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West African Tragedy


By Errol T. Louis

SITTING IN HIS OFFICE one afternoon last month, Nigerian President Shehu Shagari acted to make life miserable for millions living in his country. In an executive order as simple as it was brutal, Shagari gave all unskilled foreigners living illegally in Nigeria two weeks to leave. The declaration also applied to a few thousand teachers, and by late January, more than two million Ghanaians-- the largest group of illegal aliens in Nigeria--packed up and headed for the border.

The difficult trek was made even more so by the Nigerian police, who gassed and beat some of the expatriates. This ruthless display of xenophobia convinced several who were technically exempt from the sweeping decree that they too should leave.

The mishap became a tragedy when the refugees-- kicked out of their adopted country-- were told by their homeland that they were not welcome. The military government of Ghana-- which had sealed its borders to prevent smuggling-- refused at first to readmit the sudden influx of its own citizens. Ghana eventually did relent, setting up "transit camps" to record the masses. But the exodus is still a painful one, as many refugees are starving, and at least one person has already died.

When such suffering seems from flood or ramine, it is sad. But the misery of the Ghanaians has been caused by politics, which adds disgrace to the tragedy.

Nigeria's official explanation for the move was that the large number of "strangers" inside its borders fomented economic and political trouble-- a major catalyst for the bloody religious conflicts that rocked the country last year. But few observers believe that story.

Shagari has shown himself to be a politician willing to stoop to any means to bolster his career. A week after the expulsion order, the 32- story Nigerian External Communications building was destroyed in a fire. At least 30 people died in the blaze, which gutted the head-quarters of the nationally run telephone company, and which cut the country off from the outside world for several days. It was the third government building to burn in the past year-- all three of which housed ministries under investigation for multi-million-dollar government corruption. In each case, all potentially incriminating documents were reportedly destroyed.

The Nigerian leader has tried to use the two million Ghanaians as scapegoats to divert attention from the economic crises and the corruption charges that could hurt him in the balloting. Indications are that the expulsion has made him popular with almost every sector of his country.

NIGERIA'S ACTIONS, as callous as they are, pale in comparison with those of Ghana's military ruler. Flight Lieut. Jerry "J.J." Rawlings. Last New Year's Eve, Rawlings and a band of disgruntled army officers shot their way to power and quickly imposed a reign of terror on Ghana. Editors of major Ghanaian newspapers were herded to an army barracks and told that "objectivity" and "neutrality" in reporting were relics of the past: "You are either for or against the revolution."

The "revolution" has degenerated into a vulgar application of Marxist slogans in a country where they do not apply. Rawlings has declared a "holy war" against Ghana's few professionals-- doctors, engineers, lawyers-- calling them an exploitative class, and going as far as setting up an intricate administrative system to weed out those seeking government jobs. The attack is absurd on a group which has never held power, and it has helped insure the government's own ineptitude.

Already, Ghana has been beset by chaos. The military has imprisoned and murdered at will, using its weapons on "opponents" of the regime, or anyone who happens to personally offend the wrong military leader. Fines are imposed arbitrarily, and citizens who have refused to pay have mysteriously disappeared, their charred bodies showing up shortly after.

It is not surprising that Ghanaians would flee their own country's repression and economic mayhem to search for better conditions in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the politics of uncurbed ambition flourish in both countries. When both meet, the combination means the sacrifice of the welfare of millions to the personal authority of a few.

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