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Did you know that Nigeria organized the largest, single and worst human exodus in the 20th century? This is the story.


There is virtually no Nigerian who has come of age today anywhere in the world who has not heard of ‘Ghana Must Go’. This can either be in reference to the famed and colourful bags many Nigerians come into contact with on a daily basis or the real Ghana Must Go phenomenon itself. But what truly happened? Why did fellow Africans turn on each other? Why did an angry Nigerian president issue an order of immediate deportation of over two million Africans from the world’s most populous black nation?  Before I start to narrate what happened, it will be quite helpful, I believe, to also provide some background information.

Nigerians and Ghanaians have deep love (some also say intense rivalry) for each other, and that stands till this very moment. Few weeks ago, the president-elect of Ghana, Nana Akufo Addo was sworn in and on hand to give him the fullest support was the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Muhammadu Buhari. Although far from each other and separated by French-speaking Togo and Benin, Ghana and Nigeria have always been natural allies.

Nigeria (orange) and Ghana (green) on the map.

Both were colonized by Britain, many pre-independence leaders of both nations (Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo for example) were best of friends who attended the same school. Various Nigerian military leaders attended the military academy at Teshie and after independence, both nations regarded themselves as the shining symbols of black power and role models of the continent.

Based on these and other factors, connections between the two nations have always been there. We do business together and there is virtually no Nigerian family you will meet today who will not have one thing or the other to do with Ghana or Ghanaians. Some of us even have ancestors from Ghana and vice versa. My private lesson teacher as a secondary school student was educated in Ghana and he definitely did a superb job of activating my brain cells. I am forever grateful to him and my parents who hired him. The immediate past president of the country, John Dramani Mahama ,was raised by a Yoruba stepmother, now deceased, from Offa, Kwara State and when he visited her grave in the state, the whole town went gaga to receive their son. Therefore, the links are really deep.

This show of friendship and mutual goodwill did not end after Nigeria got independence and continued even into the administration of Nigeria’s first elected executive president Aliyu Usman Shagari. The Nigeria-Ghana relationship was so warm that Shagari was on hand to receive the president of Ghana, Limann, at the Lagos International Airport.

Below is a video of the visit and the grand welcome given to the visiting head of state.


In the 1970s, Nigeria was experiencing the oil boom, we had so much money the government went crazy. At about the same time, Ghana was going through serious economic turmoil and by 1979, Flight Lieutenant Jerry J Rawlings had taken over, handed to civilians, and in 1983, he took over again. This combination of political and economic turmoil triggered the influx of Ghanaians to Nigeria. They simply came in search of the legendary greener pasture. And Big Brother Nigeria had the money and the large heart to accommodate them.

Jerry Rawlings

In May 1979, the ECOWAS Protocol of Free Movement of Persons and Goods was signed and it abolished the visa requirements for the nationals of member states travelling to other states in the subregion for a period of 90 days.

Even though many aliens had been heading toward the great nation of Nigeria since the oil boom in the early 1970s, the ratification of this protocol enabled even more other aliens from Chad, Niger, Cameroon and other neighbouring nations to seek solace in our country. By the time Rawlings destabilize the government again in his second coup, thousands of Ghanaians simply fled their country and headed to Nigeria where a corrupt and inefficient immigration system meant entering was as easy as making donkunu.

For this reason, most of the immigrants who came after the middle of mid-1979 did not have any valid documents or even work permits, which was against the laws of Nigeria. This was not seen as an issue then and many Ghanaians were able to get gainful employment. Many of them became teachers, nurses, carpenters, building contractors and architects. A huge chunk of them got jobs in small-scale industrial firms like hotels, bakeries and poultry farms where they worked mainly as domestic workers.

For those on the lowest rung of the immigrant society, they went for other menial jobs like shoemaking, tailoring or making the popular Ghanaian delicacies like donkunu for sale. Everyone seemed happy but the honeymoon was not going to last.


