Why is the north blighted by chieftaincy disputes?

Ghana may be regarded as an oasis of stability in a region ravaged by strife. But the country faces a host of bitter ethnic and chieftaincy conflicts, especially in its three northern regions.

Most notable is the unresolved Dagbon conflict that erupted in 2002 in the northern town of Yendi when the paramount chief of the Dagbon ethnic group was murdered along with 40 of his followers.

The killers, allegedly members of a rival Dagbon faction, have never been found and neither has the dead chief’s head.

In 1994-95 a similar chieftaincy feud in Bimbilla, some 65 kilometres away, sparked a conflict in which 2,000 people died, over 400 villages were destroyed and 200,000 people were displaced. Some of the Bimbilla fighters were armed with AK-47s.

Easy access to arms is a serious problem across West Africa, with areas that can rapidly descend into conflict and crisis as in Cote d’Ivoire – once a bastion of peace and economic development but since 2002 gripped by civil war.

In January this year, a new chieftaincy feud again thrust Bimbilla into a state of violence, forcing the Ghanaian government to send in troops to enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew throughout the month.

In an in-depth interview with Emmanuel Bombande, Executive Director of the conflict resolution think tank West African Peace Building Network, IRIN looks at why northern Ghana has been blighted by a spate of violent chieftaincy disputes, and what risks this poses to the future stability of the country.

Why are we seeing so many conflicts in northern Ghana?

You need to first analyse the social organisation of ethnic groups in northern Ghana. Firstly, the four key main ethnic groups are organised around chiefdoms – the Gonjas, the Dagombas, the Nanumbas and the Mamprusis. These four families or tribes have a direct family linkage but with time separated and migrated to form these four kingdoms. That is why you will find similar names like Andani amongst the Dagombas and the Nanumbas. Remember also that among these four chiefdoms, the King of the Mamprusis is regarded as the eldest and that is why, traditionally, he is allowed to settle disputes involving the other three kingdoms.

But unfortunately, our indigenous mechanisms in resolving conflicts have not been promoted. Otherwise, the traditional institutions would have helped a lot in calming down tempers in these hotspots.

Secondly, there are also numerous ethnic groupings in the region that are not grouped along chiefdoms. However, these tribes more or less respected their spiritual heads as the landowners and authoritative heads. But the British ruled its colonies indirectly through the chiefs. So in areas where the British perceived there were no chiefs, they brought in princes from any of the above four kingdoms to rule.

If these modern day chieftaincy conflicts have their roots in colonial times, then the situation should have improved when the Gold Coast gained independence from the British in 1957 and became Ghana?

Though the seeds of these conflicts began in colonial times, they did not flare up into full clashes then as long as the landowners were respected for their authority. But once Ghana moved towards independence where [traditional] political authority…began to assume great importance, all these people began to demand the right to rule themselves rather than [be ruled by] by surrogate overlords. This is when the first major potential clashes began between the tribes whose social organisation evolved around Chiefs and those who did not.

Secondly, land in colonial days was in abundance and did not necessarily lead to conflicts. But now it is increasingly becoming very valuable with new cash crops like cashew nuts becoming the ‘cocoa’ of the north as well as mangos and guinea-corn, which is the main ingredient for brewing beer. As a result, the tussle over land is expressing itself in legitimacy over land ownership and who should therefore become chief.

Thirdly, there is massive poverty in Ghana’s three northern regions. The rainy season comes up only once a year and lasts only four months unlike twice a year in the south. During the dry season, masses of young unemployed people either migrate south or stay and idle about. It is during the dry seasons that these conflicts flare up, thus the need for the central government to improve on infrastructure development and tackle poverty.

Fourthly and this is very important, a lot of conflicts in the north are now being fought along political lines mainly between the Danquah-Busia [leaders of the independence struggle in Ghana] tradition from which the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) derives its origin and the Nkrumaist tradition to which the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) subscribes [Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president]. So whether it is the NPP or NDC in power, the perception that politicians would step in to favour its political agenda actually fuels the conflict. That is why we have agreed that consensus-building at the national level between these two parties is very critical to the resolution of conflicts in the northern regions.

What is happening in Bimbilla?

Na Abarika, late paramount chief of the Nanumba Traditional area, which has Bimbilla as its capital, died about three years ago. According to custom, once the funeral is over, the kingmakers are to determine the next paramount chief of the Nanumbas, who regard Bimbilla as their traditional capital.

