateau state.
He joined the big crowds who gathered at Bar Beach on the weekends to witness offenders being put to death. Then he ate the Ghanaian delicacy banku and enjoyed a drink with companions.
Then the oil crash happened. When significant consumer economies like the United States and Canada entered a recession and there was little demand, the price of oil began to fall globally in 1982.
The cost of a barrel dropped from $37 in 1980 to $29 in 1983. Around the same time, the US started producing its own oil, which further decreased demand and led to an overabundance of supplies.
Nigeria, whose economy is nearly entirely dependent on oil, was particularly heavily struck. According to the Washington Post, 90% of the country’s foreign reserves had been depleted by 1982.
Food costs increased, and wages started fluctuating. Adjei experienced hardship after accepting a position as a public educator in Kishi, western Nigeria: state governments could only pay salary after two months.
At the highest level of government, poor policy choices simply made the situation worse. Nigeria was seeing a repeat of Ghana’s horror at this point.
Nigeria started to turn inwards as it started to feel the pinch. Politicians began utilizing terms like “aliens” in their platform statements by 1982 in anticipation of the national elections in 1983.
They attributed the failing economy to African immigrants, particularly Ghanaians. If elected, they would drive out the Ghanaians who had taken over all the jobs and introduced crime to Nigeria.
This hostility quickly spread to the relationships between Ghanaians and Nigerians. Acquaye tried to avoid conflict after hearing reports of Ghanaians being physically abused. Lagos’ Victoria Island was a gift, even with the economy in decline, and most people were polite to him.
Acquaye was astounded when he heard the news on January 17 in the morning. He no longer recalls the cost of obtaining the legal documents, but up until that point, neither he nor anybody else had given it much thought.
At first, Acquaye believed he could stay put. With a military government fighting uprisings, Ghana was still in an unpredictable state. He didn’t have a cause to return.
There were tons of those plastic checked bags everywhere. Acquaye packed some for a buddy who made the difficult decision to go back to Ghana early in order to avoid the crowds at the borders. Acquaye realized he couldn’t take the chance of staying on the 30th.
“I walked away. The last day was the 31st, as far as I can recall. I departed at about 11:30 in the morning,” he claimed. You’re going to say you won’t go? Who will you ask if someone murders you?
The borders were a shambles, clogged with desperate people dragging their checked baggage, carrying chairs on their heads, and selling off anything they couldn’t move to raise money for the increased fares.
Millions of people fled via any opening they could find, passing through Shaki in western Nigeria and heading for northern Benin. Stampedes would often murder numerous people near the Seme border in Lagos, in the south. Hundreds were placed onto open-air delivery trucks and sent to Ghana.
There would be no passage for days because Jerry Rawlings, the military head of state of Ghana, had ordered the closure of the borders with Togo to thwart coup plotters and insurgents. Togo’s response was to seal up its border with Benin in order to prevent a refugee problem.
People were trapped in the burning heat and without access to water in cars that were backed up bumper to bumper from the Benin-Togo border to Lagos. Diseases propagate. The US was getting ready to provide assistance.
According to the Washington Post, the League of Red Cross Societies airlifted 5,000 blankets, 500 tents, and thousands of buckets.
One significant distinction stood out: Nigerians were wealthy.
The move to expel foreigners was widely denounced, but Adjei is confident it was long overdue and that Nigeria’s leaders saw it as necessary retaliation.
He had seen Ghana’s prime minister at the time, Kofi Busia, invoke the Aliens Compliance Order and deport an estimated 2.5 million undocumented African migrants, the majority of whom were Nigerians, while he was just 14 and in elementary school back in 1969.
Adjei claimed that despite Ghana’s unpredictability, Nigerian vendors were able to supply everything at lower costs.
The impacted Nigerians were shaken by the ensuing fear. The majority of them had married each other and could trace their ancestry to commercial ties that existed between the two regions even before colonial authority.
According to Green Ndume, a Nigerian media entrepreneur who has lived in Ghana for ten years, there was one significant distinction between the Ghanaians who were expelled from Nigeria in 1983 and the Nigerians who were expelled from Ghana in 1969: the Nigerians had money.
Nevertheless, the deported Nigerians suffered as a result of their eagerness to escape. “I could make it out. At the border with Togo in Aflao, they were stranded.
There were deaths there, and it was a humanitarian concern, according to Adjei. Ordinary Ghanaians were empowered by the government’s declaration and began making fun of the foreigners. Before the deadline, Adjei recalled hearing people yell, “Go home, go home! What are you doing here still?
Ghana, which extended its borders and sent ships to Cotonou, Benin, to minimize the amount of people traveling by road, finally broke the impasse in 1983. The overwhelming number of people vying for a spot on the ships caused many to fall into the water.
As Nigeria fell apart in 1984, he quit his job as a teacher and moved to Libya to start teaching English. A year later, Nigeria’s current president, General Muhammadu Buhari, who was then in charge of the military, declared the expulsion of all foreigners, including those with valid visas. Again, about 700,000 people were ejected.
For a Ghana that was already bent over, it was a further wounding. The expression “fallen like Ghana” had become a frequent idiom in the neighboring country of Côte d’Ivoire, where Ghanaians once migrated in large numbers.
For many years, the tit-for-tat incidents plagued Ghana and Nigerian ties. They continue to. Even though Ghanaian radio stations play Nigerian music every morning, Ghanaian actors are common in Nollywood, and trade between the two nations is booming, neither Ghana nor Nigeria has ever formally apologized to the other for the events of 1969.
Younger generations frequently vent their strain through polite social media banter and arguments over whether nation has a better accent or makes the best jollof rice, a delicacy from West Africa.
Apart from what their parents have told them, the children don’t recall much about the expulsions and don’t feel particularly vengeful.