(By Napoleon Ato Kittoe) 05/06/2019
Until death of then Nigerian Head of State, General Sani Abacha in 1998, his regime members shuttled Abuja and Accra most. Sani Abacha in his face off with pro-democracy activists in Nigeria, became internationally isolated but found a measured tolerance in Ghana’s leadership which might have decided to open up to the despised regime to hear out their case. Chief Tom Ikimi, Abacha’s Foreign Minister, visited Accra quite a number of times to consult with Ghana on the way forward for the shackled Nigeria.
When Abacha died, and Chief Moshood Kishmawo Abiola followed in similar vein, both suspected to have been poisoned by faceless but discreet assassins, ostensibly to end Nigeria’s political stalemate at the time, the dramatic events blew off another lid on Nigeria.
High profiled Political prisoner, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Head of State, was a beneficiary of the new dawn, made to exit prison by the interim Nigerian leader General Abubakar as a vital sign post to the deep going changes in Nigeria.
Gen Obasanjo also flew to Ghana in 1999 and upon his arrival at the airport, journalists rushed on him to enquire his political future. He said, “l have been a Head of State before and l have gone to prison as well, I have got to the highest and the lowest and therefore l don’t need anything again”. We shall fast forward to mid to late 2000s, in due course to connect with later events about him.
Another political guru of Nigeria who visited Ghana in the late nineties under very different circumstances, was Alhaji Shehu Shagari, also a former Head of State. His visit to Ghana was occasioned by death of a former Ghanaian Leader. Their tenures corresponded as leaders.
Late Dr Hilla Limann had passed on, his remains in the morgue. At that meeting between Alhaji Shagari and Ghana’s Leader Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings in Accra, were other political heavyweights. They included, Mr Nathan Quao, Mr Kwamena Ahwoi and Mr Victor Gbeho.
Dr Limann’s name was mentioned only twice at this meeting, overshadowed by reminiscence of events that characterized the early days of Rawlings and how the government led by Alhaji Shagari rubbed salt into a situation.
Nigeria’s oil and economic boom between 1975 and 1979, became the nectar for Ghanaians seeking greener pastures and indeed, not only Ghanaians headed there. Nigeria became a comfort zone for other nationals as well. Many Ghanaians jettisoned education for menial jobs in Nigeria, just so they could lick the drip from the overflowing oil pot in Calabar, Port Harcourt, Benin City, Kano, Kaduna, Lagos among other cities.
Ghana’s situation was opposite of Nigeria’s economic jackpot, thus tensions in Ghana bubble burst in a 1979 military coup which the ring leaders blamed on economic decadence and abuse of office by the political elite. It was time the name Jerry John Rawlings burst onto the scene, having been anointed leader by the small group of junior officers whose putsch caught fire in Ghana. Hailed as Junior Jesus by the broad mass of Ghanaians, his stated mission was that they had come to redeem the faltering economy.
That same year in 1979, Jerry John Rawlings handed over power to elected civilian government of which Dr Hilla Limann became his successor. A similar transition from military to democratic rule occurred in Nigeria in 1979, with General Olusegun Obasanjo transferring power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the people in whom popular sovereignty resides having given their eloquent verdict in elections. So whilst Rawlings was exiting, Shagari was entering. Again, 1979 it was.
Ghana and Nigeria are not geographically contiguous. There are thin strips of land represented by Republics of Togo and Benin that permanently deny Ghana and Nigeria of a common land border. However, land transport between the two is brisk and flight time between Accra and Lagos averages 45 minutes.
Culturally they are bound and they trace to common political heritage. Folklore and oral history has it that, indigenes of Ghana’s capital region, being the Ga ethnic group are Nigerians by descent. Hausa language, popular in northern Nigeria is also spoken by northerners in Ghana. Colonised by Britain, the two anglophone nations have similar administrative structures patterned after the British. In addition to the foregoing which knit Ghana and Nigeria together, Shagari and Limann were northerners who collaborated closely as leaders of their respective countries. Many many years later into the present, Nigeria remains not only as West Africa’s biggest economy but on entire Africa continent as well. Ghana has paced up, becoming sub-regional second largest economy.
On the last day of year 1981, Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings bounced back, this time explicitly as the leader of a coup to dislodge Limann, premised on alleged slow economic reforms if not on reverse gear. After a period of economic boom in the 1950s and the 1960s, Ghana experienced a downturn with the rest of the period up to 1983 teetering on the brink with situations ranging from pure deterioration to negative growth.
Nigerians streamed to Ghana when the latter became the first in Sub-saharan Africa to gain political independence. They had come to savour the new experience of operating in another country but not under colonial tyranny and in expectation of a better life. The dream turned into nightmare when in 1969, Ghana ordered Nigerians out of the country.
In what some political analysts describe as a tit for tat, Nigeria in 1983, also expelled two million foreign nationals half of whom were Ghanaians. Flt Lt Rawlings was the man at the receiving end of the Nigerian push back as his regime had to cope with hydra-headed problems in a little over a year of his time in power. Ghanaian returnees, nationwide bushfires, food shortages and rationing and a population facing hunger. The small bags Ghanaian returnees packed a few items for their journeys, became known as “Ghana must go bags”, thus it is the allusion for today’s bags named as such. Small bags to lighten the burden of a person making a troubled journey.
How to integrate arriving Ghanaians into society was a major decision to be made but also a distraction to the new regime in Ghana, already smarting under teething issues.
In 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew Alhaji Shagari. The military was back in saddle in Nigeria but soon relations between Ghana and Nigeria were in good feathers with Rawlings of Ghana visiting Nigeria to cheering crowds. By 1984, Ghana had arrested economic decline as she trundled and trudged through with an IMF dictated Economic Recovery Programme. Relations continued on that tangent, with Ghana and Nigeria establishing joint economic commission in 1988. At this time, Nigeria was under the watch of General Ibrahim Babaginda. It was his annulment of a June 12, 1993 election thought to have been won by Businessman Moshood Abiola, that brought Nigeria to her knees politically, triggering a reverberative crisis. Enter another General, Sani Abacha who was to rule Nigeria with an iron fist until his death in June 1998 and that of Abiola in July.
In 1999, President Rawlings who was at closing stages of his tenure as first leader of Ghana’s Fourth Republic, received Nigeria’s Alhaji Shagari at his office. Diplomacy went to the back burner and in strong language condemned his visitor for making things difficult for the early PNDC rule. “You sacked Ghanaians to make things difficult for me”. Shagari replied and that is fit for part two of this story.