The political situation in both countries at the time
The late Shehu Shagari was then president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, an African giant in terms of its population size and economic might largely with the discovery of oil in the early 1950s through to the 70s.
Lagos, Nigeria’s capital at the time was a bubbling commercial and diplomatic center being the seat of government and an industrial hub.
Over in Ghana, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings was in charge having staged a second successful coup in 1981.
Rawlings had taken over from the man he handed over to, Dr. Hilla Limann (said to be a friend to Shagari), whose civilian government Rawlings accused of being weak and corrupt.
Ghanaians dominate as Nigeria drives out millions
According to statistics available to GhanaWeb, the Nigerian government in 1983 rounded up two million undocumented West African migrants with the view of expulsion from the country.
Half of the migrants it turned out were Ghanaians, some of who had built their entire lives – work, education and family – in Nigeria.
They were, however, forced to leave with an initial ultimatum of January 17, 1983 extended only till the 31st.
Why Shagari opted for a drastic move
In the South African Mail and Guardian newspaper article titled ‘Ghana Must Go: The ugly history of Africa’s most famous bag,’ Shola Lawal wrote of what motivated the then Nigerian president to settle on an expulsion order.
“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.
Nigeria’s oil boom and slump
Nigeria had gone from an oil boom around 1958 and peaked around 1974 when crude prices went through the roof.
Then came the oil crash in the early 1980s when prices crashed in the face of a global economic slowdown, things went south for the country and by 1982, Shagari had made expulsion of foreigners a policy position ahead of the 1983 general elections.
The Shagari campaign saw the move as a sort of reclaiming their land from the influx of outsiders who were benefitting at a time locals were struggling because of the worsening economy.
Rawlings takes hardline stance, shuts borders with Togo
Whiles January 17 was the date the expulsion order took effect, the government had given till January 31st for all ‘aliens’ to leave. As expected, border posts were going to be busy as Ghanaians willing to return by land needed to cross three border points.
First from Nigeria into Benin and Benin into Togo before the final lap from Togo into Ghana.
The then government of Ghana, however, triggered a border closure when JJ closed the Togo border citing security considerations. Togo did the same with its border with Benin.
Benin became the home of mass refugees aiming to enter Togo and onward to Ghana. The country had to endure a refugee crisis characterized by spreading illnesses and squalid conditions which drew support from international aid agencies.
“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,” the M&G article added.
A bag becomes defining symbol of the historic expulsion – Naijabiography.com
Ghana Must Go, called “Chinatown tote” in the USA and “Tuekenkoffer” in Germany, was named by Nigerians as a result of an ugly incident that happened between Nigeria and Ghana in 1983.
After being given short notice to leave Nigeria in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom were Ghanaians, crammed their things into these bags.
The bag was preferred by the desperate Ghanaians because it was easily collapsible to fit inside the pocket and had an incredible ability to provide an extra inch of space for one more thing.
Since then, no one has asked for “that weaved matted bag” at the market; instead, they have requested a Ghana Must Go, a phrase that is also used in Ghana, despite the sad memories it evokes for some.