Resource 2: Conflict in Northern Ghana

Background information / subject knowledge for teacher

The roots of the conflicts in Northern Ghana are complex and interwoven. Moreover, accounts of the origins of conflicts vary among the different ethnic groups. The major points of contention, however, lie in disputes over land rights and political representation. Land rights are ultimately vested in the paramount chief on behalf of the ethnic group. Members of other ethnic groups who live on the land of a chief are expected to live by the chief’s rules and to show respect or allegiance, sometimes in the form of gifts.

Since British colonial rule, paramount chieftaincy has also been the prerequisite for a seat in the Northern and National Houses of Chiefs, and thus for significant political representation. However, only four ethnic groups, the Dagomba, Nanumba, Gonja and Mamprusi, have paramount chiefs. The other ethnic groups, such as the Konkomba, Nchumuru and Nawuri, have always been 'headless'. The Konkomba, for example, originally came from Togo and migrated to Ghana in the early 20th century. They are generally farmers and often move from one geographical area to another in search of fertile land. Instead of a system of paramount chieftaincy, where the community is governed by several chiefs and headed by a paramount chief, they have a non-centralised political system without secular leaders.

Nevertheless, the Konkomba and other groups have long claimed they should be entitled to the same political rights as paramount chieftaincy groups. To them, the current system is the unacceptable result of ancient rules. Since all the land belongs to chiefs, Konkomba are forced to live on 'foreign' land. Their refusal to respect the foreign chief's rule has often led to disputes. In reality, the Konkomba are not completely without political and economic representation. However, a legal recognition of their equal status would enable them to become more involved in local and national government. It would also enable them to gain access to district assembly funds, which the government is currently creating to support a decentralisation programme.

Because they form a relatively large part of the population in Northern Ghana, the Konkomba feel fully justified in pursuing this claim. According to 1996 figures of Minorities at Risk, the Konkomba, with 300,000 to 400,000 people, are the second largest ethnic group in the Northern Region and consequently they feel that they have the right to exercise authority over their own land. However, the land issue is particularly thorny. Fertile lands, which were once sufficient for all, are becoming increasingly scarce and thus increasingly valuable. The owners of fertile land are unwilling to surrender any part of their claim to ownership, particularly as they have the backing of the law.

The conflict over land and political power was a major source of tension among different ethnic groups but the conflict in the region also has other roots. Historically, many of the region's groups have had a good understanding with each other. In some cases, coexistence and intermarriage are common, making it difficult, on occasion, to define which ethnic group someone actually belongs to.

The Ghanaian Chronicle of 31 January 1993 contained an article predicting a terrible bloodbath in the near future, which would leave as many as 10,000 people dead. This caused such a great disturbance that in the city of Tamale, loudspeaker vans had to be used to calm down the distressed citizens.

Religious differences have also been identified as a source of division, especially over the last ten years. In general terms, Christian missionary activity has been most successful among the groups, while Islam has had a stronger influence on the chieftaincy groups. However, the Islamic influence is mainly seen among the leading families. The traditional religions still have the largest numbers of followers. At the village level, many people practise a mix of religion so religious differences are rarely a cause for conflict.

Finally, the situation is further complicated by the fact that conflicts not only occur between the various groups but also within them. Conflicts between the older and more traditional generation of rulers and the younger group members with more modern views on government, sometimes cause divisions within an ethnic group. These internal divisions surface in disagreements on how to solve the problems the group faces, and can subsequently hamper the peace process.

Taken from the report of the United National Development Programme in Ghana.

Conflict Prevention Programme

Ghana is not a conflict country; however issues about access to and use of natural resources, appointment and elevation to chieftaincy, as well as the use and management of community resources by chiefs have led to a multitude of prolonged community-level conflicts nationwide. According to national security sources, there are estimated to be over 200 major chieftaincy disputes across the country. Multiple factors underlie chieftaincy disputes and conflicts, the most prominent being:

  • succession rules, practices and processes;
  • destoolment;
  • corruption;
  • misuse of stool properties and revenues;
  • disposal of and/or alienation of stool property, particularly stool lands without the consent and agreement of the principal elders of the stool;
  • unwillingness to differentiate between public stool and private properties;
  • the inability of the both the National and Regional Houses of Chiefs to mitigate, manage and/or resolve conflicts brought before these Houses, as a result of alleged corruption and the lack of judicial and research capacities to dispense with cases expeditiously and judiciously;
  • political interference.

The situation is exacerbated by a wide prevalence of small arms and light weapons throughout Ghana. The UNDP identified the need for sustained engagement with the arms-producing communities, and for the introduction of innovative programmes to build awareness around the dangers of small arms, as well as to channel the energies of the producers into alternative productive economic activities. As well as small arms, the UNDP has also supported the government to establishing a national conflict prevention programme. The components of the programme include the establishment of national and regional peace advisory councils, which perform the functions of early warning and early response policy mechanisms. The UNDP also offers other programmes of support, which seek to strengthen the capacities of women and youth groups as constituencies for peace, as well as building the capacity of the chiefs for modern leadership.

Adapted from: UNDP, Website

Resource 1: A family conflict