Did you know Africa’s iconic plastic bag is named after xenophobic tensions between Ghana and Nigeria?

Nii Ntreh September 16, 2020
This plastic bag, used over the continent and beyond, is known as Ghana Must Go after tensions in 1983 that saw Nigeria expelling Ghanaian immigrants.

The special Ghana-Nigeria relationship birthed the name of the most famous woven nylon carrier bag on the continent, Ghana Must Go, but the story behind this is a rather ugly one that belies present amity between the two nations.

In Africa, the very unique relationship between Ghana and Nigeria has not received the best etiological attention although many in either country suppose it is down to the fact that the two were the first British colonial territories to gain independence in West Africa.

That theory does not answer a lot of questions. If this special connection is via Britain, Ghana or Nigeria would forge equally close relationships with Gambia and Sierra Leone.

What we see is a bond that is simultaneously a rivalry like no other in Africa. The closest to the Ghana-Nigeria relationship in sub-Saharan Africa might be what exists between Zimbabwe and South Africa, however, that latter pair share a physical border while Ghana and Nigeria do not, and that matters.


Ghana and Nigeria’s relationship has not always been friendly. In the 1980s, it took the sourest turn when either country deported the other’s citizens over a diplomatic row occasioned by a clampdown on illegal migrants in Ghana.

Indeed, protectionist policies for local economies were a common reactionary tactic used by West African governments in the few years before and following independence. For instance, in 1954, the colonial government in Ghana deported those considered aliens in the Gold COat.

In 1958, the Ivory Coast also deported other Francophone Africans. But perhaps, the instances etched in the memories of many post-colonial historians were Ghana’s Alien Compliance Order in 1969, which affected disproportionately Nigerians, and Nigeria’s 1983 “war” on illegal immigrants, which affected mostly Ghanaians.

It is a very well-known narrative among Nigerians that the government of President Shehu Shagari took the decision in 1983 because of the difficulties in the Nigerian economy. The glory days of oil in the 1970s promised a new era for Nigerians and forced an open-arms immigration policy.

Records say more than three million immigrants relocated to Nigeria, purposefully for the reason of seeking better economic opportunities.

Many of these migrants had been Ghanaians who took up jobs as teachers, traders, tailors, food vendors and drivers. There were also menial workers among the Ghanaian contingent.

To date, Ghanaians who are old enough speak of the mass “exodus to Agege”, a local government area in Lagos which became a Ghanaian synecdochical reference for Nigeria.

But when things came tumbling down for Nigeria, immigrants without legitimate documentation and even some with were forced to leave Nigeria by the order of the government. Sympathy was withheld from Ghanaian economic migrants even though Ghana was undergoing severe food shortage and drought during the period.

Nigerians justified the harshness of sending Ghanaians back into the unpalatable situation at home by pointing to what that country’s government in 1969 did to Nigerians. On paper, the Shagari government may not have been retaliating against Ghana but in the streets, everyday Nigerians knew what they felt.

The nylon bag, also known derogatorily in Germany as Tuerkenkoffer or Turkish suitcase, was the main carriers immigrants left Nigeria with. The popularity of the anti-immigrant law was conveyed to the common folk as “Ghana Must Go”, and that is the reference many Africans today call the bag.

Ghana’s relationship with Nigeria is in much better place now although there are presently matters of trade that have in recent months incited strong words from the governments in Accra and Abuja.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 16, 2020


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates