An Ethnographic Study of Northern Ghanaian Conflicts: Towards a Sustainable Peace

Northern Ghanaian Conflicts(This is Jerome Kuseh’s fourth review for Kinna Reads; his previous reviews can be found here. Jerome is a “Ghanaian who mostly blogs about politics and business. He is also a fan of literature and has sometimes written poetry. His business blog isceditalk.com and for his posts about politics, social issues and his attempts at creative writing, visit readjerome.blogspot.com.”

There are few things more embarrassing to people from Northern Ghana than violent clashes that occur in the Upper West, Upper East or Northern Regions. These three regions have Ghana’s highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of literacy, and comments on these conflicts have sometimes bizarrely reversed the positions of cause and effect or have been crude and lacking nuance.

Coming across Professor Awedoba’s book, An Ethnographic Study of Northern Ghanaian Conflicts: Towards a Sustainable Peace, at an EPP bookstore was therefore one of the best things that happened to me last year. The book, which is supported by CIDA, USAID and DFIF, is worth the price of GH¢30 I paid for it. It felt like something I had been looking for for years without even knowing it existed. This may sound like an exaggeration, but hailing from the Upper East Region and having lived most of my life in the South, I have often looked for means to understand the conflicts that were reported in the media, and this book was it.

The book is a research study led by Prof. Awedoba of the University of Ghana. The Northern Region team was led by Dr Edward Salifu Mahama of the Tamale Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies, Upper West Region by Mr. Sylvanus M. A. Kuuire of the University for Development Studies, and the Upper East Region by Mr. Felix Longi also of the University for Development Studies.

The study begins with an introduction that provides a useful context. It shows that fertile land in the three Northern regions are not evenly distributed. Erratic rainfall and lack of irrigation facilities also makes farming a seasonal activity, leaving periods of inactivity in the most underdeveloped parts of the country and causing the youth to emigrate for employment in the South. The study also shows that the colonial British had seen no justification for investing money in the ‘Northern Territories’ due to perceived lack of resources. They therefore deliberately kept it underdeveloped so that they could keep drawing unskilled labour from the North for industries in other parts of the colony.

This act by the British is one of five major acts that continue to fuel conflicts even today. The other four are the imposition of a monarch among people who had no chieftaincy in their culture such as the Dagaaba and the Sissala; the imposition of a monarch of the British’s choosing with disregard for tradition; the placement of groups of acephalous people under the administration of people who traditionally had chiefs; and the vesting of land in the colonial state (which was not done in the South). The vesting of lands to chiefs in the post-colonial period therefore created a challenge as history showed that not all chiefs in the North had owned land. One can therefore conclude that many of the conflicts the North has experienced have been legacies of colonization.

The study identified six remote and immediate causes of the conflicts:
• Competition for control of land
• Competition for traditional power and authority
• Abuse of power and position on the part of the ruler or someone in authority
• Rebellion against oppression and intolerable conditions
• Competition for valuable resources/facilities
• Faith-based rivalry

There are six types of conflicts identified in the study:
Intra-ethnic chieftaincy disputes such as the Yendi Chieftaincy crisis, the Nanumba succession crisis and the Chuchuliga dispute.

Inter-ethnic chieftaincy disputes such as the Konkomba-Nanumba conflict, the Vagala-Gonja conflict and the Kusasi-Mamprusi (Bawku) conflict.

Intra-ethnic land disputes such as the Kandiga-Mirigu conflict and the Wachii-Tengzuk dispute.
Inter-ethnic land disputes such as the Konkomba-Nanumba land crisis, the Bimoba-Konkomba crisis and the Gonja-Nawuri-Nchumburu crisis.

Inter-ethnic identity disputes such as the Vagala-Gonja conflict and the Konkomba-Nanumba conflict.
Religious conflicts such as the Kpabuso conflict between the Al-Suna and Tijjaniya Islamic sects.
It appears that the conflicts that result in the most loss of life and property are the inter-ethnic ones. These usually are between the historically acephalous people such as the Nchumburu, Konkomba, Vagala, Nawuri and the people with historical states such as the Mamprusi, Dagomba, Nanumba and the Gonja. These type of conflicts are mostly based on two things – disputed history as to whether a group of people were settlers, conquerors or autocthonous and the desire for one group to overturn their subservient relationship to another group with the help of numerical advantage.

These types of conflicts are complex. There appears to be a conflict between traditional unequal relationships and the desire for equal status spurred on by education and the realities of living in a modern democratic state. Professor Awedoba notes:

“Revolts such as those of the Vagala against their traditional overlords [the Gonja] cannot be divorced from current events in Ghana such as the independence and the rationale for it….Youth exposed to Marxist literature cannot be expected not to appreciate the similarities between what is put in these theories and what obtains back home in the village setting.” Page 178

In all these conflicts, the interference by political parties has been present in all governments. The removal and imposition of chiefs, from the 1960s, by the Convention People’s Party (CPP) the Progress Party (PP) and subsequent military governments have allied the conflicting groups to different political parties and has made the cause of peace more difficult.

The inflow of weapons, the lack of trust in security agencies and courts, the lack of proper resources for the National and Regional Houses of Chiefs, poverty, the influence of politicians, the perceived corruptibility of traditional rulers and the appreciation in value of land have all played parts in maintaining the conflicts.
The study relied on statements made by people, some of which were interested parties in the conflict. However, when possible, the statements made by the opposing parties are also stated. In several instances, the study does not give enough information about the casualties of the conflicts and the history of the Dagbon crisis was not extensively covered.

However, the importance of this study cannot be overemphasized. It serves as a very relevant guide to one of the biggest problems facing the country and something that has remained a stumbling block to development. My knowledge and views on conflicts in Northern Ghana have been significantly improved by this study. I recommend this book to every Ghanaian who has an interest in understanding conflicts that plague the country and who is looking for sophisticated and informed viewpoints on them.

You may also like ...