Ghana: Northern conflict re-ignites as jihadists come knocking

By Kent Mensah

Posted on Wednesday, 15 February 2023 17:43
File photo of Ghanaian soldiers in training in Accra. (US Army Africa)

Some 800 miles away from Ghana’s capital, Accra, in the market town of Bawku - less than an hour from the borders of Burkina Faso and Togo – a decades-long conflict between two rival ethnic groups has left more than 20 people dead between December and February.

The Mamprusi and Kusasi ethnic groups have engaged in fierce gun battles for decades over who should control the town’s chieftaincy. Health officials, teachers, civil servants, farmers, and many other professionals are fleeing the once-vibrant economic hub of Ghana. Businesses are closing down and people cannot go to their farms.

“No amount of incentive will force me to return to Bawku. The situation is scary and I can’t risk my life. I would rather remain poor than live in perpetual fear and uncertainty. Bawku is a ticking timebomb,” says Moro Adams, 28, a trained teacher who fled the town last year after his neighbour was killed.

On Wednesday 15 February, one of the feuding parties installed a parallel king that could lead to serious security problems.

Ghana’s Ministry of Information condemned the enskinment of new Bawku Naba, describing it as “illegal and a threat to national security.”

“The security agencies have therefore been directed to arrest and prosecute any other person who holds himself out as a Bwaku Naba,” according to the statement, signed by Minister Kojo Oppong Nkrumah.

The parallel king was installed by the King of the Mamprusi ethnic group known as Naa Bohugu Mahami Abdulai Sherigah II who is based outside Bawku in the North East Region.

The conflict in Bawku has re-emerged in recent times after 13 years of relative peace.

Disturbing the peace

Militants open fire on innocent citizens including women in the central market in broad daylight and use motorbikes for hit-and-run shooting missions against their enemies. Soldiers who are keeping peace in the troubled area have also been accused of extra-judicial executions, but the army hierarchy has denied the accusations.

“The operational style of the soldiers has evolved in shooting and killing innocent citizens that they have been tasked to protect. That is reckless. They need to protect the sanctity of life,” the MP for the area, Mahama Ayariga, tells The Africa Report.

Just next door in Burkina Faso, Islamist militants have taken advantage of political instability to expand their frontiers from the Sahel region. Two coups in the French-speaking country last year alone have left the country destabilised as jihadists take advantage of the situation to intensify attacks near its borders with Ghana, Togo and Benin.

No amount of incentive will force me to return to Bawku. The situation is scary and I can’t risk my life. I would rather remain poor than live in perpetual fear and uncertainty. Bawku is a ticking timebomb.

The porous nature of the borders and smuggling routes are stretching the resources of the Ghanaian security agencies who are focused on making sure the situation in Ouagadougou does not spill over into Ghana and at the same time keeping tabs on the communal conflict in Bawku.

“It’s a situation of sleeping with one eye closed,” Upper East Regional Minister Stephen Yakubu tells The Africa Report. “We are aware of the possible threats the Burkina Faso situation puts on us.”

“Our focus now is how to get the two factions to stop fighting so that Bawku will be peaceful. We are urging them to cease fire and smoke the peace pipe. We know we’re definitely getting to the end of this,” he adds.

Despite the communal violence, settlements in Bawku are currently hosting more than 6,000 refugees who fled terror attacks in Bittou, just a 45-minute drive away in Burkina Faso. Most of these refugees, including women and children, travelled through the porous frontier to enter Ghana. The 144,000 inhabitants of Bawku have easy access to Burkina, Mali, Togo and Niger due to unmanned border crossings.

Ghana has avoided a direct attack linked to Islamist militants in Burkina Faso so far, but its neighbours Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin have suffered the wrath of gunmen from across their northern borders.

Foreigners in Bawku?

Security experts like Adam Bonaa of the Accra-based Institute of Security, Safety, Policy and Research warn that the Sahel’s terrorist groups could take advantage of the weak security situation at the frontiers to add to instability. Fueling the local conflict in Bawku is a way of establishing a foothold in Anglophone West Africa.

“Foreigners have infiltrated Bawku and they are being aided by locals to kill,” Bonaa tells The Africa Report.

Civilians are shooting with assault rifles as if there is no tomorrow. If we don’t treat the issue of Bawku as a special case it will lead to serious problems. That is how the issue of Nigeria started.

“As for the act of terrorism, we don’t deal with Bawku the way we should deal with it,” he said, adding that it will not take a long time to take root in the city.

“The foreigners who have infiltrated Bawku are the agents of the locals — foreigners cannot walk onto your land and start terrorising Bawku. Obviously, someone will have to give them a place to sleep and feed them and give them a place to hide,” he says.

Bonaa’s fears are seemingly supported by Ghana’s defence minister Dominic Nitiwul, who in a recent address to Parliament said the dynamics in the Bawku conflict have changed for the first time since the conflict began in 1983.

“Civilians are shooting with assault rifles as if there is no tomorrow. If we don’t treat the issue of Bawku as a special case it will lead to serious problems. That is how the issue of Nigeria started,” Nitiwul told the MPs.

“For the first time [on Monday 6 February], improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were used in this country to try and blow a bridge. Don’t joke with Bawku. And that is how terrorists operate,” he said.

Nitiwul minced no words.

“What is happening today in Bawku is not about chieftaincy. It is criminality. Those operating are criminals. Bawku can lead Ghana into an abyss where terrorists can infiltrate Ghana. It’s time to silence the guns.”

MP Ayariga shares similar views.

“Unknown elements are sowing seeds of radicalisation in the area and we must not allow it to grow in any of our communities. Bawku must be saved and protected from both internal and external aggressors,” he says.

Deteriorating security

The Ghanaian government is beefing up its security presence in Bawku by sending 500 additional soldiers to the 500 stationed there. But moving more troops to Bawku will undermine the conflict resolution in that area, says Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar, executive director of West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism.

“I am strongly against an over-securitised response to the issue of Bawku,” says Muqthar, who says a balanced tactic is necessary.

“An over-militarised approach to issues like this is what has led to our failure in the Sahel region in dealing with violent extremism. It’s the same approach that led to the escalation of the security crisis in Nigeria that eventually led to the creation of Boko Haram,” Muqthar tells The Africa Report.

Bawku remains tense. Economic activities are at a standstill. Residents fear reprisal attacks and don’t trust the military to deal with the situation. Conflict resolution mechanisms have collapsed, leaving Bawku close to the epicentre of extremist violence.

Muqthar is of the view that extremists in the Sahel will look to exploit the situation in Bawku.

“They take advantage of vulnerabilities like this to recruit people to engage in attacks. We have not taken the case of Bawku seriously. The revelation that people are now using IEDs is very dangerous. It tells us that we are sitting on a timebomb,” he says.

Ghanaians are deeply concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Bawku. This lingering conflict is gradually turning Bawku into a ghost town and a headache for the security services of Ghana.


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