The True Story of the “Ghana Must Go” Saga in 1983

Jerry J Rawlings at Tema Harbour
Jerry J Rawlings at Tema Harbour | Abiyamo

Growing up in Nigeria, Ghana and other neighboring countries, you must have heard of the popular term “Ghana Must Go“. Yes! It is the name of a common big bag used to store things or pack loads when traveling. But have you ever wondered why this bag, called “Chinatown tote” in USA and “Tuekenkoffer” in Germany, is called “Ghana Must Go” in Nigeria and Ghana? Well, someone did not just sit and coin the name for the bag, a real life incident that happened in Nigeria back in 1983 christened the bag “Ghana Must Go”.

In 1983, during the democratic regime of President Sheu Shagari, the federal government of Nigeria ordered a mass deportation of illegal immigrants living in Nigeria due to the atrocities most of them were reportedly perpetrating in the country. More than half of the deportation victims were Ghananians who had come to Nigeria in search of better living in the 1970s when Nigeria was experiencing oil boom and Ghana, political and economic hardship. The Nigerian government did not just wake up one day to expel over 2 million Africans, there were certain factors (one mentioned above) that culminated in the expulsion.

Nigeria and Ghana were good allies and have been maintaining their friendship before independence till now. But this friendship was threatened in the 1980s during the regime of the Ghanaian Head of State, Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings and the Nigerian President, Alahji Sheu Shagari. Both African leaders were not in good terms and this was because President Shagari was a good friend of Ghana former president, Hilla Limann, who Rawlings overthrew his government. This deteriorated the Ghana-Nigeria relationship to the extent that in 1982, Rawlings raised an alarm that Shagari wanted to help Limann overthrow his government, and in response, Nigeria stopped the shipping of crude oil on a loan deal to Ghana. As this beef continued between the government, so did it between the citizens. The aliens in Nigeria were seriously threatening the peace of the country and Nigerians were not ready to take that. The situation began getting heated in 1980 when a Cameroonian expatriate named Muhammed Marwa alias Maitastine spearheaded a religious uprising (Maitastine Uprising of 1980) that led to the death of scores. Maitastine was an illegal immigrant like many of his followers who were from Burkina Faso, Niger and Cameroon. This uprising is considered the second most tragic event in Nigeria after the Biafran war. It must also be noted that there had existed an old wound in the Nigeria-Ghana relationship back in 1969 when the Ghanaian government effected the Alien’s Compliance Order. Nigerians and other African immigrants were banished on the claim that the economy of Ghana was in depression.

Maitatsine | Valentine Odika Blog

The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the robbery at Ekwueme’s house. Alexander Ekwueme, the then Nigerian Vice President was robbed by a group of armed robbers which consisted mainly of expatriates. When the robbers were caught by the police, it was discovered that two of them were Ghanaian. This sent the whole of Nigeria crazy. Instant action was taken by the Nigerian government and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. On the 17th of January, 1983, the Nigerian Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Alli Baba, announced the immediate expulsion of all illegal immigrants in Nigeria within two weeks. President Sheu Shagari also added in a statement, “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. If you break a law, then you have to pay for it.

Panic gripped all aliens without papers in Nigeria for it was the least expected action of the Nigerian government. Over 1 million Ghanaians were thrown into confusion and indecision. It was rumored that the Federal government gave power to Nigerians to confront any alien after the ultimatum given to leave. This scared the expatriates and sent them fleeing with and without their luggage. Those who could pack their belongings used the biggest of bags available which happened to be the big bag which is now referred to today as Ghana must go.

Ghana must go bags
Ghana must go bags

This mass deportation met global criticisms. The act was condemned by many humanitarian organizations across the globe. The US Department of State said the expulsion order was “shocking and a violation of every imaginable human right.” All these did not make the Nigerian government reverse the order. It still bent on expelling all illegal immigrants in the country. Also, there were claims that the corruption riddled government of President Sheu Shagari ordered the deportation to divert attention from its shenanigans because election was near. Truly, the Shagari government had to pull a stunt to divert the attention of Nigerians and win their votes.


