Becoming Local: (Hi)Stories of “Nigerians” in Accra

By Victoria Okoye

As a Nigerian-American, Accra’s connections to Nigeria stand out to me as insights into the deeply inter-regional character of the city. When I first came to Accra a decade ago, I identified the present, perhaps most obvious, traces of these connections: the Nigerians, like my uncle-in-law, moving through and living in the city; the popularity of Nollywood films; the similarities between our many local dishes, like egusi soup (agushie), bean porridge (red red), and the ever-contentious jollof rice.[1] Over time, conversations with residents, friends, colleagues, scholars, and research partners have woven together for me connected (hi)stories — four of which I will attempt to encapsulate here — that challenge us to see the city of Accra and the country of Nigeria not as distinct locations, but rather as geographies and places where peoples that have long been in relation with one another.

The Nigerian Origins of the Ga People

Some oral histories trace the Ga people’s origins to western Nigeria and date their migration and rise to power in present-day Accra to the 13th century.[2] The Ga people’s encounters and interminglings with Guan, Fante, and other peoples created the foundation for the city of Accra. They first settled at the hills of the Accra plains, but with the destruction of the powerful, centralized Ayawaso kingdom in 1677 they formed a collection of seaside towns in proximity to European forts at the coast. These Ga coastal townships — Ga Mashie, Osu, Teshie, La, and Nungua — are the foundations of contemporary Accra and were shaped through political factioning as well as incorporation. As the Ga people established their quarters in proximity to the three European forts, they contributed to an emerging local-global commercial core and an emerging African city. All the while, the Ga people welcomed and integrated new groups into their quarters, most notably, the Tabon people, whom Hermann W. Von Hesse discusses in his own recent contribution.[3] The scholarship around the Ga people’s early history demonstrates the realities of social identity in flux due to internal and external political concerns. The two towns that constituted Ga Mashie, themselves comprised of various quarters, emerged through the mixing of multiple peoples; for example, Fanti fishermans’ engagement with the Ga enabled centuries of fishing industry. Laborers from Nigeria were the manual workforce behind the construction of the area’s well-known forts. As Emmanuel Akyeampong asserts, during this period of intense political conflict, one’s willingness to fight for and in defense of the town enabled one’s social incorporation into the Ga community, providing insight into the incorporation of these different peoples into Ga society.[4]

Alata: From Laborers and Artisans to Ga Akutso (quarter)

With the Europeans’ susceptibility to malaria and local diseases, constructing the European forts relied on “local” laborers.[5] These workers were local to the West African region and an essential workforce as enslaved laborers and hired artisans, called “Alata,” who built the James Fort that stands at High Street. The term Alata is often used to refer to Nigerians, and this term refers to the enslaved African laborers and hired artisans that the Europeans relied on for manual construction of the forts and castles that established their coastal connections and commercial interests. Many of these laborers came from Allada, a kingdom subjugated by the then-increasingly powerful Oyo Empire that had become involved in the slave trade and sold enslaved Africans to Europeans, including for Europeans’ agglomeration of trading-turned-colonial activities along the Atlantic Coast. In order to construct the James Fort, the British Royal African Company brought in laborers (servants and enslaved persons) from present-day Benin/Nigeria, and after the fort was completed, these individuals remained, forming the new settlement of Jamestown (known as Ngleshie Alata) in close proximity to the fort, and denoting the connections of the settlement to British rule and Nigerian heritage. These Alata laborers and artisans blended into the Ga society, forming what we know today as the Jamestown Ngleshie Alata, one of the seven recognized akutsei (quarters). An additional, albeit smaller, Osu Alata community was also formed, with similar origins. For long these Ngleshie Alata have been recognized as an integral part of the Ga society, however Naaborko Sackeyfio’s research on land disputes between Ga claimants demonstrates internal challenges to the Alata claims to land (and particularly, claims to compensation in the sale of lands).[6]

John Parker_Accra Map 1908
The map above indicates the presence of an Alata community in the emerging city of Accra, located in proximity to James Fort and the Sempe and Akanmaji (Akunmaje) akutsei (quarters). Source: John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra.

Muslim Hausa, Fulani, and Lagos Diaspora Communities in Accra

The practice of Islam in West Africa dates to the 10th century, and the religion spread predominantly through political rule and commercial traders’ migrations throughout the region. From the 16th century, Gonga, Wala, Dagomba, and Mamprusi peoples’ encounters with Muslim Mande and Soninke merchants’ facilitated their conversion to Islam and has contributed to the strong following in present-day northern Ghana.[7] In the 19th century, Hausa commercial traders began to trade in the Gold Coast territory, particularly in colonial Accra and Kumasi. Commercial opportunities in the trade of kola nuts and cattle attracted merchants like Mallam Idris Nenu from Katsina, who arrived in the mid 19th century and is cited as the first Hausa to settle in Accra. He and his family initially lived among the Ga people, in close proximity to the Jamestown Lighthouse until 1881, when he acquired land from the Ga Mantse to establish a religious enclave for his family and followers. They constructed a gated settlement with a mosque, and Nenu started a school whose attendees included Muslim Yoruba, Hausa, and Ga students.[8]

