Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nigeria declared that illegal aliens were a threat to its national security and public morals and in January, 1983, abruptly expelled an estimated two million migrant workers.

Summary of Event

Migration across state borders has been a feature of West African history for centuries. The region’s ethnic mosaic contains numerous, long-settled communities whose places of origin lie outside the borders of their current countries of residence. Africa’s colonially imposed borders divide many ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities. Prompted by such factors as drought, deforestation, the changing fortunes of national economies, repressive political conditions, and the survival of historic trade and nomadic routes that cut across contemporary state boundaries, modern migrations have often taken place with little regard for the formalities of immigration laws. Well-established migrant communities existed in West Africa throughout the twentieth century, and few faced significant barriers to integration into their host countries. On occasion, however, migrants have been subject to expulsions, sometimes for crimes committed but often as a political expedient. Nigeria;migrant workers Migrant workers Immigration;illegal [kw]Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers (Jan., 1983) [kw]West African Migrant Workers, Nigeria Expels (Jan., 1983) [kw]African Migrant Workers, Nigeria Expels West (Jan., 1983) [kw]Migrant Workers, Nigeria Expels West African (Jan., 1983) [kw]Workers, Nigeria Expels West African Migrant (Jan., 1983) Nigeria;migrant workers Migrant workers Immigration;illegal [g]Africa;Jan., 1983: Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers[05090] [g]Nigeria;Jan., 1983: Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers[05090] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Jan., 1983: Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers[05090] [c]Business and labor;Jan., 1983: Nigeria Expels West African Migrant Workers[05090] Shagari, Shehu Usman Aliyu Azikiwe, Nnamdi Baba, Alhaji Ali Rawlings, Jerry John

Beginning in the mid-1970’s, Nigeria was the destination of much of the migration in this African subregion. Buoyed by the export of more than a million barrels of high-quality oil per day, Nigeria’s economy expanded rapidly during the 1970’s. Millions of migrants from Ghana and other neighboring countries flooded into Nigeria, attracted by the opportunities offered by its booming economy. In contrast, many of the migrants’ home economies faced high inflation and the burdens of debt. Thousands of professionals from farther afield (the United Kingdom, the Philippines, India, and Poland, for example) joined the influx of foreign labor into Nigeria.

In the early 1980’s, however, Nigeria’s economic situation suffered a major setback. The country responded to the world glut in oil by cutting daily production well below one million barrels by 1983. Government revenues plummeted, international indebtedness became a significant problem, the inflation rate soared to more than 25 percent, and an estimated 20 percent of the workforce was unemployed. The country’s ambitious development plans were scaled back drastically; import controls, foreign-exchange restrictions, and other emergency measures were adopted; and many public- and private-sector employees worked for months without pay.

The economic collapse fueled antiforeigner sentiments in Nigeria. Foreigners were perceived by the general public as taking jobs from Nigerians, hoarding and smuggling consumer goods and currency, and generally sabotaging the economy. Workers’ organizations repeatedly charged that employers were taking advantage of cheap foreign labor while Nigerians were facing growing unemployment and destitution.

On January 17, 1983, the minister of internal affairs for Nigeria, Alhaji Ali Baba, announced the government’s decision to expel all undocumented West African aliens from Nigeria. These aliens, estimated to number at least two million, were given two weeks to leave the country. The order was amended on January 25 to allow skilled aliens (such as nurses, secretaries, masons, teachers, and carpenters) an additional four weeks to regularize their stay or leave. In addition, foreigners employed by federal and state government institutions and enterprises, and citizens of Cameroon and Chad who had entered Nigeria prior to 1963, were exempted from the expulsion.

Official reasons for the expulsion included the charge that religious riots among Islamic sects in Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto, Maiduguri, and elsewhere, which began in 1980, involved and had been instigated by foreigners from the neighboring states of Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). The chief instigator, Mallam Muhammed Marwa, was a Cameroonian. Another major charge was that the growing rates of robbery, prostitution, and indigence in Nigeria were largely the result of the influx of illegal Ghanaian migrants. The Nigerian government argued that illegal aliens were a threat to public security and morality and declared that it “cannot, and will not, fold its hands and allow such unwholesome developments to continually plague the nation.”

Although there was some truth to the charges of the involvement of aliens in the religious disturbances, armed robbery, and prostitution, and that aliens were among the ranks of the unemployed, it is generally conceded that the charges were exaggerated. The vast majority of the rioters, criminals, social undesirables, and indigents were Nigerians.

