Ghana Must Go: Containing The Mayhem of Migration

Image:  Nobukho Nqaba .


t is chequered. It is sturdy. It is used worldwide. There is some contention as to whether it can be deemed highly fashionable, but it gains some cool points for being waterproof and available in more than one set of colours. For many, it merely serves the primary function which most bags serve – to carry items which may be in large quantities or of large weight especially when travelling. In parts of West Africa, it is known as the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag.

It is not an ordinary chequered plastic bag but one made of historical and political fabric. This famous ‘migrant bag’ played a significant role in West African history. It was used by several West African citizens, especially Ghanaians, to contain their belongings as they were forced to leave Nigeria during the 1980s — an episode worthy of unrelenting recognition and enduring space in the history books.


A Restless Journey

It began in the early months of 1983 when Shehu Shagari — the Nigerian president at the time — ordered the tragic expulsion of several citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)1. Many of them had entered Nigeria as economic migrants during the 1970s without official immigration documents. In the case of Ghanaians, both skilled and unskilled migrants were pushed by the unbearable economic conditions in Ghana to seek refuge in Nigeria, which was widely known as West Africa’s economic utopia at the time.2

Being an Oil-rich country, Nigeria had been enjoying the benefits of elevated Oil prices during the 1970s. With the Oil boom came a growth in job opportunities, especially in the services and construction sectors. The notable increase in job opportunities in Nigeria, as well as the existing similarities between the Ghanaian and Nigerian administrative systems3, appealed to Ghanaians; prompting their relocation to Nigeria in search of better lives. Upon relocating to Nigeria, the Ghanaians worked in different industries: as labourers, traders, artisans, teachers, architects, lawyers and doctors.4

The economic success which befell Nigeria was, however, short-lived due to Oil prices plummeting in 1982; therefore causing socioeconomic hardships in Nigeria. The highly populous nation began hurting from austerity measures imposed in the hope of stabilising the economy, as urban employment fell5 drastically, and food shortages became severe. It was then generally believed that the influx of people from neighbouring West African countries instigated the deterioration of economic and social conditions in Nigeria.


The Scapegoats

The blame game, however, only advanced with the help of Nigerian public officials who exploited the presence of immigrants, and further projected it as the cause of economic decline in Nigeria. With the impending presidential election of August 19836, Nigerian leaders were determined to scapegoat immigrants in an attempt to mask other overpowering causes of Nigeria’s economic failure, including the mismanagement of Oil revenue, corruption as well as high volumes of short term debt and the ‘cement armada’ scheme.

The immigrants were given two weeks to leave Nigeria, lest they be arrested and tried; leading to the exodus of over 2 million immigrants from neighbouring countries. In the process of this displacement, Nigerian police physically harmed immigrants - beating and gassing them, in the hope that they would depart immediately. Many who departed Nigeria were, however, denied entry into other countries - such as Benin Republic - which were also reluctant to deal with an influx of immigrants.

As a result, expelled immigrants were forced to camp in the middle of the borders of Nigeria and Benin, uncertain as to whether they would reach a place they could once again call home. While some Ghanaians were lucky enough to depart Nigeria by air through assistance from the Ghanaian government8, others were not fortunate enough to step on Ghanaian soil again as they drowned9 in severely crowded boats, travelling by sea.


An Eye For An Eye

Interestingly, the expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria in the 1980s could be considered as a punch in the face of the Ghanaian government, in retaliation for expelling Nigerian immigrants in 196910. In November that year, Kofi Abrefa Busia – the-then Prime Minister of Ghana – demanded an expulsion of Nigerian migrants for reasons including economic concerns and xenophobia11. While some may deem this irrational, it is, however, difficult to overlook the plausibility of this theory.