In earlier times, intermarriage and integration had facilitated a mixed and cosmopolitan Ga culture.[9] The Ga people had historically been welcoming to other peoples, but religious differences and colonial government policy played a role in developing an enduring conception of strangerhood between different ethnic groups (and the eventual postcolonial national identities). On one hand, ethnically diverse Muslims, framed as strangers, began to live in enclaves and residential settlements set apart.[10] On the other hand, whereas the Ga people historically recognized “the wealth and value of strangers,” Gold Coast colonial administrative laws essentialized strangerhood as a fixed aspect between different ethnic identities.[11] For example, the British colonial government facilitated separate residential areas on the basis of race (native towns versus European towns) as well as on the basis of religious and ethnic difference between Africans.

The British colonial government, via its Native Administration, facilitated this separatedness between Muslim migrant settlements and the local Ga people. This is evidenced by a July 9th, 1908 government record from a meeting between a group of religious authorities, representing the Muslim Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani communities in Accra, and the colonial governor and acting secretary of the Native Affairs Administration.[12] The meeting’s discourse concerned the colonial government’s proposal between two sites for a Muslim-specific residence, part of an attempt at decongestion of the urban core following an outbreak of plague. The meeting included a discussion of the current size of the Muslim community in Accra, estimated at 1500 people, and a six-month timeline for the relocation of the Muslim communities.[13]

PRAAD-ADM-11-1446
Excerpt of Gold Coast Native Administration document “Palaver held at Government House, Christiansborg, on the 9th July, 1908. Source: PRAAD, Accra, Ghana.

Accra’s Markets and the Commercial Influence of the Yoruba

Ato Quayson’s book Oxford Street, Samuel Ntewusu’s writings on the history of Muslims in Accra, and conversations with Accra’s former mayor Nat Nuno Amarteifio introduced me to the multiple connections of the Yoruba and Hausa people to Accra via commercial trade, migrations, and repatriations – from the Tabon people, who were likely of Yoruba (and Hausa) heritages and returnees to West Africa from the experience of the slave trade in Brazil; to the founders and main commercial operators in both Makola and Tudu markets in Accra’s CBD; even colonial educated professionals like S.O. Akiwumi, born in Lagos 1858, who relocated to Accra in the late 1880s and whose son, also born in Nigeria, married into a prominent Ga family and who become a justice in Ghana’s Supreme Court and second speaker in the National Assembly.[14]

Tudu was founded in the early 1900s by Alhaji Haruna, and there were five residences constructed by the time Haruna’s mother purchased the land in 1905. The space emerged as a residential settlement that gradually evolved into a commercial area. Here, Dagomba, Kotokoli, Yoruba, Hausa, Gonja, and other groups established residential sections, trading in goods such as kola nut and shea butter. In 1924, Makola Market was constructed as a fresh produce market, and Yoruba traders most of them women were among the original shop owners. Many assert that the word “Makola” is drawn from the Yoruba word for “meeting place.”[15]

Farther afield, Nima was a settlement for cattle grazing now incorporated into the city and one of Accra’s most populous neighborhoods. Founded in the early 1930s by Mallam Futa, Nima, like Adabraka, became a home for Yoruba families, who lived and came to own properties that they rented out to tenants. In his short story “Made in Nima,” journalist and writer Kofi Akpabli provides a sensorial depiction of the Nima neighborhood. Connecting memories and historical information, he describes his first home, a compound in which 17 families, including his own, lived:

“The landlord was Baba Nangali Alawusa, a Lagosian, originally from Abeokuta. A trader, he sold everything from nails to fermented fish, a delicacy… If my mother speaks a word or two of Yoruba, it was within these walls that she was schooled. Baba had many kinsmen from Nigeria, also renting. At evening mealtimes, while the preparation of palm nut soup and pounding of fufu was occurring there, eba and gbegiri sauce was being cooked in the corner. The mixture of flavours of various dishes made the house a melting pot, literally.”[16]

From religious leaders and followers to artisans, forced laborers, commercial merchants and western-educated professionals, these (hi)stories demonstrate that the connections between Nigeria’s peoples and the peoples and spaces of Accra are numerous, deep, historical, and contemporary. However in the post-independence era (and perhaps with the formation of fixed, national identities), relations between Nigerians and Ghanaians in Accra have been mixed, with both highs and lows. Perhaps most commonly known is the 1969 Alien Compliance Order that forced the exodus of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 “aliens” from Ghana, many of them Nigerian, Togolese, Malian, and Burkinabé nationals, in a bid to address foreign ownership of local businesses. The Nigerian government retaliated several years later, in 1983 and 1985. More recently, tensions and outright clashes between commercial traders in Accra as well as in Kumasi have taken on xenophobic sentiments, with local (Ghanaian) traders asserting that the foreigners (Nigerians) are taking away their customers and commercial opportunities, and just earlier this month, a Ghanaian political authority channeled this memory and its impacts in response to violence been Ghanaian and Nigerian commercial traders.[17] These Nigeria-Ghana connections in Accra pervade place names in the city’s spaces, the languages we hear around us, and even the ruptures of government deportation policies.

