Roundabout in Nakpanduri neighbouring the region of Bawku
Staying local or expanding? The Bawku conflict could be exploited to spread terrorism and violent extremism. | Image: Hugues via flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Small Sparks, Big Flames: Why Resolving Local Conflicts Matters for Wider Security – The Case of Bawku Conflict in Ghana.

In the Sahel region, terrorist groups have exploited existing local conflicts to expand their activities and reach. In recent years, countries especially in coastal West Africa, have experienced terrorist activities in their territories. While Ghana has been resilient against terrorist attacks on its soil, the country continues to grapple with enduring ethnic conflicts, among them the Mamprusi and Kusai conflict in Bawku. In this blog post I argue that the Bawku conflict has persisted over an extensive period, and if left unresolved, could potentially open the door for extremist exploitation and infiltration, signaling a troubling extension of Sahel terrorist activities.

 

In his 2024 State of the Nation Address, presented to parliament, Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo acknowledged the intricate nature of the ongoing Bawku conflict and bemoaned the country’s enormous resources being spent on maintaining peace and security in that part of the country:

“The tragedy is not only that a thriving and dynamic town is being reduced to a wasteland of destruction and distrust, we are spending money and energy that would have been better spent on developing the needs of Bawku, providing security to keep brothers and sisters from killing each other. (…) what should concern all of us and not just the people of Bawku is that, in its current state, Bawku is an alluring magnet to mischief makers and extremists operating a few kilometers across from the border.” (Akuffo Addo, 2024; 2) (Ghana News Agency)

In the months after the President delivered his speech, violent clashes in Bawku were again in the news, showing that this conflict was far from being settled.

Historical Contestation and Political Interference

The conflict in Bawku between Kusasi and Mamprusi, dating back to 1931, revolves around the occupancy of the Bawku skin, which represents chiefly authority in the Bawku traditional area. As a result of a colonial policy arrangement, the Bawku Chief holds paramountcy over Kusasi, Mamprusi, and other local chiefs. This led to contention between the Kusasi and Mamprusi over who rightfully occupies the position of paramount chief (Dramani et al., 2023). The Kusasis claim their indigenous status in the Bawku traditional area predating other ethnic groups. While the Mamprusis assert their historical presence in Bawku since the 17th century and claim to be the initiators of chieftaincy in the region (Bukari, 2013). In 1957, tensions began to escalate between the Mamprusis and Kusasis over the Bawku chieftaincy, which led to the installation of two separate chiefs for the same position (Dramani et al., 2023). Consequently, disturbances ensued, with conflict parties taking entrenched positions and defending their claims. The then Governor General established the Opoku-Afari Committee of 1957, to investigate the cause of the disturbances. The committee report suggested that installing a Mamprusi as the chief of the traditional area was unacceptable and ‘undemocratic’ (Doke, 2021; B. K. Noagah, 2013). In the same year, the Mamprusis filed a writ at a divisional court challenging the decision of the committee and won (Doke, 2021). After Kwame Nkrumah, the then president, was overthrown in 1966, the National Liberation Council (NLC) enacted the Chieftaincy Amendment Decree 112, which saw a Mamprusi becoming the Bawku Naba, the paramount chief of Bawku, who ruled until 1980. In 1981, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) overthrew the NLC and replaced the NLC Degree 122 with PNDC Law 75, known as the Chieftaincy Restoration Law. This led to the reinstatement of a Kusasi as the Bawku Naba whose lineage has ruled Bawku until the present day. The historical contestation and political interference have been the source of violence in Bawku since 1981 and continue to be to this day.

Dynamics, Intractability, and Surge of Arms

The conflict is characterized by recurring “waves” of violent clashes between the two ethnic groups with varied degrees of intensity. These violent clashes have resulted in many deaths and injuries, with unimaginable damage to properties. Amidst ongoing mediation efforts, the conflict continues unabated. In recent news, an unknown gunman attacked members of the public in the Bawku area, killing 2 people and injuring 4 others (Graphic Online).

Partisan interferences further complicate the conflict, transforming it into a political struggle between the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Congress (NPP). During the 2000 general elections, disagreement over election results led to an outbreak of violence, leading to the loss of 68 lives, the destruction of over 200 houses, and internally displaced about 2500 individuals (Lund, 2003). Several research studies have linked the ongoing conflict to some politicians fueling tensions through extreme politicization of ethnic grievances for political gains.

