An-eight-year old girl once asked her mother: “What is the difference between this bag and that one?” The mother answered: “This one is a travelling bag, and the second one is called Ghana-Must-Go bag.” The little girl thereafter responded: “But the two are used for travelling, so why are they different in name?” The mother oblivious of the reason for the different names could not provide an accurate answer to convince her daughter.
The inability of the girl’s mother to provide a suitable response indicates the fact that so many Nigerians use the name ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ but do not understand what brought about the name. And the name is commonly used among almost all classes of Nigerians but certainly without full knowledge of the facts surrounding the phrase ‘Ghana-Must-Go.’
This question would not be unusual, coming from any of the 21st century children, but for the few who asked they would have been given various answers. However, the uniquely checkered bag was so named because of its massive use during the exodus of illegal immigrants from Nigeria, a large percentage of whom were Ghanaians, with a host of other country citizens.
It was in late January 1983, when the Nigerian civilian President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, held a press conference and ordered all immigrants without the right papers to leave the country within a few weeks. In his statement, he declared: “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.”
The statement sent people into panic, and with the rumours spreading that after the expiration of the deadline, civilians would be given the right to confront them, the over two million immigrants quickly packed their belongings into the first thing they could lay their hands on – the big and deep checkered silk bags, and headed west towards the Seme border the only exit to Ghana, just as the Israelites had done when they exited Egypt in a hurry.
The significant difference between the two situation would be that while the Israelites had been permitted to request whatever they wanted from the Egyptians who were in a hurry to see them leave after suffering the plagues, these illegal immigrants could not ask anything of the Nigerians whose territory they were leaving. In fact, a large number of them were said to have left their valuables and properties, especially those ones that are immobile. The only things they had access to were the huge and cheap bags.
It was indeed a painful exit for them considering that a large number of them had come to Nigeria during the 70s in search of greener pastures during the period of oil boom in Nigeria, and were being sent back to a home which they were not yet ready to return to. Trucks were loaded with humans and cargos and soldiers supervised the expulsion of the immigrants.
Out of over two million people, nearly one million were Ghanaians, and the rest were from a mix of other West African countries; thus it was considered an exodus of Ghanaians. Despite the loss of assets and properties which they could not take along, due to the scale of the movement, some people sustained various degrees of injuries, and some were reported to have died at the borders while trying to cross to Ghana through Benin Republic.
Many families were stranded at the borders. Because of traffic, the cars, taxies and overladen lorries were piled up bumper to bumper. There was stampede, and in the course of trying to cross through borders that were closed, and hopelessly choked with human beings, properties and vehicles, some returning refugees were knocked off the back of packed lorries.
One of the survivor Ghanaians recalled painfully in an interview recently: “We had these overhead bridges. You could see on top of the bridges some blood scattered all over. Many 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 the road to Ghana.”
However, for those who got to their destinations, they received a warm welcome and were reabsorbed into their communities. While the experience was enough for some to swear off Nigeria completely, some others still found a way to return to Nigeria in the years that followed, as there had to be another repatriation a couple of years after, though on a smaller scale. But within a year tens of thousands had returned to Nigeria.
A number of reports hinted that it could possibly be a revenge move, since the Ghanaian government under President Kofi Abrefa Busia had enacted the Aliens Compliance Order, and immigrants, mostly Nigerian, had been expelled from the country. In that case, the foreigners were given two weeks to obtain and be in possession of residence permit or leave the country, and about 20,000 to 500,000 Nigerians were expelled within a period of three months. So, if it had truly been a revenge, it was a massive one.
Several reasons were linked to this action on the path of the government. Some say that there were complaints that the Ghanaians had taken over the labour work force in the country and Nigerians were forced to compete with them in the labour market- something similar to the claims being made in South Africa resulting to the Xenophobic attacks on Nigerians. The collapse of the oil boom brought unexpected economic hardship, and since no one would take the blame, the foreigners became the scapegoat and the Nigerian government was actually hard on them.
Even though the bag in question was actually being made in Europe and used in other countries, the name was given more out of ridicule by Nigerians who felt that the exit of their sponging neighbours would guarantee them access to a paradise-like life with jobs and other necessities at their beck and call.
However, by late 1983, the situation on ground showed that there had to be another reason for the economic crisis as things were still very much the same. The sort of menial jobs the foreigners were doing in Nigeria could not easily be filled by Nigerians who were not used to those kind of work. Also, some of the foreigners were actually entrepreneurs who had taken advantage of the enabling environment to do business. Their absence automatically put paid to such businesses and no attempt was being made by Nigerians to resurrect them.
On December 31, 1983, the then General Muhammadu Buhari took over power through a coup citing the massive corruption that existed in the government as the cause of the economic downturn. By then, a good number of the foreigners had already sneaked their way back into Nigeria due to their inability to readapt to their home environment.
Up till today, this bag, which has now been produced in various colours and sizes, is still identified by that name, Ghana-must-go, both in Ghana and Nigeria. In reverse humour, it was reported recently that there is a casual handbag in the Republic of Ghana derisively tagged “Nigerians are coming.” The bag is a mini version of the sack known in Nigeria as “Ghana must go,” and derived its name from the shift in the flow of migrants which see Nigerians trooping to Ghana for investment opportunities.