The Nigerian government did not just wake up one day to evict the aliens, there were a number of factors that all crystallized and led to the dramatic expulsion. The following factors are:

  1. THE MAITATSINE UPRISING OF DECEMBER 1980: This was the second most tragic event in the history of Nigeria after the Nigerian civil war and Nigeria’s first large-scale armed religious conflict (I wrote about it extensively HERE). When this tragedy happened, the man at the head of it all, Mallam Muhammed Marwa alias Maitatsine was an illegal immigrant from Cameroon and 20% of his bloody followers who participated in the killings were also aliens from neighbouring African nations such as Chad, Niger, Mali, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. The same scenario is what is happening with Boko Haram today, when you have loose borders, anything will pass through. As at that time, the widespread belief among Nigerians was that the illegal immigrants posed a major existential threat to the country, the same way Donald Trump and millions of Americans see Mexicans and other immigrants today. Millions of Nigerians believed the government had to do something swift considering the ‘immigrant question.’
  2. THE POLITICAL ANGLE: Shagari’s government knew the expulsion was going to be a very popular move, it was something Nigerians wanted and actively demanded for, and as a politician heading a derelict government overseeing a comatose economy, Shagari did not waste time in grabbing the opportunity.

    President Shehu Shagari.

  3. RAWLINGS-SHAGARI ‘BEEF’: Recall that I said earlier that Nigeria-Ghana relationship was warm but this friendly feeling soon turned sour when Ghana Air Force Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings overthrew the elected government of President Hilla Limann, an ideological ally of President Shagari on the 31st of December 1981. Shagari was furious with the Rawlings junta and gladly agreed to any move to destabilize it. Expelling one million Ghanaians and flooding the small country all of a sudden causing a massive humanitarian and social problem for Rawlings seemed like an excellent idea to the Nigerian president.

Shagari saw Rawlings as a radical quasi-Soviet figure. The relationship deteriorated so badly that in early 1982 Rawlings raised an alarm that the Nigerian government was planning to invade Ghana in order to reinstall the deposed Limann to power. Ghanaians believed this although there is no evidence to prove this. From the time Rawlings took power till the moment Shagari ordered the expulsion, relationship got worse. For almost four months after the coup in Ghana, the Nigerian federal government stopped the shipment and sale of crude oil to Ghana in an attempt to destabilize the military government of Jerry Rawlings. The Ghanaian military headed decided to also act and from March until December 1982, Nigerian citizens in Ghana were subjected to harassment and detention and Nigeria retaliated by also deporting some Ghanaians. That was the first step in the game.

On the 10th of January, 1982, many Nigerians were harassed, arrested and detained in Ghana and one of them happened to be an officer of the Nigerian Air Force. That was not all. On 13th of April, 1982, a Nigerian woman was arrested for no obvious reason, according to the Nigerian government, and all her cash, about $6,000 that time was confiscated by officers of the Ghanaian immigration. Allies turned enemies.

Later on, when the Nigerian government decided to resume the sale of crude oil to Ghana, it was strictly on a cash basis, instead of the 180-day credit terms given to the Limann government. Then the systematic deportation started. Ghanaians found guilty of fraud and other criminal offences where expelled.

Between July 19 and November 1982, two Ghanaians, Raymond Kodzo Okuzed was accused of scamming some state governments to the tune of one million naira and Reverend Victor Sackey who confessed that he had been sent by Rawlings to spy on Nigeria. Eighty Ghanaians without valid papers and visible means of livelihood were all deported in October and by November, another 53 were deported. The Rawlings government kicked and said the deportations were unfair as the Ghanaians had been invited by their Nigerian employers. But all these would not trigger the mass expulsion until something really dramatic happened.

  1. ARMED ROBBERS AT EKWUEME’S HOUSE: The final act and major trigger for the mass deportations was the attempt by armed robbers to break into the residence of the Nigerian Vice President Alexander Ekwueme. By the time the Nigerian police nabbed the suspects, Ghanaians were among them and they had their identity papers. Immediately, the Nigerian government directed the Ministry of Internal Affairs to take swift action against ‘the menace of the Ghanaians and other illegal aliens in Nigeria.

    Vice President Ekwueme from Nigeria is welcomed upon his arrival for a visit to the United States.