The episodes of violence underlined by sporadic attacks and tit-for-tat retaliations morphed the conflict into a protracted, intractable, and enduring one. The conflict is further aggravated by the surge of arms in Bawku. Many residents in the area now feel obliged to arm themselves for protection, leading to a culture of gun ownership (Global Initiative to Combat Trafficking, 2024). This has incentivized the conflicting parties to attack each other at the least provocation.

Bawku is just a few kilometers away from the Burkina Faso border and a center of commerce for other Sahelian countries. The town is also identified as one of the transit zones for arms manufacturing and trafficking. The large unauthorized entry points to Ghana aside from its 44 official borders to Burkina Faso have enabled the flow of illicit sophisticated arms into the area, amplifying concerns about the easy spread of violent extremism from the Sahel into Ghana with Bawku as an open door. There are reports of jihadist infiltration in the area, though denied by security agencies and some observers of the conflict, however, the reality remains that the conflict has become more dangerous than ever. The discovery of bodies with multiple bullet wounds after violent clashes left the local people in awe, as it is not typical of the conflict of machetes and sticks, they used to witness. The Ghana Armed Forces reported incidents of gunmen firing at their patrol teams, while the Ghana Police encountered locals attempting to deploy a Rocket Propelled Granade (RPG) bomb at a filling station in Bawku (SMB intel, 2024).

All this underlines the importance of seeing the Bawku conflict within a wider network of transnational (violent) connections. The events outlined above raise concerns about the risk associated with the conflict and the general threat it poses to Ghana as a whole. There is a danger of an increasingly blurred line between locals armed with sophisticated weapons and potential terrorist groups attempting to carry out terrorist activities in the country. This emphasizes the need for the government and other stakeholders to prioritize resolving the Bawku conflict with all the necessary resources and interventions. A delay in doing so, would not only make the conflict dangerous but easily pave the way for possible terrorist infiltration which will further jeopardize regional security and stability.

Attempts to Resolve the Conflict

Over the past years, there have been several peacebuilding efforts in Bawku by multiple stakeholders at different levels in response to the ongoing violence. The National Peace Council (NPC), the Regional and District Security Council, the Christian Council of Ghana, Catholic Relief Services, the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), the Bawku East Women’s Development Association, the Bawku Inter-Ethnic Peace Committee, Belim Wusa Development Agency, World Vision, and Action Aid, among a host of other notable organizations, all supported peace processes through several initiatives. The state for example, employed different approaches and mechanisms to bringing peace to Bawku, including the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, the implementation of early warning systems to identify indicators of violent escalation for a prompt response, and supported array of high-level negotiation and mediation efforts, both at the national and local levels (Doke, 2021). While state interventions are occasionally successful in preventing the escalation of violence, it is generally seen as a knee-jerk reaction, highly centralized, with some elements of government accused of impartiality and bias.

On the local front, NGOs through collaborative partnerships with the cooperation of the NPC undertook numerous conflict resolution activities, including peace education, mediation, negotiations, community dialogue, capacity building for the community leaders, traditional reconciliation ceremonies, trust, and confidence building, etc. Similarly, the efforts by these mid-level actors have proven instrumental in terms of calming tensions, bringing the feuding factions to negotiation, and maintaining sustained periodic dialogues. However, part of the challenges that fraught the interventions include suspicions, lack of trust, and perception that they exacerbated the conflict by taking sides or influencing one group against the other. This thereby occasioned the establishment of the Bawku Inter-Ethnic Peace Committee (BIEPC) in 2009 – an alternative peacebuilding mechanism that is more inclusive, open, bottom-up, with local legitimacy. It represents a grassroots-led intervention to solve the conflict. Consisting of 23 members of various ethnic groups in Bawku, the BIEPC has the aim to empower and collaborate with the local population to come up with indigenous solutions to ending the conflict (Aganah, 2023). The committee works collaboratively with chiefs, opinion leaders, elders, community members, etc. to openly discuss the conflict, exchange views, and propose possible solutions to ending the cycle of violence. Amidst the optimism surrounding the potential of BEIPC towards the ongoing conflict, January 2022 witnessed another cycle of violence leading to the death of many lives and the destruction of several properties. Despite the setback, the BIEPC appears to be one of the very few constructive mechanisms of conflict resolution that has been successfully employed in addressing the Bawku conflict. It has given the local people the opportunity to play an active role in the peacebuilding processes. Even though the BIEPC has not achieved the needed peace and harmony, it still has the potential to mobilize the local people to work collaboratively and collectively toward a more peaceful future.