Ghanaians trooped out en masse for they knew Nigeria was no longer safe for them. It was indeed a massive exodus that automatically rooted its feet in the history of Nigeria and Ghana. They (Ghanaians) camped at the Seme boarder as they waited to enter Benin Republic where they hoped to find a ship to Ghana. The land route through Togo was much preferable and convenient but the Ghanaian dictator, Jerry J Rawlings had closed the Ghana-Togo border due to an attempted coup in 1981. Togo also closed down its boarder with Benin in order to avoid refugee crises. After sometime, the Ghananian military ruler, Jerry Rawlings opened the Ghana-Togo border and left Togo no choice than to do the same with Benin Republic and allow refugees to flow across like water. It was indeed a great news for the Ghanaian refugees. On getting home, they were welcomed by relatives and friends amidst tears. Jerry Rawlings also visited some of them at Tema harbour and assured them that his government would provide assistance in every possible way.

This is the real bitter story behind every ‘Ghana must go’ bag. However, it should be known that today, Nigeria and Ghana remain best of friends as they let the past behind them. This is evident in the entertainment, sports and politics sectors of the two countries.

“History should not be used as an instrument of revenge but rather as a tool for preventing future mistakes.”- Teslim O. Omipidan |


* Nigeria Expels 1 Million Aliens, Intercom, Volumes 10-11, Population Reference Bureau, 1982.


* The Rise and Fall of Nigeria’s Second Republic: 1979 – 1984 by Toyin Falola and Julius Omozuanvbo Ihonvbere

* Aliens Expelled, Africa Research Bulletin, Blackwell, 1984.


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27 thoughts on “The True Story of the “Ghana Must Go” Saga in 1983

  1. Today we are going to the same country to make out living, the same people we ejected out are now living better than us. What a world. Nigeria government should wake up and make nigeria a better place for all of us


    1. This is sad! You have said it all. People now say Ghana has gone and become better. Indeed, our government need to wake up from their slumber. Thank you for your visit and comment, TY for Tony. Kindly do check back.


  2. Educative and enlightening. It a long way how this great country has bin bastardized by the men in power. How they have recolonized us looking at how other countries who has picked up their pieces and moved on within d space. This 1% percent kept this country ransom and dancing backward. The one riding on d horses back now crawling on bare floor. What is our sin. Which way Nigeria. The youth of this great nation whom futures has bin sold has also compromized. If Jesus tarry God will surely deliver His people from dis slavery in d hand of our task-masters


  3. Amen! This cannot in anyway be said better than the way you’ve put it. We truly have been recolonized and only God and we ourselves can save our present and future. Thank you for your visit and comment, Stericabio. Kindly do check back.


  4. Insightful! A food for thought…. I think this is a classic example of the grass suffering when two elephants engage in a fight.


  5. There is always more to a story than what is ever told. I resonate with the story, in part, for a reason that, just like you were told, it was a story to justify certain actions, talk less of a diversion from corrupt practices of the then government, the excuse of robbery atrocities and all. The incident occurred, and I was born five months later. Just like yourself, I was also told but discerning on my own, I couldn’t agree with the story of any foreign national in Nigeria at the time, having the gut to perpetrate crimes to the tune of stealing from the presidency and robbery. This I wouldn’t agree to, when there were the likes of Ishola Oyenusi, Babatunde Folorunsho and Lawrence Anini, fully operational in their prime. These people were never mentioned, nor a suspicion raised about their involvement, simply because they were one of Naija’s own. What happened, happened and we are past that, but now is the time to come out with what really happened if we have to bury the past where it actually belongs: in the past. I am particular about this because till now, stories of how Ghanaians are brutally treated in Nigeria today is disheartening and quite the opposite is true, of how some Nigerian citizens in Ghana today enjoy more liberty than the average Ghanaians. If we have to lend arms to strengthen mutual friendship for posterity, now is the time to call all people of Nigeria to treat Ghanaians abroad the Nigerian jurisdiction, with the love and respect and freedom that even the rascal and fugitives of Nigerian citizenry in Ghana enjoys.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really appreciate it all, basically the tragedy story between Nigeria and Ghana at the end result to a great friendship and till today we still share and shown respect for one and another and which is the most important things to acknowledge and we were able to move on with love and equality without notice discrimination and humiliation. I’m proud to be a Nigerian (Africa) and one love to all my Africans brothers and sisters over there, may the peace of the Lord be with you all.

    Liked by 1 person

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