  2. DWINDLING ECONOMY: The Shagari government, in my opinion, was so corrupt that even a combination of the rot in Muhammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan’s governments is nothing compared to what went on in Nigeria’s Second Republic. It was no surprise that the oil boom of the 1970s swiftly became the oil doom of the 1980s. With the legendary mismanagement and large-scale pilfering that went on at every level of the Shagari government, it was only a matter that the economy was going to collapse and when it did, the illegal immigrants became the easy scapegoats.

To make things worse, there was a global economic recession just as we are experiencing today and unstable global oil prices wreaked havoc on Nigerians. As President Ronald Reagan of the United States pressed on with his policies of decontrolling oil prices, the Nigerian economy bled at the other end. When the oil prices increased in the 1970s, the government went on a spending spree feeling the honeymoon was going to last forever. Those who raised concerns about the dangers of relying on oil, like Obafemi Awolowo, were swiftly dismissed as ‘enemy of progress’ by the Shagari government (Awolowo was leader of the opposition UPN) which kept lying to Nigerians that all was well, they kept spending to remain popular and win votes.

Shagari pumped billions into building a new capital city of Abuja, military expansion and into steel projects in Ajaokuta and Aladja but much of the money went into private pockets. Shagari was spending like a maniac, the little reserves Nigeria had, he felt it was time to build a National Mosque and National Church (now called National Ecumenical Centre) and he called the religious leaders and gave them millions to start the construction. Unknown to many Nigerians, it was not military president Ibrahim Babangida who started the National Mosque but Shagari.

His government was so profligate and extravagant that we are yet to fully recover. The Second Republic was a time when the senate was allocating money to buy champagne, it was the time when people like senate president Joseph Wayas and the father of the current senate president Olusola Saraki were living like kings milking the Nigerian populace to no end. The corruption of the Second Republic is story for another day.

By the beginning of 1980, it was very clear that Nigeria was in trouble, oil could no longer do the magic. To make the matters worse, the response of Shagari to the steep economic decline was so chaotic, inefficient and disorganized that he did not achieve anything reasonable. He decided to do things like looking for scapegoats and the lot quickly fell on the poor immigrants. They were blamed for everything wrong with Nigeria, from unemployment to economic downturn to soaring crime rates.

  1. SHEER REVENGE: During the reign of Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia in November 1969, about 200,000 aliens majorly Nigerians (who numbered 140,000) (and others from Togo, Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso) were speedily deported out of Ghana using what was called the Aliens Compliance Order of 18th November 1969. If you want to know more about why and how Busia did this, read this very enlightening piece HERE  

Busia was the leader of the opposition against Kwame Nkrumah and once he was in power he did not waste time to undo all the legacies of Nkrumah so he implemented mass deportations of Nigerians and even went on to anger his people by devaluing the cedi by 44% in 1971. Busia blamed the Nigerian immigrant community for the various ills besetting Ghana and his people praised the move saying it was going to bring more jobs and rid their society of crime.

‘On 19 November, 1969, the government of Ghana made an announcement that it would enforce the Aliens Compliance Order by which all aliens without valid residence permit were ordered to quit the country within fourteen days, that is, latest by 2 December, 1969. The Quit Order which was promulgated by the Kofi Busia’s government earlier on Tuesday, 18 November, 1969 stated that: It has come to the notice of the Government that several aliens, both Africans and non-Africans in Ghana, do not possess the requisite residence permits in conformity with the laws of Ghana. There are others, too, who are engaging in business of all kinds contrary to the term of their visiting permits. The Government has accordingly directed that all aliens in the first category, that is those without residence permits, should leave Ghana within fourteen days that is not later than December 2, 1969. Those in the second category should obey strictly the term of their entry permits, and if these have expired they should leave Ghana forthwith. The Ministry of Interior has been directed to comb the country thoroughly for defaulting aliens and aliens arrested for contravening these orders will be dealt with according to the law. ‘

Nigeria will remember this old wound in the 1980s although the real reason for the expulsion was a toxic combination of other sociopolitical and economic factors. Although some Nigerians will say Ghana did the deportation first (which is true), I must stress here that was not the reason for Nigeria’s expulsion. You will agree that the time frame between Busia’s expulsion and Shagari’s executive order was too considerable for the exodus to simply be dismissed as an act of revenge. Busia’s action might have been a corollary at best when the Nigerian powers were making the decision in Lagos.

