In 1983, Nigeria expelled two million undocumented West African migrants, half of whom were from Ghana. The sturdy, checked bags into which they packed their belongings have become a symbol of exclusion and intolerance. Nearly four decades later, the region is yet to confront its emotional baggage.
It was the bags that made up Solomon “Acquaye” Asiedu’s mind. They were cheap, ordinary bags. They had no name and came in blue and red, in big and medium sizes, all checked. They were wanted in Lagos markets with an intensity never experienced before. Nigerian traders sold out of the bags as hundreds jostled to get as many as they could to pack their things into.
The bags had always been popular: they were big and spacious and sturdy enough for long-haul travel. But it was when people started calling them “Ghana must go” bags that the young man knew it was time to leave. The bags followed him home, as he crossed two countries to return to Ghana and, 36 years later, they still stare at him from stores on every corner — with the same cursed name. They represent a period of despair that many Ghanaians would rather forget.
“I was not ready to leave,” said Acquaye, now 67. “I had just one bag with me.”
The year was 1983, the day, January 17. Acquaye had just listened to Shehu Shagari, the Nigerian leader who favoured long hats, declare the expulsion of an estimated two million undocumented migrants living in the country. Half of them were Ghanaian. “If they don’t leave, they should be arrested and tried and sent back to their homes. Illegal immigrants, under normal circumstances, should not be given any notice whatsoever,” President Shagari said. Acquaye and millions like him with no papers were told to get out within two weeks or risk jail. “If you break a law, then you have to pay for it,” said the president.
Refugees leaving Nigeria wait at the boarder to enter Benin as part of their journey back to Ghana (Photo by Michel Setboum/Getty Images)
Two years before, Acquaye had arrived in Nigeria with zero cash and a hundred hopes. He had followed the road trail leading through Aflao in Ghana to Lomé in Togo and then onwards through the Seme border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. He wasn’t the only one, clicking his tongue at the memory. “That time everybody was going. There was money in Nigeria.”
There was indeed. In 1958, Nigeria struck oil as a young, soon-to-be-liberated country with a population of 100-million. First Shell, then Mobil and Agip set up shop in the country to drill oil commercially.
The oil money was steady and hopes were high that Nigeria could prosper, despite the brutal military regimes that marred that period. In the 1970s the economy exploded when oil prices soared worldwide. The golden decade had arrived and the country became Africa’s wealthiest, securing its title: Giant of Africa. By 1974, Nigeria’s oil wells were spitting out some 2.3-million barrels a day. The standard of living improved. There was an influx of people from the farms into the cities; when they travelled, robust iron boxes were generally preferred over cheap plastic sacks. The influx came not just from within Nigeria, but from across the region.
“Ghana was hell. Nothing was working in this country.”
While Nigeria was booming, its closest English-speaking neighbour, Ghana, was going through quite the opposite. A deadly mix of famine and insurgency was precipitated by a crash in the price of cocoa (Ghana was the world’s largest cocoa producer in the 1960s) and the 1966 coup, which ousted independence leader Kwame Nkrumah. At the time, the country’s population hovered around the seven-million mark, but several million people decided to journey east and try their fortunes in prosperous Nigeria.
“Ghana was hell,” said Dr Mawuli Adjei, a retired English lecturer from the University of Ghana. Ghana was close to a failed state and, like Acquaye, Adjei was forced to leave. “Nothing was working in this country,” Adjei said, speaking from the garden chair of his Accra home. Money was hard to come by and when he did have it, he couldn’t use it. Food was scarce: he couldn’t buy even a tin of milk. At grocery stores, queues were common.
Recruiters from Nigeria came to Ghana looking for people who would like to teach or take up casual jobs — the jobs Nigerians themselves were unwilling to do. But Adjei, jobless even with a degree, had missed the call. Determined, he travelled on his own to the Yoruba town of Ejigbo, in Nigeria’s west and stayed with an uncle. Ejigbo felt like home — many here were also from Ghana and Adjei’s mother tongue, Ewe, flowed like wine from their mouths.
Unlike Adjei, Acquaye was uneducated. That didn’t stop him from making it in Lagos, then the capital city, where big money was rolling in. He made enough to send back to his wife and child. His first job was moulding building blocks. He landed another as a guard in Victoria Island, an elite suburb, where he opened gates for important people. He loved the calm. It was so quiet that, in some places, certain cars were not allowed to move so that they wouldn’t disturb the rich folks.
So many Ghanaians went to Nigeria that it seemed like every Ghanaian family had a relative working there. Across the 19 states that existed then — there are now 36 — primary and secondary schools were filled with Ghanaian teachers, who were well known for their thoroughness and their pankeres — the long, supple beating sticks wrapped lovingly in sticky tape for added sting. Law offices, shoe repair shops, ice cream parlours, restaurants and brothels were flooded with neighbours from the west.
Life was good. Acquaye was lucky to secure a small room meant for domestic workers in one of the mansions that lined Kofo Abayomi Street. There, he made friends with “big” men: “I even knew Captain Gowon Junior. I knew him!” Acquaye swears, jumping at the memory. Captain Isaiah Gowon is the younger brother of General Yakubu Gowon, the one-time military head of state. “He was staying at the Plateau state governor’s house and I was there as a security man.”
