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Our involvement in xenophobia – Part 2


However, from late 1950 up till 1970, the world cocoa price witnessed a continuous decline, falling by over 75% as of 1969. This engendered an increase in the cost of living and import shortages.

Expectedly, most Ghanaians hailed Dr. Busia’s action. On January 13, 1972, he was overthrown. Later fortune smiled on Nigeria. Drilling of oil commercially by Shell, Mobil and Agip doubled in the Niger Delta. 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 travelled, robust iron boxes were generally preferred over cheap plastic sacks. The influx came not just from within Nigeria, but from across the region. Even Nigeria’s leader at that time, General Yakubu Gowon was reported to have boasted that money was not Nigeria’s problem but how to spend it. Suddenly Nigeria became an El Dorado.

Nigeria led the formation of the Economic Community of West African States known as ECOWAS. ECOWAS is a regional political and economic union of 15 countries located in West Africa. Collectively, these countries comprise an area of 5,114,162 km2 (1,974,589 sq mi), and in 2015 had an estimated population of over 349 million. The union was established on May 28, 1975, with the signing of the Treaty of Lagos, with its stated mission to promote economic integration across the region. The countries that formed at that time were Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Senegal, Sierra-Leone, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Expectedly Nigeria’s General Yakubu Gowon was made the first chairman of ECOWAS.


Suddenly Nigeria entered the oil boom era. A lot of migrants from Africa came into the country in search of jobs and greener pasture. Nigeria was like the U.S.A., Britain, Germany, South Africa, etc of today, that many Nigerians are queuing up for visas, so as to elope to. During the oil boom period, there were jobs that Nigerians were shy or reluctant to do. Such jobs include Driver, cobbler (shoe maker), tailoring (Obi-Oma), security guard, cook, gardener, etc. As such, those immigrants that came to Nigeria were more than willing to do jobs. In fact, in Lagos then, most cobblers, tailors, drivers, etc. were Ghanaians.

On September 24, 1979, Dr. Hilla Limann (1934-1998) was sworn-in as the elected President of Ghana. Limann, a Muslim from Gwollu in the Sissala West District of the Upper West Region part of Ghana was elected on the platform of Peoples National Party (PNP). Seven days later, on October 1, 1979, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari was also sworn-in as the President of Nigeria. They became friends. The friendship extended to parliamentarians of both countries. There was a strong bond between Ghana and Nigeria at that time. On two occasions, I was part of the entourage of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Senator Uba Ahmed to Ghana. On another occasion, I accompanied the then-Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas to Ghana. On the three occasions, we were hosted in Accra by President Hilla Liman. He even granted me an exclusive interview in Kumasi, Ghana.

The relationship between Nigeria and Ghana broke down on December 31, 1981, when Jerry Rawlings deposed Dr. Limann in a coup. Initially, President Shagari refused to acknowledge Jerry Rawlings as the President but later he had no choice. In 1982, Flight Lieutenant General Jerry Rawlings raised an alarm that President Shehu Shagari wanted to help Hilla Limann to overthrow his military government in Ghana. Nigeria stopped the shipping of crude oil on an alone deal to Ghana. And as this animosity continued between both governments, so did it between citizens of both countries.

By 1983, Nigeria’s economy was collapsing due to mismanagement and the golden era of Nigeria was fading. 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 U.S. began producing its own oil, further cutting demand and causing excess supply. Nigeria, it’s economy almost exclusively reliant on oil, was hard hit.


By 1982, 90% of the country’s foreign reserves had been wiped out. Food prices skyrocketed and salaries became erratic. Poor policy decisions at the highest level of government only made things worse. Ghana’s nightmare was being replayed in Nigeria. As it began to feel the crunch, Nigeria started to turn inwards looking for scapegoats. 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 failing economy. Ghanaians had taken all the jobs and brought crime to Nigeria and, if elected, they would chase them out, they promised. It didn’t take long for this animosity to spill over into relations between Nigerians and Ghanaians.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back which culminated in the deportation saga of the African immigrants during the Shehu Shagari’s government, was the robbery incident at Alex Ekwueme’s house in Ikoyi, Lagos. Dr. Ekwueme, the then Nigerian vice president was robbed by a group of armed robbers which consisted mainly of immigrants.