Looking forward

Given the exploitability of local conflicts and their susceptibility to manipulation, countries neighboring the Sahel, including Ghana, must swiftly tackle local conflicts to prevent them from becoming conduits for the expansion of terrorism and violent extremism. As Ghana gears up for the 2024 general elections, there is growing fear over electoral unrest with Bawku in the spotlight. The deep-seated rivalry between the two ethnic groups, the sitting vice president doubling as the presidential candidate of the NPP (the political party in government) who hails from one of the ethnic groups (Mamprusi), coupled with the high stakes in forthcoming elections – considering these factors, the scenario looks unpredictive. There is fear of another wave of violence, given the plethora of violent clashes in previous elections.

It goes without mentioning that the Bawku conflict has strained a lot of developmental resources, overstretched security capacities, and diverted attention from other important national security concerns. Ghana’s border to the north remains susceptible to an increasing threat of violent extremism and potential infiltration of terrorist movements operating in the Sahel region as far as the conflict lingers on. Even though some of the peacebuilding initiatives did not achieve lasting and sustainable peace in Bawku, stakeholders must intensify efforts to resolve the conflict. Leaving the conflict unsettled could lead to even greater consequences than whatever it takes to end it.

First, the Government should, through collaborative efforts, address the influx and spread of illicit weapons in Bawku through tightening border security, enhanced disarmament programs, public awareness activities, etc. Second, the Bawku Inter-Ethnic Peace Committee should be strengthened and supported with the needed resources. BIEPC represents the importance of community actors in peacebuilding and has the potential to garner local support, foster cooperation and facilitate dialogue among the opposing sides, which is highly desirable in working towards sustainable peace. Third, the international community in their quest to prevent the spread of violent extremism and terrorism emanating from the Sahel should support countries struggling with protracted local conflicts – through collective and coordinated efforts that focus on intelligence sharing, capacity building, technical assistance, and financial aid. Finally, politicians interested in exploiting the ethnic tensions should prioritize the peace and security of Bawku over their political interests. Peace serves as the only foundation upon which government functions.

Alhassan Tahiru

Alhassan Tahiru

Alhassan Tahiru studiert Friedensforschung und Internationale Beziehungen an der Universität Tübingen und absolvierte ein Praktikum in der Forschungsgruppe „Afrikanische Interventionspolitik“ bei Antonia Witt. Seine Forschungsinteressen umfassen bewaffnete Konflikte, gewalttätigen Extremismus und Konflikttransformation. Derzeit arbeitet er an der Schnittstelle von lokalen Konflikten und der Ausbreitung von gewalttätigem Extremismus. // Alhassan Tahiru currently studies Peace Research and International Relations at the University of Tübingen and interned with Antonia Witt in the research group “African Intervention Politics”. His research interests include armed conflicts, violent extremism, and conflict transformation. He is currently working on the intersection between local disputes and the proliferation of violent extremism.

Alhassan Tahiru

Alhassan Tahiru studiert Friedensforschung und Internationale Beziehungen an der Universität Tübingen und absolvierte ein Praktikum in der Forschungsgruppe „Afrikanische Interventionspolitik“ bei Antonia Witt. Seine Forschungsinteressen umfassen bewaffnete Konflikte, gewalttätigen Extremismus und Konflikttransformation. Derzeit arbeitet er an der Schnittstelle von lokalen Konflikten und der Ausbreitung von gewalttätigem Extremismus. // Alhassan Tahiru currently studies Peace Research and International Relations at the University of Tübingen and interned with Antonia Witt in the research group “African Intervention Politics”. His research interests include armed conflicts, violent extremism, and conflict transformation. He is currently working on the intersection between local disputes and the proliferation of violent extremism.

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