This is because several global political events that have occurred recently have shown that politics can be personal, as well as manifest as a game of passions. As we know, experiencing passions can be temporary, yet they often drive actions which may yield enduring results. It can thus not be said with complete certainty whether the wounds felt by both Ghanaians and Nigerians have fully healed; though relations between the two countries have grown, albeit cautiously, in the decades since both cases of expulsion occurred.


Power And Identity Politics

Undoubtedly, economic factors play a significant role in the dynamics of immigration – be it in enabling migrants access or denying them access – it is not extreme to argue that the displacement of people which stems from unfair immigration policies also boils down to an obsession with national identity12 and, perhaps, the promotion of unequal (power) relations between people from different identity groups. Like most things in the political world, immigration policies can be shaped by unequal power relations.

Referring to Michel Foucault, power can be dual in nature – consisting mainly of juridical and productive elements13. What this means is that immigration laws that enable the prohibition of migrants from entering another nation-state are essentially a manifestation of juridical power being exercised. With the productive aspect of power, it can be argued that through unfavourable immigration laws passed, immigrants are also forced to live with constructed and flawed identities - to which they are subjected.

In other words, immigrants are forced to adopt the identity of aliens, unwanted creatures, or burdens. In the case of Ghanaian immigrants in Nigeria, many of them would have had to deal with the painful detachment from friends they made in what they probably imagined as their new home, as well as the flawed and fabricated image of themselves as aliens or ‘economic leeches’. Involuntary relocation is therefore even more difficult to manage alongside the psychological trauma from viewing one’s self as an outsider or a burden.

While identity politics can invoke benefits such as providing people with the opportunity to understand the significance of exercising mutual recognition, it can also be manipulated to produce negative outcomes like xenophobia and the maltreatment of people from different identity groups. Though not as severe as recurrent cases in countries like South Africa, the expulsion of Ghanaians in the 1980s, as with recent happenings, continue to represent a failed intra-African migration.


The Inevitability Of Migration

Beyond the sub-region of West Africa, members of the global community continue to endure extended periods of extreme political instability, as well as economic and environmental uncertainty. History tells us that when people find themselves in a place where peace, love and prosperity do not reside, they succumb to the pressures of migration - an inevitable phenomenon which we must learn to accept and manage more effectively and equally. It is important for leaders, not just in Africa, but also across the globe, to govern in a manner that prevents forceful relocation, and the ‘othering’ of people of different nationalities.

As some migrants continue to use the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag in the hope of finding a place of permanent residence, today, they still face barriers. Too often, the hopes and dreams of migrants have soared only to crash into fabricated fortifications. Yet, as Alberto Rios writes in The Border: A Double Sonnet, “the border is mighty, but even the parting of the seas created a path, not a barrier.” And so, in a world shaped by dire uncertainty and constant mobility, one can only hope that there will be more paths created to prevent unwarranted exile and displacement.


1 Gary-Tounkara, D. (2016). A Reappraisal of the Expulsion of Illegal Immigrants from Nigeria in 1983. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, [online] 9(1), pp.25-38.

2 Adepoju, A. (2005). Creating a Borderless West Africa: Constraints and Prospects for IntraRegional Migration. [ebook] UNESCO.

3 Nieswand, B. (2011). Theorising Transnational Migration: The Status Paradox of Migration. New York: Routledge.

4 Nieswand, B. (2011).

5 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

6 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

7 Louis, E. (1983). West African Tragedy | News | The Harvard Crimson. [online]

8 Brydon, L. (1985). Ghanaian Responses to the Nigerian Expulsions of 1983. African Affairs, [online] 84(337), pp.561-585.

9 Brydon, (1985).

10 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

11 Aremu, J. and Ajayi, A. (2014). Expulsion of Nigerian Immigrant Community from Ghana in 1969: Causes and Impact. Developing Country Studies, [online] pp.176-186.

12 Adida., C. (2014). Immigrant Exclusion and Insecurity in Africa: Coethnic Strangers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

13 Doty, R. (1996). Immigration and National Identity: Constructing the Nation. Review of International Studies, [online] 22(3), pp.235-255.