In the weeks following the expulsion order, according to Nigerian government estimates, at least 1.2 million aliens left Nigeria. These included 700,000 Ghanaians, 150,000 Chadians, 120,000 Cameroonians, 18,000 Beninoise, and 5,000 Togolese. Other estimates place the total number of aliens who left near 2 million.

The legality of the expulsion was not in question: Nigeria had the sovereign right to expel illegal immigrants. What caused consternation among Nigeria’s neighbors and in the wider world were the facts that no warning was given to the neighboring states that would have to cope with a massive return of their migrants, that the time period of two weeks did not allow for structures and provisions to be put in place to assist returning migrants, and that no internal procedures had been established in Nigeria to allow for an orderly departure of the expelled aliens. The results were widespread fear and suffering among the expelled aliens, strained political relations between Nigeria and its neighbors, especially Ghana, and, outside of Nigeria, general condemnation of the expulsion.

World reaction was universally negative. The U.S. State Department charged that the expulsion violated “every imaginable human right.” Pope John Paul II declared the expulsion had resulted in the “worst human exodus in this century.” Other international condemnation was expressed in such terms as “heartless,” “inhumane,” and “unworthy” of a country that was among the leaders of Africa.

The expulsion was seen by many as a violation of the spirit, although not the letter, of the protocol on the free movement of citizens of the member states of the Economic Community of West African States Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Nigeria had been the leading force behind the establishment, in 1975, of this economic association of sixteen West African states. Intending to create a full-fledged common market eventually, ECOWAS member states had by 1979 agreed to the right of their citizens to travel freely within the community without visas and to remain for up to ninety days in another member state. Nigeria had argued strongly in favor of ratification of this protocol and, along with other community states, had been lax in enforcing the ninety-day limitation on the undocumented stay of ECOWAS citizens. The expulsion was seen as a direct blow to the spirit of ECOWAS. There was also criticism of the preferential treatment received by nonblack, Asian, and European migrants in comparison to the treatment of black, fellow West African aliens.

The Nigerian government, surprised at the strength of the world’s aversion to the expulsion, defended its decision, declaring that no United Nations-backed human rights provisions had been violated and that no country could allow the flagrant violation of its laws to go unchallenged. To the extent that it could be judged, public opinion in Nigeria appeared to be largely in favor of the expulsion. Certainly, the Nigerian media were unanimous in support of the decision. The point was made repeatedly that Nigerians and other illegal immigrants in countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States received short shrift from legal authorities and often suffered imprisonment prior to deportation. It was also pointed out that when Nigerians had suffered expulsions from Ghana, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sierra Leone, no such international condemnation was forthcoming.

One of the noted critics within Nigeria was Nnamdi Azikiwe, the country’s first president. He argued that “efforts could have been made to repatriate these people under more humane conditions,” and he saw the expulsion as a “mortal blow” to the philosophy of African cooperation and unity. Whatever the official reasons, it was broadly believed that the dramatic decline in Nigeria’s economic situation was the prime reason for the expulsion. Many perceived the expulsion as a cynical political ploy by President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari and his National Party of Nigeria (NPN) to curry favor with the electorate ahead of the upcoming 1983 elections. Worsening economic conditions weakened the NPN’s reelection bid, and the expulsion move was seen as an effort to take advantage of growing antiforeigner sentiments among Nigeria’s millions of unemployed and underemployed.

There also may well have been an element of delayed retaliation for the prior expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana. In November, 1969, the Ghanaian government issued the Aliens Compliance Order, which gave aliens two weeks to regularize their status or be expelled. Aliens were accused of causing a growing tide of criminal activity and undermining the economy and public morals. The vast majority of as many as half a million aliens expelled from Ghana in 1969 and early 1970 were Nigerians. Relations between Ghana and Nigeria always had been competitive and at times had been openly hostile. Ideological differences pitted a generally conservative, capitalist Nigeria against often-radical, socialist-oriented Ghanaian regimes. Regional leadership aspirations, fluctuating economic fortunes, and national chauvinisms also underlay this fractious relationship. The Ghanaian government charged that the expulsion was an attempt to destabilize its new, radical regime, led by Jerry John Rawlings.

The economic impact of the forced departure of migrant workers was noticeable in several areas. In Lagos and other cities where many aliens had been employed as cooks, drivers, and gardeners, and in other domestic service, the impact was immediate. Finding replacements was difficult and required the payment of higher wages. The construction and hotel industries and the docks were also hard hit by the loss of skilled artisans, clerks, stewards, and cargo handlers. No appreciable alleviation of the overall unemployment situation among Nigerian workers, or of the other maladies of the Nigerian economy, was evident.


