By Eric Teniola
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 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.
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The relationship between Nigeria and Ghana broke down on December 31, 1981, when Jerry Rawlings deposed Dr. Liman 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 Liman to overthrow his military government in Ghana.
Nigeria stopped the shipping of crude oil on a lone deal to Ghana. And as this animosity continued between the 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 US began producing its own oil, further cutting demand and causing excess supply. Nigeria, with its economy almost exclusively reliant on oil, was hard hit. By 1982, 90 per cent 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 flailing 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. Alexander 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. Instant action was taken by the Nigerian Government and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
On January 17, 1983, the Nigerian Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Alli Baba, from then 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 one million Ghanaians were thrown into confusion and indecision.
It was rumoured 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 US 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 to reverse the order. It 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 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.