Every Ghana-must-go bag has a story. It’s usefulness and fame in Nigeria arrived in late January 1983, when the President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, held a press conference and ordered all immigrants without the right papers to leave the country within a few weeks. There were over two million people; one million were Ghanaians, and the rest were from a mix of other West African countries.
“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”, he said in a statement.
According to Aremu in the African Research Review (2013), this statement was greeted by a barage of criticism from the international community. Most of these immigrants lived in Lagos and had arrived during the oil boom of the 1970s. News travelled like wild fire and there was a lot of fear mongering in Lagos, rumours had it that once the deadline arrived by Feb 2, 1983, civilians had the right to confront aliens living in Lagos. Fuelled by the rumours of the Lagos treatment during the civil war, within a few days of the announcement, two million people packed what they could into “Ghana must go bags”, a large and deep bag characterised by its chequered appearance. There was massive exodus as immigrants travelled west towards Seme border; the only exit to Ghana.
Hundreds of thousands camped out at the Seme border as they waited to cross over into the tiny country, Benin where they could find a ship to cross to Ghana. The water was not the prefered means of transportation, but became compulsory because the military head of state of Ghana at the time; Jerry Rawlings, had closed the road borders between Ghana and Togo. This was a common precaution among military rulers to avoid coup d’etat and to keep control of its state. In order to avoid a refugee crises on its hands, Togo in turn had closed its borders with Benin Republic. Thousands of Ghanaian refugees were stuck in Benin by its borders with Togo. Finally after a few days of camping by the borders playing Bob Marley tunes and roasting yam and meat by the roadsides, Ghanaians made the rest of the journey back home. Jerry Rawlings opening the border between Ghana and Togo was the catalyst Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma needed to open its borders with Benin, allowing free flow of refugees to their home in Ghana.
About two decades before; in 1969, it had been the turn of the Government of Ghana to banish Nigerians and other immigrants. According to Awumbila et al of the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana, in Ghana, the expulsion order was known as the Alien’s Compliance Order. This saw the expulsion of a large number of immigrants from Ghana. The order required all aliens in the country to be in possession of a residence permit within a two week period. The order earned Ghana the displeasure of West African Governments especially Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso whose nationals were mostly affected. In both countries, this banishment of immigrants was a decision fuelled by economic and social difficulties, for which foreigners were held responsible. In Nigeria, the economy was suffering and elections were approaching. Thus politicians hoped that the expulsion will prove popular with the voters. Another round of immigrants expulsion took place in Nigeria in 1985 on a smaller scale.
Now there are better diplomatic relations between all west African countries through the ECOWAS free movement accord. In addition, countries signed up to and most ratified the United Nations General Assembly resolution 45/158 of 18 December 1990, on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. In summary, the primary objective of the Convention is to raise respect for migrants’ human rights. Migrants are not just workers, they are also human beings. The Convention does not generate new rights for migrants but aims at securing fairness and equality of treatment, and the same working conditions, including in case of temporary work, for migrants and nationals. The Convention depends on on the vital belief that all migrants should have access to a minimum degree of protection. The Convention recognizes that legal migrants have the validity and lawfulness to claim more rights than illegal migrants, but it stresses that even illegal migrants must have their fundamental human rights respected, like all human beings.
Now every Nigerian and Ghanaian know what a Ghana must go bag is. We have all used it, so have our mothers and for some; grandmothers. It is quite popular worldwide and is used for laundry and to store beddings or even as holiday excess luggage in many countries in the world. But specifically, in Germany it is “Tuekenkoffer”, which means the Turkish suitcase. In the United States of America, it is called the “Chinatown tote”. In Guyana, it is the “Guyanese Samsonite”. In Ghana and Nigeria, where the bags are celebrities and the most recognisable signature of “movement” it is known simply as the “Ghana must go” bag.