The True Story Behind “Ghana Must Go” Bag  

Ghana Must Go history

“Ghana Must Go” Bag is simply referred to as a Ghanaian sack. Other names for the bag include ‘Chinatown tote’ which is what it is called in America. 

They were cheap, ordinary bags. They had no name and came in blue and red, in big and medium sizes, all checked.

The History of ‘Ghana Must Go’ Bag 

The federal government of Nigeria ordered the mass expulsion of illegal immigrants living in Nigeria in 1983, during the democratic dictatorship of President Sheu Shagari, due to the atrocities that many of them were allegedly committed in the country. More than half of the expelled were Ghanaians who emigrated to Nigeria in search of a better life in the 1970s when Nigeria was experiencing an oil boom while Ghana was experiencing political and economic difficulties. 

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Nigeria, a young and liberating country with a population of around 100 million people, discovered oil in 1958. Shell, Mobil and Agip were the first companies to open a shop in the country to drill oil for commercial. Despite the terrible military governments that plagued that time, oil money was stable and hopes were high that Nigeria could thrive.

When oil prices rose around the world in the 1970s, the economy exploded. The golden era had arrived and the country had become the richest in Africa, earning it the nickname “African giant”. Nigerian oil wells produced 2.3 million barrels per day in 1974. The quality of life has improved. People also moved from the countryside to the cities and when traveling, sturdy iron crates were preferred over cheap plastic bags. Immigration came not only from Nigeria but also from other parts of the region.  


Ghana, on the other hand, was experiencing the polar opposite. A drop in the price of cocoa (Ghana was the world’s largest cocoa producer in the 1960s) and the 1966 coup, which toppled independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, triggered a lethal mix of starvation and rebellion. The country’s population was roughly seven million at the time, but several million people decided to travel east to try their luck in rich Nigeria. 

Ghanaians flocked to Nigeria in such large numbers that it appeared that every Ghanaian household had a relative working there. Ghanaian instructors were well known for their thoroughness and long, supple beating rods, in primary and secondary schools across the 19 states that existed at the time. Neighbours from the west flooded law offices, shoe repair shops, ice cream parlours, restaurants, and brothels. 

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The Ugly Story Behind “Ghana Must Go” Bag

The Nigerian government did not wake up one day and decide to remove almost 2 million Africans from the country; there were other circumstances that led to the expulsion.  

When key consumer economies like the United States and Canada went into recession and demand was low, global oil prices began to fall in 1982. The price of a barrel had dropped to $29 in 1983 from $37 in 1980. Around the same time, the United States began producing its own oil, reducing demand even further and causing an oversupply. Nigeria, whose economy is nearly entirely based on oil, was particularly heavily struck. By 1982, the country’s foreign reserves had been depleted by 90%. 

Nigeria began to turn inwards as it began to feel the pinch. In preparation for the 1983 general elections, politicians began to utilize phrases like “aliens” in their manifestos around 1982. They attributed the economy’s problems to African migrants, particularly Ghanaians. Ghanaians had taken up all of the employment and introduced crime to Nigeria, and if elected, they threatened to expel them. 

Nigeria and Ghana are good allies that have maintained their friendship since before independence. However, in the 1980s, the friendship between Ghana’s President, Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings, and Nigeria’s President, Alhaji Sheu Shagari, was jeopardized. Both African presidents were at odds, owing to the fact that President Shagari was a close friend of Ghana’s former president, Hilla Limann, whom Rawlings deposed. 

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Ghana-Nigeria Relationship 

The Ghana-Nigeria relationship deteriorated to the point where, in 1982, Rawlings raised the alarm that Shagari was plotting to overthrow Limann’s government, and Nigeria responded by suspending crude oil delivery to Ghana under a loan agreement. As the feud between the government and the citizens continued, so did the feud between the citizens. 

Nigerians were not willing to accept foreigners in their country. Foreigners in Nigeria were posing a severe threat to the country’s tranquillity. In 1980, a Cameroonian expatriate named Muhammed Marwa alias Maitastine organized a religious insurrection (Maitastine Uprising of 1980) that resulted in the deaths of a large number of individuals. Maitastine, like many of his followers from Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon, was an illegal immigrant. 

The robbery at Ekwueme’s residence was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Alexander Ekwueme, the then-Vice President of Nigeria, was robbed by a squad of armed robbers, most of whom were expatriates. When the cops apprehended the robbers, they learned that two of them were Ghanaians. Nigeria thrown into chaos as a result of this. The Nigerian government and the Ministry of Internal Affairs took immediate action. The Nigerian Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Alli Baba, said on January 17, 1983, that all illegal immigrants in Nigeria will be expelled within two weeks. 

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How Ghanaians Left Nigeria 

Those bags scattered all over the place. Those who were able to pack their goods used the largest bag available, which was the large bag, now known as Ghana must go. Border crossings were a mess, with desperate people hauling chairs overhead, lugging hold luggage, and selling anything they couldn’t lift to pay double the cost. 

Millions of people have fled any available exits, including Shaki in western Nigeria and northern Benin. Stampedes would kill many people in the south, near the Seme border in Lagos. Hundreds of people loaded onto open transport trucks and taken to Ghana. 

However, in 1981, the military leader of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, ordered the blockade of the borders with Togo to discourage coup leaders and insurgents, preventing movement for days. To avoid a refugee crisis, Togo closed the border with Benin in response. People trapped in the scorching heat and no water as cars pulled bumper to bumper from the Benin-Togo border in Lagos. Diseases are contagious. The United States was preparing to provide assistance. 500 tents, 10,000 blankets and thousands of buckets flown by the League of Red Cross Societies.  

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It was fantastic news for the Ghanaian refugees. They were also welcomed by relatives and friends with tears in their eyes on their way home. Jerry Rawlings also paid them a visit to Tema Harbor, assuring them that his government will assist them in any way possible.  

This is the real saga behind every “Ghana must leave” bag. However, it should be noted that Nigeria and Ghana are still closest friends today, having left the past behind.  


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