mending relationships

Is Ghana warming up to the Sahel again after diplomatic rift?

By Kent Mensah

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Posted on June 9, 2023 12:00

 © Ghanaian military personnel train shooting during the annual counter-terrorism program called “Operation Flintlock”, in Daboya, Ghana March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko
Ghanaian military personnel train shooting during the annual counter-terrorism program called “Operation Flintlock”, in Daboya, Ghana March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo has sent emissaries led by his national security chief Albert Kan-Dapaah to Ouagadougou and Bamako and followed up with a personal meeting with military leader Ibrahim Traore.

He is trying to repair the rift after the steady and positive diplomatic relationship between Ghana and Burkina Faso faltered last December. President Nana Akufo-Addo had alleged at a summit in the US that Ouagadougou had given out a mine as payment for the services of Russia’s Wagner mercenaries to fight insurgency in the country.

Burkina Faso denied the claims.

“It’s a gesture to repair a damaged relationship with Burkina Faso that is a close neighbour in battling with this threat,” Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar, executive director of West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, tells The Africa Report.

Northern neighbour Burkina Faso and Mali are reeling from hard-line Islamist insurgencies as they struggle to manage political instability following a series of military coups in the last two years. Togo, bordering Ghana to the east, and Côte d’Ivoire to the west, as well as Benin, have also not been spared by Jihadists.

“The Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa is now the epicentre of terrorism, with the Sahel accounting for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than both South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] combined,” says the Global Terrorism Index 2023 report.

Experts said Ghana is at risk mainly as a result of the porous borders and smuggling routes as Islamist militants take advantage of political instability to expand their frontiers in coastal West Africa from the Sahel region.

Porous borders and smuggling routes

The Sahel made up 43% of the global total of terrorism deaths last year; the total in the region in 2007 was only 1%, according to the report. Ghana’s neighbours Burkina Faso and Mali accounted for 73% of all terrorism deaths in the Sahel in 2022.

For Ghana to remain safe in the region, it needs to cooperate more with its neighbours in intelligence sharing, counterterrorism operations at the borders and build trust and goodwill with them.

Ghana is at a major crossroad

“You need to build goodwill and support in order to deal with this threat, so on the back of that, what Akufo-Addo is doing will help bolster confidence and coordination, especially goodwill and support among various actors,” says Muqthar.

Ghana needs Burkina Faso more than ever when it comes to dealing with insurgency knocking at its doors, especially from the north. A decades-long ethnic conflict between the Mamprusi and Kusasi people in Bawku – an hour’s drive from Burkina Faso’s border with Ghana – has escalated into a war, reportedly involving foreign combatants.

Fueling internal conflict

Experts fear groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), which are expanding into Mali’s neighbours and coastal states south of the Sahel, are fueling the volatile situation in Bawku to build a base in Ghana. Extremist groups ride on underlying factors, such as ethnic polarisation, lack of food, pastoral conflict and weak government control at borders to launch incursions.

Jihadists, according to conflict watchers, could also capitalise on the volatile situation in Bawku to capture Dollar Power, a popular illegal mining and farming community in the Bole District of the Savannah Region, to fund their activities.

“We seem to be losing the fight against terrorism. They [terrorists] have made a lot of gains territorially within the sub-continent,” Adib Saani, security analyst with Accra-based Jatikay Centre for Human Security and Peace Building, tells The Africa Report.

Saani said that “Ghana is at a major crossroad” because militants are already using the West African country as a transit point to cart ammunition to their operational areas such as Burkina Faso.

“Ghana continues to be a major logistics hub for the terrorists on several occasions. Potassium nitrate, explosive chargers and other materials used for improvised explosive devices have been seized in Burkina Faso only for investigation to reveal that they came from Ghana,” he says.

“They [terrorists] haven’t resorted to attacking Ghana because it is being used for something else. Ghana is a withdrawal point, so they stage their attacks in Burkina Faso, in Togo and in Côte d’Ivoire and simply withdraw into Ghana to restock, resupply and go back to fight other countries,” Saani says.

Accra Initiative

Ghana is banking on the Accra Initiative – a cooperative and collaborative security mechanism between seven West African countries as they face increasing threats and attacks from Islamist militants. The group effectively gathers intelligence on activities of extremist groups, trains security personnel, exchanges ideas to secure its borders and engages in cross-border military operations.

We seem to be mimicking what happened in the Sahel in terms of approach

It has already deployed over a 1,000 special forces to its northern border with Burkina Faso after gunmen shot at immigration officers in Bawku, killing one in April this year.

Under the Accra Initiative, member countries conducted joint military operations in 2018 and 2019 on their borders, which resulted in the arrests of about 700 suspected terrorists and gang members, and the seizure of homemade weapons.

However, experts have warned that solely relying on a kinetic approach to contain terrorist threats could be counterproductive.

“We seem to be mimicking what happened in the Sahel in terms of approach,” Muqthar says in reference to the initiative.

“Over securitisation of counterterrorism is part of the big factors that led to failure in the Sahel and the Accra Initiative is seeking to do the same thing, including procuring armoured vehicles, fighter jets and setting up a big base in Tamale. That will bring about [a] counterproductive outcome for us.”

For his part, Saani wants a continental body like the AU to take the lead in the fight against terrorism instead of leaving it to blocs like the Accra Initiative or individual countries to look for their own solutions.

“We must bring all of these initiatives together into a single unit so we can have a unified approach to deal with the terrorism menace in West Africa,” he says.

According to him, Ghana should not stop at just mending relationships with its neighbours, especially Burkina Faso because they are major actors in the war against extremist groups.

“That single visit is not enough, and we need to do more because without Burkina Faso, we can’t win the war against terrorism. They can decide to open the gate for the terrorists to stream to Ghana, they are an important partner so far as safeguarding Ghana is concerned,” he says.

Ghanaian government officials refused to comment on the recent visits to Burkina Faso and Mali when The Africa Report reached out for an interview, saying the “issue is very sensitive”.

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