  1. ECOWAS INNER RUMBLING: Another factor that cemented the fate of the Ghanaians was that in May 1982, there was an ECOWAS Summit in Cotonou, Republic of Benin and the decision was that protocol on free movement of peoples and the right of establishment among ECOWAS member states was to be developed at the next summit of regional ECOWAS leaders scheduled for May 1983. Nigeria was not going to have any of that. When the Minister of Internal Affairs went on air to announce the expulsion, this was one of the reasons he gave. He said Nigeria needed to review her position in ECOWAS for the meantime.


On Monday, the 17th of January 1983, the Shagari government exploded with anger against the immigrants. The Nigerian Federal Government’s Minister of Internal Affairs Alhaji Ali Baba bounced on stage and dropped the bombshell. He said all the 2-3 million illegal immigrants in the Federal Republic of Nigeria had just 14 days to leave the country. Instantly, there was serious panic in the alien community, about half of the people in this category were all from Ghana, that is around over one million Ghanaians alone. Others came from other parts of Africa. None of them really saw it coming. What followed the announcement by the minister was what was described as the worst international and humanitarian crisis for Nigeria since the end of the civil war in 1970. While appealing to the private sector, the minister added that:

…after January 31, 1983, government agents would commence inspecting commercial, industrial and household establishments with a view to flushing out the defaulting aliens.

Mamman Vatsa with President Shehu Shagari.


How do I even describe how the world reacted to Nigeria following the announcement of the forceful deportation? Okay, can you see how much of the world is reacting to the banning order of President Donald Trump of the United States of America and his plan to deport nine million illegal immigrants? That was exactly how the world reacted against Nigeria. On a lighter note, can we say Mr. Trump is simply learning from Nigeria? Because what he wants to execute, Nigeria did it in a matter of weeks. Back then, the hostility was so sharp, stinging and swift that many Nigerians were actually shocked because it was a popular decision locally and millions of Nigerians jubilated when Shagari gave the executive order. African neighbours became very hostile while international allies did not waste time to heap the most vitriolic condemnations on the Shagari government.

The United States Department of State said the expulsion order was:

…shocking and a violation of every imaginable human right.’ According to the European Community, it was a very deplorable thing to do. The head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II said of it:

…a grave, incredible drama producing the largest single, and worst human exodus in the 20thcentury.

That was not all, from the United Kingdom came more acidic words of furious disagreement. Michael Foot, the Opposition Leader in the British House of Commons blasted a letter to the Nigerian High Commissioner in London and lamented furiously that the expulsion of aliens was nothing but:

an act of heartlessness, and a failure of common humanity.

The Western mass media descended on Nigeria and their attacks were even more lethal. The Guardian (London) fired an editorial titled ‘Inhumane and Heading For Disaster’ in which it described the Shagari executive order as ‘inhumanity, high-handedness and irresponsibility,’, Daily Mail lambasted President Shagari for

defying world opinion despite alarming television pictures of misery, destruction and deaths among the fleeing aliens. It also made the point that illegal aliens were being used as scapegoats for the political and socioeconomic failures of the Nigerian government and that xenophobia in Nigeria, never in short supply, may be building up to a crescendo.

If you think that was all the acid Nigeria got on her face over the deportation order, then you are mistaken. The move was considered so extreme and wicked that Pieter Botha, the former apartheid government leader in South Africa, likened President Shagari to Adolf Hitler saying the expulsion was similar to the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ in ‘Nazi Germany’.

In fact, some of the white right-wing groups in South Africa considered to be the very symbol of hatred denounced Shagari and condemned him saying the way he was handling the illegal aliens as worse than the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Series of articles were launched in the London Observer and the London Times referring to the deaths of hundreds of fleeing Ghanaians and the torture, robbery, extortion and beating they were subjected to. Some of the foreign papers went ahead to talk of an imminent bloodbath in the country.