The City And Its Bride: Slum Growth In Lagos


This is the first of a three-part series on the incentives and cost of slum clearance and displacement in Nigeria. This piece looks at the history of urbanisation and slum growth in Lagos.

Image:  Olalekan Jeyifous .  "A visual conversation on how slums are frequently viewed as unsightly eyesores."

Image: Olalekan Jeyifous.

"A visual conversation on how slums are frequently viewed as unsightly eyesores."


etween 1999 and 2000, countries pledged to “improv[ing] the living conditions of the world's most vulnerable and marginalised urban residents” and creating cities without slums. At the core was the need to ensure that no region or population segment is exempt from development, and therefore, disenfranchised. By 2050, slumsa - underserved and overcrowded tenements with no municipal services - were to become a thing of the past.

While this has led to a decline in the global slum population, notably in African countries, the paradox remains kneaded in uncontrolled urbanisation — in that the more cities develop, the more attractive they become. Particularly in high-growth cities with commercial advantages, people troop into ‘the big city’ in search of educational and/or employment opportunities; in lure of a land of milk and honey.

The problem, however, is two-tailed: one, that cities are not growing fast enough, at least in infrastructural terms, to accommodate the wave of migrants. Secondly, the migrants are often unable to afford the hight costs; therefore fuelling a pattern of overcrowded spaces and an outpouring of slums. In the case of Lagos, both ring true as the impending megacity grapples with a population of over 20 million people, overburdened infrastructure, a poor planner to population ratio, and a severing housing deficit.


For Better, For Worse

Call it magnanimous hospitality or border porosity, Lagos boasts of an hourly influx of 86 people. Perhaps for its economic dominance in Nigeria and West Africa and its extensive ports, Lagos has had a long history of cushioning intra- and inter-regional settlers - from the Aworis to the traders, fishermen and Lebanese ‘hustlers'; to the Afro-Brazilian returnees in the 19th century, Biafran refugees and expulsed Nigerians from Ghana in the 60s and 70s.

As the commercial and political centre during the colonial period, Lagos also grew rapidly, becoming a viable hub for trade. It thrived economically, particularly after the 1970s Oil boom which propelled a further influx into the city. Coupled with the fact that agriculture became less sexyb and other Nigerian states remained stagnant relative to Lagos, dual waves of migrants flooded the city to take advantage of its rapidly advancing infrastructure, and expansive welfare policy.

With prosperity came a change in its social culture1, a bubbling night life and a baby boom, which further skyrocketed the population. On another hand was patronage and kleptocratic politics, mismanagement, excessive fiscal spending, and high volumes of importation - most notable of which was the 1975 ‘cement armada’ collusion leading to an inflated budgets and importation of millions of tonnes of cement for construction in Nigeria.

The result of these bouts of endemic corruption would be a volatility in inflation, which transcended across the cost of building material; in turn, rapidly hiking real estate prices. By the time Nigeria dipped its foot in democracy in 1979, the military elites had sunk public (short-term) debt to $7.5 billion. Concomitantly, its neo-colonial market economy had prevailed, leaving the fattest bone for the wealthiest — not the patient — dog.


Till Capitalism Do Us ‘Part

Though Jakande embarked on low-cost housing projects during his 1979-1983 tenure as Governor of Lagos State, truly ‘affordable’ housing - at least for the urban poor - was near impossible, and housing prices were further offset by excessive demand. In 1982, however, when Oil crashed and interest rates spiked, economic crises loomed in Nigeria as employment, among other macroeconomic variables, declined. By 1985 and 1986, debt had reached $19.55 billion and $23.40 billion, respectively; rendering Nigeria incapable of paying her (trade) bills.