In handling succession, there is a system where two families have legitimacy to the skin [in some ethic groups chiefs are given an animal skin or hide as a symbol of their chieftaincy, like a king his crown]. As a result in Bimbilla, there are two contenders, Nakppa-Naa Salifu Dawuni and Dasana Andani, who are vying to be the next legitimate occupant of the vacant Bimbilla chieftaincy.

Who are these kingmakers?

The kingmakers are the custodians of the skin with the primary duty of regulating succession within the traditional area. One would have thought these elders would have no difficulty in supervising a smooth transition for the vacant throne. However, once the kingmakers faltered in their clear determination on selecting the next legitimate chief, this immediately became a recipe for trouble.

If the kingmakers have only delayed in their decision, why are people in the traditional area attacking each other with guns and machetes?

As long as the [chief post] is vacant and there is no chief in the area, the people on the ground become divided into factions, rallying behind the two contenders. Presently, the kingmakers appear to be leaning towards the Dasana Andani with a 6-3 verdict, but this has to be confirmed. Now what is happening is that the Nakppa-Naa Salifu Dawuni faction is adamant that there should be no contention over the skin since it is their turn to rule [as Andani is from the same faction as the previous chief]. This is what has led to the stalemate and the subsequent clashes.

Who should step in to break this stalemate and resolve the crisis?

The legitimate intervention ought to come from the Northern Regional House of Chiefs. But unfortunately, this institution is under-resourced and overwhelmed with numerous traditional and chieftaincy conflicts to the extent that its mobility and capacity to respond are severely undermined. That is why they always use a face-saving measure by constantly delaying the arbitration process.

Does the 2002 unresolved Dagbon conflict have any repercussions for Bimbilla?

Certainly. The Dagbon conflict has not yet been resolved. Those at the losing end of the conflict in Bimbilla – i.e. the Andani clan – believe that they are being marginalised and aggrieved. Don’t forget that the murdered chief and his followers, who were killed, were Andanis. The rival clan involved in that conflict, the Abudus, are perceived to have the support of the ruling party. So as long as the perpetrators of these murders remain unpunished, this perception will continue.

Violence in Bimbilla came up mainly due to the absence of a substantive paramount chief. Do you see an escalation of the conflict?

Yes, especially if the issues under contention are not dealt with speedily and satisfactorily to both parties. I say this in the context of what is happening in the northeastern corridor of Ghana’s northern region. Bimbilla is already vulnerable. It was at the receiving end of the Nanumba-Kokomba wars of 1994-95. However, there has been a concerted effort to re-establish relationships between these two ethnic groups to the extent that both groups are now co-existing wonderfully. If this Bimbilla issue is not resolved, it has the potential to undermine years of successful peace building arrangements between these two ethnic groups.

The politicisation of the Bimbilla conflict could also have serious adverse repercussions. Should the violence escalate, it will revolve around the Bimbilla chieftaincy issue but also widen to interconnect with other issues. Remember, Ghana is moving towards the 2008 general elections and if things are not handled well, that in my view can be enough for a further escalation of the violence.

But the military and security forces have been deployed in the area. These agencies certainly have enough firepower to forestall any mischief, don’t they?

We must differentiate between the maintenance of law and order through the presence of the military on the ground from a permanent resolution of the conflict. This resolution must address the underlying issues we have been talking about. The kingmakers should do their duty and elect the new chief without fear or favour. Even if one side is aggrieved at losing its bid, negotiations that will follow should allow them to respect their own traditional norms and customs of seeking redress. The military’s role therefore is to ensure that there is no violence and not to determine who should or should not be king.

The northern regional house of chiefs says it will come out with its ruling on the impasse in March. Will this stop the Bimbilla crisis?

Its intervention has to be faithful to what the kingmakers are saying. But then once that determination is made, the kingmakers can then have the backing of the house of chiefs….If it goes contrary to the kingmakers’ decision, then we can see a possible escalation of the conflict.

Would you recommend that the curfew and security measures be extended till March to curb any further clashes?

I hope that the circumstances on the ground will compel the northern regional house of chiefs to move more expediently rather than to wait till March to issue their ruling. But in the process of waiting, there is the need to maintain and manage the security network on the ground. One way to do that is to maintain a curfew to curtail the movement of people at night especially when we know that the northern region of Ghana is plagued by a high incidence of illegal small arms. But even though the military is on the ground, let us not deceive ourselves that that alone can curb violence.

What else would you suggest ought to be done apart from speedily getting a replacement for the deceased king?

There must be an attempt on peace education and other forms of sensitising the people to understand what tolerance means until such time that the institutions tasked with electing the new chief are able to make their ruling known. We need to create an environment where people are tolerant and do not take the law into their own hands.