The criticism launched by the British press against Nigeria was no match with that of the French, who fired the most hostile criticism. For those who knew the role of France in the Nigerian Civil War, this did not really come as a surprise when Jeune Afrique ran La Honte (The Shame) on its front page describing the expulsion order in the darkest manner calling it:

an act of barbarism unparalleled in the world.

In the United States, the media went with the goriest stories imaginable accusing the Nigerian military, police and civilians of robbing, attacking, harassing and destroying the property of the aliens.

In Ghana, the media too was very active and as expected, the response was equally fiery. As far as the Ghanaian Times was concerned, the NPN-controlled government was only engaging in an ‘electoral gimmick’ in order to divert the attention of the populace from its overwhelming failure so as to win in the August/September 1983 elections. It said the expulsion order was a well-orchestrated attempt to ‘create mass hysteria by infiltrating Sudan-trained mercenaries into Ghana to subvert the Ghanaian government.

The head of state of Ghana and military dictator, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings roared and described the order as a ‘calculated plot’ to bring down his regime.


If they don’t leave they should be arrested and tried and sent back to their homes. Illegal immigrants, in fact, under normal circumstances, should not be given any notice whatsoever.” – PRESIDENT SHEHU SHAGARI

Despite these heavy torrents of criticism, the Shagari-led government of Nigeria called the bluff of the entire world and pressed on with the deportation. It was a very hasty exercise and as expected, there were tragic missteps. As that Ghanaians rushed onto the ships at Apapa Port, many of them lost hold of the freighters and fell into the sea in the maddening rush and drowned.

WAVING BYE TO NIGERIA: Ghanaians crammed on one of the ships at the Apapa Port, heading straight home.

Some others who did not die at sea died from sheer exhaustion and hunger after walking for several days across the border. The sudden influx of people, 75% of whom were in their mid-twenties had a real impact on the entire West African subregion.

Charles Ekwere was an illegal Ghanaian immigrant working in Lagos as an assistant sales manager for a chemical firm, he narrated his experience:

Someone told me that there was a deadline. That minister is about to handover every power to every civilian. That any civilian could do anything to any alien in the country. And it was that threat that after the deadline every Nigerian citizen could take action against foreigners. After deadline he gave power to every Nigerian citizen. We had nowhere to hide in Nigeria because wherever you’re staying you are staying with Nigerians. So that made everyone scared. When we were about to reach Benin, about two kilometres to the border people have been camping there on both sides of the road. Some had no water. And some have stayed there for so long that they have run out of money. When we reached the borders all the people got down. People had a lot of personal belongings.

A lot of people blamed government. You know, when people are repatriating and you still close the border; some of them have been there for two months and over.

But once we reached Ghana I remember we had to go and look for coconut, because that was the only available food we could find at the border towns. At the border towns the things were very expensive.

We had these overhead bridges. You could see on top of the bridges some blood scattered all over. Many ones were coming during the night. The trucks were filled with personal belongings, so there were sittings at the edges of the trucks and some of them would be hit in the head against the overhead bridges. A lot of people died on their road to Ghana.” On getting to his father’s village, Charles said:

It was a very warm welcome. They were relieved. When I crossed Ghana’s border I swore to myself I won’t get back to Nigeria. Even if I have to travel it won’t be Nigeria.

Ghanaians rushed into cattle trucks, taxis, cabs, lorries while others fled on foot. It was a desperate long walk back home across Benin and Togo. Because of the swiftness of the order, the enforcement by Nigerian authorities and the short deadline, most of the shocked Ghanaians had little or no time to gather anything so they had to pack whatever constituted their belongings into the colourful bags which were then referred to as ‘Ghana Must Go Bags.

