There was a time when the Ghana Must Go bag was a household trend. At the time, if you did not have a bag in your house, you were not in vogue. They were typical, low-cost bags, and they came in blue and red, large and small sizes, and were all checked.
In the early 80s, they were in high demand in Lagos markets like they’d never seen before because hundreds of Nigerian traders fought to obtain as many bags as they could to load their belongings into. And because they were large, roomy, and durable enough for long-distance travel, they became the best luggage carriers, with two handles, zips, and bright colours.
Ghana Must Go, called “Chinatown tote” in the USA and “Tuekenkoffer” in Germany, was named by Nigerians as a result of an ugly incident that happened between Nigeria and Ghana in 1983. After being given short notice to leave Nigeria in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom were Ghanaians, crammed their things into these bags.
The bag was preferred by the desperate Ghanaians because it was easily collapsible to fit inside the pocket and had an incredible ability to provide an extra inch of space for one more thing. Since then, no one has asked for “that weaved matted bag” at the market; instead, they have requested a Ghana Must Go, a phrase that is also used in Ghana, despite the sad memories it evokes for some.
In recent times, celebrities and designers have started using these iconic bags to fashion clothes despite the ugly history of the materials. This is why it is imperative for us at Naijabiography to revisit the untold story of Ghana Must Go.
The History of Ghana Must Go
The federal government of Nigeria ordered the mass expulsion of illegal immigrants living in Nigeria in 1983, during the democratic dictatorship of President Sheu Shagari, due to the atrocities many of them were allegedly committed in the country. More than half of those deported were Ghanaians who had migrated to Nigeria in search of a better life in the 1970s when Nigeria was experiencing an oil boom while Ghana was undergoing political and economic difficulties.
Nigeria, a young and soon-to-be-liberated country with a population of about a hundred million people, discovered oil in 1958. Shell, Mobil, and Agip were the first companies to set up shop in the country to drill for oil commercially. Despite the terrible military governments that plagued that period, oil money was stable, and hopes were high that Nigeria could flourish. When oil prices surged worldwide in the 1970s, the economy exploded. The golden era had arrived, and the country had become Africa’s wealthiest, earning it the moniker “African Giant.” Nigerian oil wells were producing 2.3 million barrels per day by 1974. The quality of life has improved. People moved from the countryside to the cities, and when they travelled, sturdy iron crates were favoured over inexpensive plastic sacks. The immigration was not only from Nigeria but also from other parts of the region.
Ghana, on the other hand, was experiencing the polar opposite. A drop in the price of cocoa (Ghana was the world’s largest cocoa producer in the 1960s) and the 1966 coup, which toppled independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, triggered a lethal mix of starvation and rebellion. The country’s population was roughly seven million at the time, but several million people decided to travel east to try their luck in rich Nigeria.
Ghanaians flocked to Nigeria in such large numbers that it appeared that every Ghanaian household had a relative working there. Ghanaian instructors were well known for their thoroughness and long, supple beating rods, in primary and secondary schools across the 19 states that existed at the time. Neighbours from the west flooded law offices, shoe repair shops, ice cream parlours, restaurants, and brothels.
However, the Nigerian government did not wake up one day and decide to remove almost 2 million Africans from the country; there were other circumstances that led to the expulsion.
When key consumer economies like the United States and Canada went into recession and demand was low, global oil prices began to fall in 1982. The price of a barrel had dropped to $29 in 1983 from $37 in 1980. Around the same time, the United States began producing its own oil, reducing demand even further and causing an oversupply. Nigeria, whose economy is nearly entirely based on oil, was particularly heavily struck. By 1982, the country’s foreign reserves had been depleted by 90%.
Nigeria began to turn inwards as it began to feel the pinch. In preparation for the 1983 general elections, politicians began to utilize phrases like “aliens” in their manifestos around 1982. They attributed the economy’s problems to African migrants, particularly Ghanaians. Ghanaians had taken up all of the employment and introduced crime to Nigeria, and if elected, they threatened to expel them.
Nigeria and Ghana are good allies that have maintained their friendship since before independence. However, in the 1980s, the friendship between Ghana’s President, Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings, and Nigeria’s President, Alhaji Sheu Shagari, was jeopardized. Both African presidents were at odds, owing to the fact that President Shagari was a close friend of Ghana’s former president, Hilla Limann, whom Rawlings deposed.
The Ghana-Nigeria relationship deteriorated to the point where, in 1982, Rawlings raised the alarm that Shagari was plotting to overthrow Limann’s government, and Nigeria responded by suspending crude oil delivery to Ghana under a loan agreement. As the feud between the government and the citizens continued, so did the feud between the citizens.
Nigerians were not willing to accept foreigners in their country. Foreigners in Nigeria were posing a severe threat to the country’s tranquillity. In 1980, a Cameroonian expatriate named Muhammed Marwa alias Maitastine organized a religious insurrection (Maitastine Uprising of 1980) that resulted in the deaths of a large number of individuals. Maitastine, like many of his followers from Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon, was an illegal immigrant.
The robbery at Ekwueme’s residence was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Alexander Ekwueme, the then-Vice President of Nigeria, was robbed by a squad of armed robbers, most of whom were expatriates. When the cops apprehended the robbers, they learned that two of them were Ghanaians. Nigeria was thrown into chaos as a result of this. The Nigerian government and the Ministry of Internal Affairs took immediate action. The Nigerian Minister of Internal Affairs, Alhaji Alli Baba, said on January 17, 1983, that all illegal immigrants in Nigeria will be expelled within two weeks.
Ghana Must Go
Those plastic checked bags were strewn throughout the place. Those who were able to pack their goods utilized the largest available bag, which happened to be the big bag, now known as Ghana must go. The border crossings were a mess, with desperate people lugging chairs on their heads, dragging their checked baggage, and selling whatever they couldn’t lift to pay for doubled costs.
Millions of people fled by any available exit, including Shaki in western Nigeria and northern Benin. Stampedes would kill a lot of people down south, near the Seme border in Lagos. Hundreds of people were placed into open transport trucks and driven to Ghana.
However, in 1981, Ghana’s military leader, Jerry Rawlings, ordered the borders with Togo blocked to deter coup plotters and insurgents, preventing movement for days. To avoid a refugee crisis, Togo closed its border with Benin in response. People were trapped in the searing heat and without water as cars halted bumper to bumper from the Benin-Togo border to Lagos. Diseases are contagious. The US was preparing to provide assistance. 500 tents, 10,000 blankets, and thousands of buckets were airlifted by the League of Red Cross Societies.
It was fantastic news for Ghanaian refugees. They were greeted by relatives and friends with tears in their eyes as they returned home. Jerry Rawlings also paid them a visit at Tema Harbour, assuring them that his government will assist them in every manner possible.
This is the true saga behind every ‘Ghana must leave’ bag. However, it should be noted that Nigeria and Ghana are still closest friends today, having put the past behind them.
Ghana Must Go in the Modern Era
In recent times, the advent of fashionable travel bags and boxes has relegated the significance of Ghana Must Go. it is not uncommon to see people travel from one place to another with Ghana Must Go- you are either perceived as being poor or old-fashioned.
However, while the significance of the big bag cannot be overemphasized, fashion designers like Wuraola Oladapo and Diamond Platnumz, have promoted the beauty of Ghana Must Go by making them into attractive, fashionable styles to wear.