When the robbers were caught by the police, it was discovered that two of them were Ghanaians. This revelation sent the whole of Nigeria in rage. The 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, from then Gongola State announced the immediate expulsion of all illegal immigrants in Nigeria within two weeks.

President Shehu Shagari also added in a statement by his spokesman Mr. Charles Igoh that “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 immigrants 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 aliens 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. This mass deportation met global criticisms. The act was condemned by many humanitarian organizations across the Globe. The U.S. Department of State said the expulsion order was “shocking and a violation of every imaginable human right.” All these did not make President Shehu Shagari’s government reverse the order. It was +still bent on expelling all illegal immigrants in the country. Also, there were claims that the corruption-riddled Government of Shehu Shagari ordered the deportation to divert attention from its shenanigans because the election was near.

My then Editor, Mr. Sola Odunfa sent me and our photographer, Thomas Umoru, to the Seme border to cover the expulsion of immigrants mostly Ghanaians. What I saw was shocking. There was no food or water at the border. People were begging to be deported. Millions streamed out through any possible exit they could find — through Shaki, 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. To add to the tragedy, President 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 sent in aid. The League of Red Cross Societies airlifted 500 tents, 10,000 blankets and thousands of buckets. It was tragic. Children were abandoned by their parents. And all these happened in spite of the ECOWAS treaty.


President Shagari won the election for the second term. On December 31, 1983, he was toppled by Major General Muhammadu Buhari. His first announcement that night was “fellow Nigerians, finally, we have dutifully intervened to save this nation from imminent collapse.

We, therefore, expect all Nigerians, including those who participated directly or indirectly in bringing the nation to this predicament, to cooperate with us. This generation of Nigerians, and indeed future generations, have no country other than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together. May God bless us all”.

Months after General Buhari took over nothing improved economically. The prosperity that General Buhari promised never came in spite imprisoning prominent politicians. For the first time, Nigeria started to queue for essential commodities like sugar, salt, milk, etc. There was anger in the land. The government distanced itself from the people. Nigeria’s foreign friends abandoned her after Nigeria ridiculed Saudi Arabia as “We are unlike the Sheiks who do not know how to spend the oil money”. There was resentment all over the land.

A publication titled, Africa Today, published by Chief Raph Uwechue, captured the mood of General Buhari’s tenure in 1985. In the publication, it declared “There were further outbreaks of religious violence by Islamic fundamentalist followers of Maitatsine in February 1985. The riots started in Jimeta, near Yola, in Gongola State. The trouble started when the police moved in to make a pre-emptive arrest of members of the proscribed sect who had been congregating in Yola. The sect offered very stiff resistance, resorting to rampaging, killing and burning. The Jimeta main market was razed to the ground and the town was deserted. The rioting was brought to an end only with the intervention of the army brigade based in Yola. After it was revealed that a substantial proportion of the rioting fundamentalists were aliens, the government ordered immigration officers to take greater action to monitor the movement of aliens in Nigeria and to stem the influx of illegal immigrants. This course of action was dictated not only by security reasons but also by economic considerations. Aliens were accused of smuggling and other forms of economic sabotage. They were alleged to aggravate the unemployment situation by taking jobs that would otherwise have been available for Nigerians.

On April 15, 1985, the Nigeria government ordered an estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants to leave the country by May 10. If they failed to do so, the government declared that it would be ‘constrained to take necessary steps to ease them out of the country’. Residence permits for aliens would in future carry a special seal to cut down on forgeries, while identity cards would be introduced for Nigerians. The Ghanian government sent a delegation to beg General Muhammadu to extend the May 10 deadline for the expulsion of the aliens. Few hours after their departure, Nigeria’s Minister of Interior, Major General Muhammadu Mangoro announced that there would not be an extension. Most returnees went home penniless. Many were searching for food and water. It was a nightmare. Expectedly the world condemned Nigeria’s action.”

The recent xenophobia in South Africa was carried out by a mob. The one carried out in 1969 in Ghana and in Nigeria 1983 and 1985 was a state policy carried out by Ghana and Nigeria government.

Xenophobia is bad, very bad indeed. It should not be encouraged. It should be condemned no matter what.


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