The expulsion order came as a surprise. Neighboring countries were not consulted, transportation was not arranged, and relief agencies were not forewarned. Reportedly, even the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs and the police responsible for enforcing the order learned of the decision through the media. This precipitous expulsion, without preplanning, of an estimated two million people resulted in significant hardships. There were numerous reports of robbery and mistreatment of the aliens while they waited for transportation to arrive and borders to open. There were also reports of inflated prices for food and transportation and extortion by airport and border officials. Many deportees were forced to sell their property at giveaway prices in order to buy food. The crowding of thousands of aliens at the border for more than a week produced hunger and outbreaks of malaria and cholera. The returning aliens were at times subject to brutal crowd control, and some were victims of road and rail accidents.

No large-scale harassment of aliens by the Nigerian authorities or the general public took place. In fact, there were reports of employers and communities covering up the presence of illegal aliens. In sharp contrast to the widespread profiteering among transporters, the Nigerian Transport Owners Association made two hundred large trucks available to help evacuate deportees stranded at the docks. The association expressed both support for the government’s decision and sympathy for the plight of the expelled migrants. The roundup and prosecution of illegal aliens who defied the expulsion order was desultory and soon halted. Governments and ordinary citizens of other nations rapidly mobilized to assist Ghanaians passing through on their way home.

An estimated sixty to one hundred deaths were attributed directly to the expulsion exercise. Although much lower than originally speculated, the death toll underscores the hardships suffered. The Nigerian government and media claimed that much of the suffering could have been avoided if the borders of neighboring states had not been closed. They blamed especially the government of Jerry Rawlings in Ghana for precipitating the border closures of Benin and Togo. Ghana’s border had been closed since September, 1982, to prevent smuggling and because of fear of external subversion. On the announcement of the expulsion order, Benin and Togo also closed their borders, fearing that a flood of Ghanaian refugees would be trapped within their countries.

International assistance was forthcoming, although most donors were slow to react to the appeals from Ghana and the other affected states. Libya sent medical supplies and several aircraft to help with the evacuation. Denmark and the United Kingdom also sent medical supplies. The United States committed 720 tons of food supplies. Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland sent blankets, food, and tents. Italy provided a broad range of emergency assistance. International relief agencies, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Oxfam, the World Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and Christian Aid, also rendered assistance to the returning migrants. An offer by the Nigerian government of some financial assistance to Ghana was rejected as “blood money.”

The Ghanaian government established a national relief committee that chartered ships and buses to transport its citizens from Lagos, coordinated relief supplies, and processed the returnees in regional centers. Plans were made to incorporate them into the national reconstruction exercise that the Rawlings government had initiated on its takeover in September, 1982. Economic conditions in Ghana were far worse than in Nigeria, however, and the reabsorption of approximately one million people was difficult. In fact, significant numbers of Ghanaians returned to Nigeria later in 1983, and some suffered another expulsion in April, 1984. Nigeria;migrant workers Migrant workers Immigration;illegal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aluko, Olajide. “The Expulsion of Illegal Aliens from Nigeria: A Study in Nigeria’s Decision-Making.” African Affairs 84 (October, 1985): 539-560. Examines how and why the expulsion decision was made, how it was implemented, and its consequences. Especially strong in exploring the impacts of the decision on the global and domestic economic situations, subregional relations, the history of hostility between Nigeria and Ghana, internal instability, and growing crime. Concludes that the decision-making process was autocratic and defective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, M. Leann. “Nigeria and the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement and Residence.” Journal of Modern African Studies 27, no. 2 (1989): 251-273. Explores the expulsion of aliens in the context of Nigeria’s commitments to ECOWAS. Points out Nigeria’s leadership in the establishment and financial support of the community. Argues that popular discontent with perceived “burdens” of ECOWAS membership, along with immediate and specific socioeconomic and political considerations, resulted in Nigeria’s decision to ignore the spirit of West African cooperation and unity enshrined in the ECOWAS protocol regarding the free movement of people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henckaerts, Jean-Marie. Mass Expulsion in Modern International Law and Practice. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1995. Sober, scholarly account of mass expulsions throughout recent history and of the relevant social and legal consequences. Well supplemented with appendixes, lists, and documents. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Okome, Mojubaolu O. Sapped Democracy: The Political Economy of the Structural Adjustment Program and the Political Transition in Nigeria, 1983-1993. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998. Provides a detailed analysis of the Nigerian government within the relevant time frame. Well researched and documented, supplemented with maps, tables, and a number of informative appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Scholarly, political history of Nigeria. Illustrated and indexed.

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Categories: History