Many of the immigrants besieged the port city of Cotonou hoping to catch a boat. The queues were endlessly long. To make matters more horrible, Rawlings had closed the main land crossing with Togo because of an attempted coup in 1981 and in order to prevent the sudden influx, Togo too decided to shut its borders with Benin which shares a border with Nigeria. All of a sudden, the Ghanaian refugees were stuck again in the middle of nowhere massed along the borders of two tiny African states of Togo and Benin. Rawlings later opened the borders and people flowed in like water.


So how did Ghana and the people of Ghana react to this humiliation? Well, I will say in the most logical way possible. For one, the leader of the Ghanaians, Jerry Rawlings stepped up and took control of the situation. He visited the seaport and gave rousing speeches to welcome his citizens and assure them that his government would do everything possible to assist the returnees from Ghana.

Rawlings descending from one of the ships bringing Ghanaians home in Tema.

Returnees from Nigeria at the Tema Harbour, 27 January 1983


Nigeria’s reputation in Africa and on the global stage suffered a massive hit. The move was universally condemned in the strongest terms and it seemed like the only people who supported the controversial move were the Nigerians themselves. Even at that, not all Nigerians were so convinced it made any sense. Some worried officials at the Ministry of External (now Foreign) Affairs (a body crucial to the establishment of ECOWAS) felt it was too reckless a move which was going to damage the great image Nigeria had manage to construct over the years. They also complained Shagari did not even consult them (Ministry of External Affairs).

Some of these Nigerian officials were so flabbergasted that they threatened to resign, they complained loudly and raised alarm over the welfare of Nigerians in other parts of West Africa and Africa, and they had good points because at that point, there were 1.5 million Nigerians in Sudan alone, a nation far poorer than Nigeria.

As for the Nigerian press, it was a praise galore for the Shagari government, the press popularized the ‘Ghana Must Go’ concept and supported the move due to an obscure mix of patriotism and ignorance. Some newspapers however denounced the move condemning Shagari for playing right into the hands of apartheid South Africa and Western right-wing groups that delighted at anything that increased the suffering of blacks.

In short, the aliens were deported but did it turn Nigeria into paradise? Far from it. On the short-term, the small-scale business like the poultries and bakeries that the Ghanaians were working closed down (you may find this weird but at that period, many Nigerians felt certain jobs were below them since the oil money was flowing so they left many of these menial jobs for the Ghanaians and other immigrants) while construction firms and hotels that had depended on cheap immigrant labour took the hit but many recovered later on.

The damage had been done before the Nigerian government realized the folly of their actions and a repentant Shagari presidency presented a cheque of one million dollars to ECOWAS to its chairman, President Mathieu Kerekou of the Republic of Benin when he visited Lagos in order to ‘beg’ the ECOWAS community for the headache caused by the unprecedented exodus. The deportation did not stop Nigeria’s unemployment or economic woes. In fact, things got even worse and became so bad that on 31st December of that same year, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and his gang overthrew Shagari himself.

Two years later, Nigeria would do more deportations but on a much smaller case. Relations later got better, Ibrahim Babangida and Rawlings became friends and things normalized between the two African giants.


THE TWIST: Nigerians deported from Europe arrive Lagos with the famous Ghana Must Go bags.

Well, Ghana has made some giant strides, so much so that Nigerians now spend over $1 billion every year sending the children to Ghana to learn in universities across the country. Although former Ghanaian president John Agyekum Kuffour said the country is yet to become the land of milk and honey they all pray for, Ghana’s economy is one of the strongest and most diversified in Africa.

Nigeria is in a recession and is yet to properly diversify its economy. At the end of it all, both nations need each other. The entertainment sectors in both countries are already doing that with musicians and actors from Ghana and Nigeria having major collaborations. It seems we have all put the past behind us, we even co-hosted the 2000 African Cup of Nations but we need to learn the lessons. The next time you see a Ghana Must Go bag, you now know the story behind it all. And always remember that wherever we are, there is no place like home and home is wherever our happiness is. I leave you with Bob Marley’s timeless song, Exodus:



DISCLAIMER: “The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not neccessarily reflect those of  Ghana Media World. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s).  Ghana Media World will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article.” © GHANAMEDIAWORLD.COM



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