On the weekends, he joined the large crowds watching criminals being executed at Bar Beach. Then he ate banku, a Ghanaian specialty, and drank with friends. Even on his small salary, things were affordable. “I [would go] to Agege market to buy food for the whole week and it would not reach five naira,” he recalls incredulously.
And then came the oil crash. Global oil prices started to dip in 1982, when large consumer markets such as the United States and Canada slipped into recession and demand was low. By 1983, the price of a barrel had fallen to $29, down from $37 in 1980. At around the same time, the US began producing its own oil, further cutting demand and causing excess supply. Nigeria, its economy almost exclusively reliant on oil, was hard hit. By 1982, 90% of the country’s foreign reserves had been wiped out, according to the Washington Post.
Food prices skyrocketed and salaries became erratic. Adjei, who had taken up a job as a public teacher in Kishi, western Nigeria, felt the pinch: state governments could only pay salaries after two months. Poor policy decisions at the highest level of government only made things worse. Ghana’s nightmare was being replayed in Nigeria.
As it began to feel the crunch, Nigeria started to turn inwards. By 1982, politicians started to use words like “aliens” in their manifestos in preparation for the 1983 general elections. They blamed African migrants, especially Ghanaians, for the flailing economy. Ghanaians had taken all the jobs and brought crime to Nigeria and, if elected, they would chase them out, they promised.
It didn’t take long for this animosity to spill over into relations between Nigerians and Ghanaians. Acquaye heard stories of Ghanaians being physically harassed and tried to keep out of trouble. Even with a weakening economy, Lagos’ Victoria Island was a gift and most people were nice to him. So when the announcement came that morning of January 17, Acquaye was stunned. He doesn’t remember now how much it cost to get the legal papers, but he had not bothered about it until then — no one really had.
At first Acquaye thought he could avoid leaving. Ghana was still unstable with a military regime that was battling uprisings. He had no reason to go back. But after the announcements, the hostilities had grown. Rumours spread that the government had ordered locals to beat up any illegal Ghanaian still in the country by the January 31 deadline.
Those plastic checked bags were everywhere. Heavy-hearted, Acquaye packed some for a friend who decided to leave early to beat the crowds to the borders. By the 30th, Acquaye knew he couldn’t risk staying.
“I left there. I remember that it was the 31st I left, that was the last day. I left around 11.30 in the morning,” he said. “You’ll say you won’t go? If somebody kills you, who are you going to ask?”
The borders were a disaster, crammed with desperate people carrying chairs on their heads, dragging their checked bags and selling off whatever they couldn’t lift to make money to pay for fares that had doubled. Millions streamed out through any possible exit they could find — through Shaki, in western Nigeria, to northern Benin. Down south, at the Seme border in Lagos, stampedes would kill many. Dozens were loaded onto open haulage trucks headed for Ghana.
But Jerry Rawlings, Ghana’s military head of state, had ordered the borders with Togo closed, to desist coup plotters and insurgents, so there would be no passage for days. In response, Togo closed its border with Benin to avoid a refugee crisis. Cars stalled bumper to bumper from the Benin-Togo border to Lagos, with people caught in sweltering heat and without water. Diseases spread. The United States prepared to send in aid. The League of Red Cross Societies airlifted 500 tents, 10 000 blankets and thousands of buckets, according to the Washington Post.
There was one crucial difference: the Nigerians were rich.
The international community condemned Nigeria’s decision to expel foreigners, but Adjei is convinced it was long coming; that Nigeria’s leaders considered it an overdue and necessary payback.
When he was 14 and in elementary school, back in 1969, he had witnessed the then-Ghanaian prime minister, Kofi Busia, invoke the Aliens Compliance Order and deport an estimated 2.5-million undocumented African migrants, the majority of whom were Nigerians.
The Nigerians had grown annoyingly enterprising, their business acumen sharper, to the detriment of Ghanaian businesses. Even in Ghana’s instability, Nigerian traders managed to have everything — and at cheaper prices — Adjei said.
The resulting fear shook the Nigerians affected. Most had intermarried, and traced their roots back to trade relationships between the two regions, even before colonial rule.
There was one crucial difference between the Nigerians expelled from Ghana in 1969 and the Ghanaians expelled from Nigeria in 1983: the Nigerians had money, said Green Ndume, a Nigerian media entrepreneur who has lived in Ghana for a decade. “I’ve interacted with those who were affected. Unlike the artisans and teachers expelled in Nigeria, they were rich. They were traders in kola nut who made big money and built houses. They left their houses or sold them cheaply.”
Nonetheless, in their haste to flee, the Nigerian deportees suffered. “I saw what it was. They were stuck at the Aflao [Togo] border. People died there and it was a humanitarian issue,” Adjei said. The government’s announcement had emboldened ordinary Ghanaians, who taunted the foreigners. Even before the deadline, Adjei remembered chants of: “Go home, go home! What are you still doing here?”
