Exactly 38 Years ago on 17th January 1983, Nigeria expelled two million undocumented West African migrants, half of whom were from Ghana.
The President of Nigeria, Shehu Shagari issued an executive order mandating immigrants without proper immigration documents to leave the country or they would be arrested according to the law. The order was in alleged response to the religious disturbances that had engulfed parts of the country in 1980 (the Kano Riots) and 1981. Most of the immigrants were West Africans and mainly Ghanaians.
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 traveled, robust iron boxes were generally preferred over cheap plastic sacks. The influx came not just from within Nigeria, but from across the region.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This eventually became a reality when on 17th January 1983, President Shehu Shagari ordered the inevitable. With Nigerian nationals becoming increasingly hostile towards Ghanaians and other illegal migrants, the victims had no choice but to pack their few personal effects and make the journey back to their country.
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.
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.
Perhaps, this had been long overdue as many thought the Nigerians were only paying Ghana back for what happened in 1969, when the then-Ghanaian prime minister, Kofi Abrefa Busia, invoked the Aliens Compliance Order and deported 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.