In the light of defaults and a failed Paris Club Agreement, Nigeria embarked on an IMF-backed Structural Adjustment Program (SAPs) in 1986 which mandated liberalist policies and rapid deregulation. Rather than alleviate poverty, this capitalist hangover threw Nigeria into a macroeconomic imbalance; inducing economic hardship2 and reducing access to finance, particularly for the poor.

Essentially, the financial deregulation gave the upper hand to the rich, as the poor lacked the capital base, savings and collateral assets needed to secure loans and/or property3; neither affording the interest rates offered nor the high rental costs resulting from an acute supply deficit in dwelling units4. As with jobs, this further paved the way for the informal markets to fill the exclusion gap, leading to a proliferation of slums in Nigeria.


Unveiling The Bride

In Lagos, urban spaces became more politicised5; effecting a widening housing gap, and an uprise in make-shift homes6 and informal settlements on illegally7 occupied land. While some may argue that the rise of slums is embedded in the poor maintenance culture of Nigerians and traditional approaches to urbanism8, one cannot ignore the role of the governments negligence9, apathy and antipathy10 allows for low-income houses deteriorate into slums.

Irrespective of the reason, the prevalence of slums in Lagos continues to be a nightmare for the technocratic administration obsessed with perfecting the art of a megacity and creating facsimiles of European towns. From an external view point, slum growth mirrors an unresponsive government, insecurity and informality; de-incentivising Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and deconstructing the image needed to harness its economic prowess.

The result, therefore, is a vicious cycle of inequality, for which each time Lagos walks down the development altar, it unveils urban slum growth. This, in addition to Lagos’ land frontier, an inpouring of in-migrants and immigrantsc and insufficient capacity, forges a love-hate relationship between the city and the urban poor. Migrants, who are often faced with a skills mismatch, work informal jobs - averting tax - and forming informal settlements; leaving the urbanising city of Lagos in a limbo.


a UNCHS categorises slums by the high rates of population per household, poorly built structures and physical impediments including shortages of safe water, sanitation, electricity and other basic social amenities. From a legal perspective, they are considered as ‘illegal’ due to a lack of security of land tenure and are often excluded from public goods provision.

b A concept known as Dutch Disease.

c According to the UN-Habitat, the Lagos population grew a 108.5 percent from 3.5 million in 1985 to 7.3 million in 2000. The population of Lagos is currently estimated at 17-21 million, though the LASG caps it at 23 million.


1 Nwanna C., (2012), Gentrification in Lagos State: Challenges and Prospects, British Journal of Arts and Social Sciences.

2 Folarin S., (2010), The Spatial Economy of Abjection: The Evacuation of Maroko Slum in Nigeria in Encountering the Nigerian State: Africa Connects, pp. 55-78. Palgrave Macmillan.

3 Agbola T. and Agunbiade E. M.,(2009), ‘Urbanization, Slum Development and Security of Tenure: The Challenges of Meeting Millennium Development Goal 7 in Metropolitan Lagos, Nigeria’, pp. 77-106.

4 Ajanlekoko J. S., (2001), Sustainable Housing Development in Nigeria - The Financial and Infrastructural Implication.

5 Peil M., (1975: 309), The Common Man's Reaction to Nigerian Urban Government, African Affairs, Vol.74 (296).

Fourchard L., (2011), also explores this in 'Lagos, Koolhaas and Partisan Politics in Nigeria. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research', Vol. 35 (1).

6 Simon F. R., Adegoke A. K. and Adewale B.A., (2013), Slum Settlements Regeneration in Lagos Mega-city: an Overview of a Waterfront Makoko Community, International Journal of Education and Research, Vol. 1 (3).

7 Alagbe O., (2006), Combating the Challenges of Rise in Urban Slums in Cities in Developing World: A Case Study of Lagos State.

8 Immerwahra D., (2007), The politics of architecture and urbanism in postcolonial Lagos, 1960–1986 Journal of African Cultural Studies. Vol. 19 (2), pp. 165-186.

9 Alagbe O., (2006).

10 Agbola and Agunbiade, (2009).