The deadlock in 1983 was finally broken by Ghana which reopened its borders and sent ships to Cotonou in Benin to reduce the numbers travelling by road. Many fell into the sea because of the sheer volume of people scrambling for a place on the ships.
Squeezed into one of those ships, Acquaye looked around, marking fallen faces and identifying people he knew. “All my friends [were there]. I saw my brother too. I didn’t even know he was in Nigeria, we met in the ship.”
He went back to farming and raised six more kids through Ghana’s bad times. Nowadays, he prefers to remember the exodus in 1983 with grace. “What will you do?” he asks. “The person who owns his thing is ready to take it from you, you don’t have anything to say, you just give him.”
Adjei is not so forgiving, not for what Ghana did and not for how Nigeria returned the favour. He had left his teaching job in 1984 as Nigeria crumbled and headed to Libya to teach English. A year later, then military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria’s current president) announced another expulsion — this time, of all foreigners, including those who had residence permits. About 700 000 were again forced out.
It was another stab in the back for a Ghana that was already doubled over. In neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, where Ghanaians had once migrated to en masse, the phrase tombé comme le Ghana (fallen like Ghana) became a common idiom. The country’s economy suffered some more before a steep climb up after interventions from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The tit-for-tat expulsions haunted relations between Ghana and Nigeria for many years. They still do. Even though Nigerian music plays on Ghanaian radio stations every morning, Ghanaian actors are a Nollywood staple and trade between the two countries is in ruddy health, Nigeria has never officially apologised to Ghana for 1983 and 1985 and Ghana has never apologised for 1969.
Adjei blames bad leaders who, he said, in their failure to deliver, whip up nationalist sentiments and use foreigners as scapegoats, even though there is little evidence to suggest that the absence of foreigners leads to a healthier economy. “What they did was unethical, illegal and just some kind of populist nonsense and they got the population behind them,” he said. “It’s very easy because the majority of citizens are so vulnerable, easy to manipulate and they buy into these things and say ‘Yes, we’re suffering because these people are here.’”
The Nigerian anti-foreigner directives happened despite the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) protocols, introduced the decade before, that allowed for some form of free movement for West Africans in the region, provided they have the right paperwork. But that’s not the point, argues Adjei: paperwork is foreign to the region, where people have, for centuries, moved around unencumbered by the often-arbitrary borders imposed by colonial powers.
Ghana’s banning order, meanwhile, was a betrayal of Nkrumah’s lauded pan-Africanism, he says.
But, like a song stuck on replay, anti-Nigerian sentiments are building up a second time.
For a younger generation, the tension is often expressed in friendly social media banter, and in debates on which country has the better accent or cooks the better jollof rice — a West African delicacy. The young ones do not remember much about the expulsions, apart from what their parents have told them, nor do they feel particularly vindictive. But the thoughts of “Ghana must go” linger. “[Nigeria] chased us away, and now we’re doing better,” a young, Accra-based journalist said matter-of-factly.
As Nigeria battles insurgents and a crumbling economy, present-day Ghana is stable — boosted by revenue from gold, cocoa and oil. Its electricity has attracted more foreign investors and more West Africans, including an estimated two million Nigerians (on the other hand, about 500 000 Ghanaians currently live in Nigeria). On almost every street is a store displaying Nigeria’s green and white flag, while markets in Makola and Kumasi vibrate with Yoruba and Igbo, Nigerian languages.
But, like a song stuck on replay, anti-Nigerian sentiments are building up a second time. In Kumasi, stores owned by Nigerians were forcefully shut last August for not complying with harsh national laws. The laws disregard ECOWAS agreements that encourage free trade.
In reality, said Ndume, the Nigerian media entrepreneur living in Ghana, it is because “locals feel like Nigerians are taking over, so they come up and ask Nigerians to leave their market”. Many point out that non-Africans, including Lebanese, Indians and Chinese who trade in the country, are treated less harshly.
Nigerians living in Ghana complain of being targeted and blamed for rising crime levels. A bad international reputation only gets worse: recently, a kidnapping case was linked to a Nigerian convict. Between 2021 and now, 723 Nigerians have been deported from Ghana for prostitution and “Yahoo Yahoo” or cybercrime.
Meanwhile, Ghana, keen on attracting a different group of people — not Africans, but from the black diaspora — continues to promote its Year of Return celebrations. This is a marketing stunt that plays on the brutal history of slavery; 2021 makes it 400 years since the first boat packed with enslaved Africans left the coasts of Ghana.
Acquaye hasn’t visited Nigeria since he left in 1983. He hasn’t had cause to and he doubts he ever will. But he treasures the memories regardless, he says, wandering away from the noise of the school where he now works as a security guard and down a hilly path from where he can see Accra sprawled over hilltops in the distance.
He has seen Ghana at its lowest, felt the rejection of being alien in Nigeria and is now baffled at the news of the Nigerian traders facing trouble in Kumasi. “If something is here and I meet it, I will buy. This is not force. To say you’re spoiling my market because you’re not from Ghana? Ah! How can one person sell everything?” he asks, his hands spread out, questioning.
He shakes his head, turns and lumbers back up the hill, past the stores still selling Ghana Must Go bags and back towards the school.