Jollof Wars: All For The Culture

Jollof Rice is Nigeria’s crown jewel, nothing unites the country more than a good old jollof discussion. What makes it even more special is the claim Nigeria’s West African neighbours insist that they have on it; Senegal, Ghana and the Gambia all have their versions of jollof.

Jollof Rice is a fragrant one pot rice dish made from plain white rice, red tomatoes and fragrant spices. It has arguably become the staple in Nigeria alongside eba, fufu, garri, pounded yam which are generally known as swallow. Jollof rice is the one party dish that always finds its way to every single party of Nigerians at home and in diaspora, and is a winner every time.

So who first created the jollof rice dish? As much as Nigerians hate to admit it, Jollof has its origins from Senegal, we know this, and it is indisputable, much to our annoyance, because the word jollof itself is a wolof word, a language spoken in Senegal. Jollof means “one pot” which is essentially how the jollof rice dish is made. I suppose since it is called jollof rice, one more word after jollof was added, then there must be other one pot dishes in Senegal? As an aside, I am curious. Is there a jollof beans? Jollof cassava? Jollof plantain?

Since the origin is no longer disputable, Nigerians have moved to the more important matter, which is, who makes the best jollof rice? For some reason, probably because Senegal pioneered it, the jollof war leaves them untouched for the most part. The main disagreeing parties are Ghana and Nigeria. More than once, I have played the devil’s advocate, asking my friends,

“But Nigeria did not pioneer this dish; surely they must make the best?”

To which I have always received the same answer.

“Life does not work that way, it is quite normal in life for the trainer to grow and hone his skills in such an expert and innovative manner, that he outdoes the trainer, Nigeria has the best jollof.”

There are mock fights because of and hero songs about this dish, it is arguably the easiest meal to make, yet the easiest to ruin. It is one of those dishes which can go wrong if a step or an ingredient is missed. It can lose its essence. Conversely, because of its one pot nature, it is tasty regardless; people will eat it and complain as they do. Most Nigerians will learn to cook jollof rice before any other dish, jollof rice was one of the first dishes my mother taught me to cook.

In 2014, Nigerians and Ghanaians set aside their differences to unite when British chef Jamie Oliver added jollof rice to the long list of dishes he made. The hash tag jollofgate trended on twitter as West Africans on home soil and in the diaspora disagreed vehemently with his version which had parsley and lemon. A few months ago, the Journalist Richard Quest visited Nigeria and asked the Nigerian Minister for Information one jollof question.

“Who makes the best jollof rice?”

It was a simple enough question, one which always elicited a light hearted response and applause. Lai Mohammed responded, to everyone’s shock.


There was an audible gasp from the crowd, and since this was on National Television, everyone saw it, and shortly after, there were clips circulating on the internet. Another jollof gate was created on twitter, Nigeria’s neighbours Ghana had a good laugh. People were calling for Lai Mohammed’s head and his resignation. He was a traitor who had committed an unutterable sacrilege. Richard Quest tried to do some damage control, and said the Minister had heard “where did jollof rice come from” and not “who made the best jollof rice”.

Although there have been a few “jollof wars”, there has been one moment of jollof victory. When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook visited Nigeria last year, he told his audience;

“I had jollof rice and shrimps and it was delicious. I have been warned never to compare it to the Ghana jollof rice.”

Nigerians took this statement and ran with it, claiming the Zuck had endorsed Nigerian jollof as the better one. I personally think mentioning Ghana jollof in the same sentence as the Nigerian jollof should have earned him a jollof gate on twitter.

I would be shocked if there’s anyone who is Nigerian, or is of Nigerian descent, and has not had jollof rice. Show me anyone who is non-Nigerian and lives in Nigeria or lives elsewhere but has some linkages to Nigerians, and hasn’t tried jollof. That is an atrocity that needs to be fixed, you need your jollof fix. It goes really well with chicken and plantain. Do not wait for August 22nd,which by the way, is World Jollof Day. Try it today, if you are in Nigeria, visit a restaurant, the more low end, the better. This is because jollof is tastier when it has a smokey flavour which is derived from cooking on open fire. That smokey flavour is known as the party flavour.

Nowadays, with the explosion of content on the internet, I have seen hash tags on social media proclaiming the dish served up at a certain party a cultural revolution #jollofrevolution #jolloffortheculture #winnerjollof #Nigerianjollof. Indeed I have heard a man describe his girlfriend as Nigerian jollof; there is no better complement. If someone describes a person to you as Nigerian jollof, that person embodies all that is good and all that cannot be broken. Jollof rice has become a beloved piece of national treasure, one that attracts goodwill and unites the people; why else do you think I named my podcast “Salute to Jollof”? Here’s my podcast, for your listening pleasure.

Recently, I have begun to write and create on the subscription and patron based platform patreon. If you would like to support yours truly, and to read and listen to more of my work, please click here for my podcasts and short stories. 


Ghana Must Go: Nigeria’s Expulsion of Immigrants

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.

Ghana must go patterns.
Ghana must go patterns.

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.

Fancy Ghana must go bags.
Fancy Ghana must go bags.

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.

Border movement.
Border movement.

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.

Recently, I have begun to write and create on the subscription and patron based platform patreon. If you would like to support yours truly, and to read and listen to more of my work, please click here for my podcasts and short stories.