*Note: Many of the sources that I rely on in this essay are from men, a fact that distorts the types of histories and experiences included in this piece and its narrative.

 I employ the framing of “(hi)stories” to do a few things. First, to privilege the role of oral histories, traditions, stories and interviews, both past and present, in shaping my knowledge and understanding of the city of Accra. Second, to highlight the multiple histories and stories that exist within the city and about the city. In using this idea of (hi)stories, I borrow directly from the third-year architecture and masters in urban design course taught by Florian Kossak at the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture, in which I’ve had the opportunity to guest lecture on Accra’s architectural and urban history.

VictoriaOkoye (b&w).jpegVictoria Okoye is Nigerian-American and a PhD candidate in Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Her previous work in Accra, Lagos, and Durban with street and market vendors and on community spaces and placemaking inform her collaborative doctoral research on young people’s everyday and embodied experiences of community spaces in Accra’s Nima neighborhood. Victoria works through the disciplinary lenses of architecture, urban studies, and geography and draws on Black studies to engage to consider urban modernity, and to situate coloniality among questions of race, and place in African cities like Accra. She sometimes writes at www.africanurbanism.net.


Featured image (at top): Predominant tribe in the area : [Ghana], Ghana. Census Office, 1966, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Haleluya Hadero, “How Jollof Rice Became West Africa’s Iconic Dish and a Point of Banter Between West Africans,” Quartz Africa, August 23, 2019, https://qz.com/africa/1689421/the-history-of-jollof-rice-in-west-africa-and-the-banter/

[2] Ato Quayson, Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), page 38; Interview with Nat Nuno Amarteifio, August 8, 2019.

[3] Hermann W. von Hesse (November 21, 2019). An Obscure Afro-Brazilian ‘Colony’ in Ghana: Accra’s Tabon Community, The Metropole: The Official Blog of the Urban History Association, https://themetropole.blog/2019/11/21/an-obscure-afro-brazilian-colony-in-ghana-accras-tabon-community/

[4] Emmanuel Akyeampong (2002). Bukom and the Social History of Boxing in Accra: Warfare and Citizenship in Precolonial Ga Society. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35, 1, pp. 41-42.

[5] This is part of a narrative I learned in an interview with Nat Nuno Amarteifio, former Accra mayor and urban historian of the city, August 8, 2019.

[6] John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra (Portsmouth, Heineman, 2000); Interview with Nat Nuno Amarteifio, August 8, 2019; Walking tour and interview with Emmanuel Mark-Hansen of Accra Walking Tours, 2015; Naaborko Sackeyfio, The Politics of Land and Urban Space in Colonial Accra, History in Africa, 39, 2012, pp. 293-329.

[7] Ousman Kobo, ‘We are citizens too’: The politics of citizenship in independent Ghana. Journal of Modern African Studies, 2010, 48(1), p. 70.

[8] Deborah Pellow, Landlords and Lodgers: Socio-Spatial Organization in an Accra Community (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press), p. 47.

[9] Although it wasn’t explicitly discussed in the texts I found on this subject, it’s clear that women played an important and essential role in the integration of different (male) “strangers” into local Ga society, through their participation in these marriages and ostensibly in their bearing children as well.

[10] Ousman Kobo, ‘We are citizens too’: The politics of citizenship in independent Ghana. Journal of Modern African Studies, 2010; Samuel A. Ntewusu, “One Hundred Years of Muslim Community in Accra: A Historical Study of Tudu from 1900 to 2000,” Islam in Africa South of the Sahara: Essays in Gender Relations and Political Reform (London, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, Inc), 2013.

[11] Deborah Pellow, citing Pogucki (1954:31): Deborah Pellow, Landlords and Lodgers: Socio-Spatial Organization in an Accra Community (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2002), p. 47.

[12] Scholars demonstrate the importance of critically reading archival records such as these with a critical eye on the absences within the records. For example, the meeting record, a colonial record produced to support a colonial authority, demonstrates the power relations embedded within the discourse between the government and the male Muslim authorities, as well as a particular perspective (considering what information that was part of the discussion would have been selectively included, excluded from the official record, or altered for inclusion into the record). As such, the document represents a particular perspective. Additionally, women were absent in this colonial record, in terms of representation at the meeting as well as in terms the concerns discussed at the meeting.

[13] Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra, Ghana. File ADM/11/1446.

[14] Ato Quayson, Oxford Street, City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 46

[15] Interview with Nat Nuno Amarteifio, August 8, 2019.

[16] Kofi Akpabli, “Made in Nima,” Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. Edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Glasgow, Bell & Bain Ltd., 2016, p. 51.

[17] General News, ‘Aliens Compliance Order’ rearing its ugly head – Allotey Jacobs on Nigerian-Ghana clash, GhanaWeb.com, December 4, 2019, https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Aliens-Compliance-Order-rearing-its-ugly-head-Allotey-Jacobs-on-Nigerian-Ghana-clash-805282

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