Over a million Ghanaians were asked to leave Nigeria and return to Ghana exactly 40 years ago, in 1983, giving rise to the “Ghana Must Go” mantra.
Three million Nigerians and other African and non-African immigrants were asked to leave Ghana under the “Ghana Aliens Compliance Order” law enacted by Ghana’s Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia in 1969, despite accounting for 20% of the country’s population at the time.
In January 1983, President Shehu Shagari issued an executive order expelling two million undocumented West African migrants, more than half of whom were Ghanaians.
The order was allegedly issued in response to religious riots that engulfed parts of the country in 1980 (the Kano Riots) and 1981.
These West African immigrants had been drawn to Nigeria by the oil boom of the 1970s, but by 1983, the economy had weakened and it was election season.
Nigerian politicians hoped that the expulsion would be well received.
Across Nigeria, up to two million migrants were warned that if they did not comply, they would face arrest, prosecution, and forced deportation.
They crammed everything they could into trucks, cars, pick-up trucks, and taxis and tried to flee the country as soon as possible.
The main route to Ghana was westward, via Benin and Togo. Following an attempted coup the previous year, President Jerry John Rawlings closed Ghana’s mainland border (Aflao) with Togo, and Togo then closed its borders with Benin to avoid a sudden influx of returnees.
As a result, once the returnees arrived in Benin, their options were limited, and they were forced to remain in the port of Cotonou, hoping to find a boat to Ghana.
Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Ghanaians, gathered at the border between Benin and Togo, two small African countries.
The road back to Ghana had come to a halt, hopelessly clogged with vehicles and a swarm of refugees, while the border remained closed for the time being.
Ghana’s government had legitimate concerns that the country, with a population of around 12 million people at the time, would be unable to handle such an influx.
Its economy was already in a state of disarray at the time. Food was scarce. There were bushfires and a severe drought.
After more than a week of being stranded, with many running out of money and going hungry, Ghana reopened its borders, prompting Togo to do the same, allowing Ghanaians to return home.
During the migrants’ return to Ghana, a type of large cheap matted woven nylon chequered bag used to transport their belongings was dubbed “Ghana Must Go.”
The bags are still very popular in Nigeria, Ghana, and other West African countries today.
Ghana and Nigeria’s relationship has improved over the years.