In 1983 the Nigerian government suddenly ordered more than a million Ghanaian migrants to leave the country within just a few weeks. One of those who took part in the exodus recounts his ordeal.
It was late January 1983, and in Nigeria the president Shehu Shagari has suddenly announced that all foreigners without the right paperwork have just weeks to leave the country. Almost all of them were West African, the majority of them - from Ghana.
“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,” - it was told in official statement from Nigerian authorities.
In Lagos a Ghanaian Charles Ekwere was working as an assistant sales manager for a chemical firm. But technically he was illegal immigrant.
“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.”
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Across Nigeria up to two million migrants heard these warnings. They packed what they could into trucks, cars, pick-ups and taxis, and tried to get out of the country. The main route home to Ghana was west through the tiny neighbouring states of Benin and Togo.
Charles and his friends hired a car and headed to the border. It was only when they left Lagos they realised the scale of the exodus.
“When we hit the main road, there we could see how serious it was; the trucks loaded with items and people, thousands of thousands of vehicles. Thousands and thousands of people, they were uncountable.”
With more than two million illegal immigrants ordered to get out of Nigeria, the resulting chaos was staggering. Hundreds of thousands have massed at Nigerian frontier with the tiny West African state of Benin.
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“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.”
Many families were stranded; overladen lorries, cars or taxies have brought them this far, but now they camp out in the hope of being able to complete their journey home.
Among the exiles at least a million were Ghanaians.
The majority of the Ghanaian migrants were drawn to Nigeria during the oil boom of the seventies. But by 1983 the Nigerian economy was suffering. And it was an election year. Nigerian politicians hoped the expulsion would prove popular. Those with longer memories remembered that Ghana had expelled Nigerian migrants in 1969. But the scale this time was unprecedented.
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“Because of traffic the cars have piled up bumper to bumper. During the night people had their generators and transistors on and there was music and so on. The people set up music of Bob Marley – “Exodus, movement of Jah people”.
But once in Benin, there were not many ways out. Those who have managed to reach Benin, were besieging the main port at Cotonou in the hope of catching a boat to Ghana. The queue was several miles long.
There was a stampede during boarding the ship, and Charles’ friend received a serious fracture.
The main problem was that following an attempted coup the previous year, Ghana’s leader, Jerry Rawlings, had closed the main land crossing with Togo and so, to avoid being host to a sudden influx of over a million migrants, Togo, in turn, shut its border with Benin. That left Ghanaian refugees stuck again.
Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Ghanaians, were massed at the border of the two tiny African states of Benin and Togo. The road home to Ghana has come to a standstill. Hopelessly clogged with vehicles and a mass of refugees, while the frontier remains temporarily closed.
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Finally, Ghana relented and opened its border. Togo followed suit.
Within minutes of the frontier reopening there was chaos. Many families had been waiting ten days to walk the fifty yards from Benin into Togo.
“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.”
Some returning refugees were knocked off the back of packed lorries.
“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.”
There had been real fears that Ghana, whose population was then around 12 million, could not cope with such an influx. Its economy was already in crisis. There were shortages. There were bush-fires and drought, and yet, across the country the refugees reabsorbed by their communities.
Charles returned to his father’s village. “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.”
But within a year tens of thousands had returned to Nigeria. And there was another, much smaller round of expulsions two years later. The relations between the two countries did finally improve. Today there remains a small everyday reminder of the exodus: “Ghana must go” – is the name given to the huge cheap chequered bags used by Ghanaian refugees more than thirty years ago which are still very popular today.