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A Small Town in Ghana Erupted in Violence. Were Jihadists Fueling the Fight?

In Bawku, where dozens have recently been killed, New Lines finds a long-running local power struggle to be the key driver of conflict

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A Small Town in Ghana Erupted in Violence. Were Jihadists Fueling the Fight?
Togolese police officers, disguised as terrorists, take part in an anti-terrorism exercise on Oct. 20, 2022. As jihadist conflicts in the Sahel threaten to spill over into West African coastal states like Ghana and Togo, governments are preparing for increased tensions in border cities and towns. (Yanick Folly/AFP via Getty Images)

On Nov. 23, 2021, the residents of Bawku, a market town in Ghana’s far north, were jolted awake in the middle of the night by the rapid crack of automatic weapons firing on the outskirts of town. For decades, the two largest ethnic groups in the area, the Mamprusi and Kusasi, have been locked in a dispute over who should control the town’s chieftaincy — a role both symbolic and politically potent in a region more than a day’s drive from the country’s center of power in the capital, Accra. After 13 years of relative peace, tensions had reached a fever pitch as rumors circulated that the Mamprusi were planning to install their own regent as chief, in a direct challenge to the current Kusasi ruler. Militants began taking aim at each other in an armed conflict that soon spilled over into the town’s roads, markets and homes.

The 10 months of retaliatory violence that followed saw at least 90 people killed and split Bawku along ethnic lines. It also caught the attention of many Western security analysts watching the conflict in neighboring Burkina Faso, where a collection of armed groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have grabbed territory and displaced 1.7 million people internally with alarming speed in recent years, often by exploiting hyperlocal conflicts. The jihadist expansion across Africa’s Sahel region created a new frontier in the so-called “war on terror,” whereby, until recently, France, the United States and other foreign nations sent military assistance and personnel to Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to assist local governments in trying to douse the insurgency. Analysts warned that the chieftaincy dispute in Bawku, just a few miles from the border with Burkina Faso, was fertile ground for jihadist infiltration — and would mark a worrying spillover of the Sahel’s terrorist groups into Ghana.

New Lines traveled to Bawku to investigate the conflict and found that, rather than creeping jihadism, residents, local politicians and community leaders described a dispute with deep historical and political roots being fueled by partisanship, social media and weapons proliferation. The war on terror may be on Ghana’s doorstep, but an eagerness to conflate local conflict with international jihadism may in fact only be fanning the flames further.

Bawku nestles in the northwestern corner of Ghana, less than an hour from the borders of Burkina Faso and Togo. A sprawling open-air market sits at the center of the town, which for centuries has served as a trading hub between the arid Sahel and the forests of West Africa. Most of Bawku’s 80,000 residents are part of Ghana’s Muslim minority — 71% of Ghanaians are Christian, while just 20% are Muslim — and many have more connections with Ghana’s neighbors than they do in Accra.

While Bawku’s history is highly contested by its residents, everyone agrees that the Kusasi community were already living in the area when the Mamprusi founded the town in the 18th century. While the two lived separately — with Mamprusi and minority ethnic groups in the town center and Kusasi on the fringes and in rural areas — they also intermarried and learned each other’s languages.

At the heart of the dispute in Bawku is the powerful local chieftaincy, an institution that has roots in the early 20th century, when British colonial administrators established their rule through a hierarchy of local chiefs. While the colonial structure was often contrived, the power that chiefs wielded was not: In areas where little state infrastructure existed, they were the first and sometimes last stop in mediating disputes over land, grazing rights and other local matters. With that power also came money from fees paid by those who wanted their disputes settled by the chief. In Bawku, the British recognized the Mamprusi monarch as the town’s chief, making him part of the colonial state and giving him the power to adjudicate local disputes, collect taxes, recruit labor and appoint sub-chiefs.

Following independence in 1957, the chieftaincy abruptly switched hands between Mamprusi and Kusasi on three occasions, each time as a result of political upheaval in Accra. The last change occurred in 1983, when the government decided to recognize the Kusasi chief instead of the Mamprusi regent. As Kusasi celebrated the ascension of their chief, street battles erupted in which 30 people lost their lives. The following years saw a handful of violent altercations but, by 1986, peace returned and the chieftaincy dispute fell into the realm of politics and court battles.

As Ghana’s political system opened up in the 1990s after years of one-party rule, chiefs became more involved in partisan politics. The ethnic communities of Bawku were split between the country’s two political parties: The Kusasi associated with the National Democratic Congress (NDC) on the center left, while the Mamprusi leaned toward the center-right New Patriotic Party (NPP). In 2000, as ballots were being counted in an election with razor-thin margins, tensions erupted into rioting. Sixty-eight people were killed and 200 houses burned. Tightly contested elections in 2008 also sparked violence and led to the deaths of five people. In both cases, the violence ceased only when the military arrived and imposed a curfew.

After 2009, Bawku once again returned to relative peace. While the memories of the brief but deadly skirmishes faded and ordinary people interacted amicably, the core issue of who was recognized as chief of Bawku remained unresolved.

In early November 2021, rumors began to spread that the Mamprusi were planning to hold an official funeral ceremony for their last recognized chief, who died in 1981. The chief had never been formally mourned, as chief’s funerals are traditionally followed by their successor’s accession but, by that time, the chieftaincy was in the hands of the Kusasi. Talk of the funeral implied the Mamprusi were planning to install their own chief. Edward Abugurago, a Kusasi member of the district assembly, said these rumors were a clear provocation to the Kusasi and blamed the Mamprusi for reigniting the conflict: “They waited 46 years to inflame the war.”

Haruna Bashiru, a Mamprusi member of the same municipal body, focused instead on the gunshots that rang out over the Kusasi neighborhoods a few nights before the event was planned. “If they don’t want us to do the funeral, they should seek restitution through the courts, not pursue illegal violence,” he said.

Within days, assailants attacked money traders in the central market in broad daylight, leading to widespread panic. People began walking longer distances to avoid hostile territory. Mamprusi tuk-tuk drivers refused to take passengers into Kusasi areas and vice versa. Fear gripped the town. Thomas Abila, an elderly Kusasi sub-chief who has long been a part of Bawku politics, remarked that a Mamprusi friend of his stopped visiting his house to exchange greetings. Within a week, the town had self-segregated into the Mamprusi and other minority ethnic groups in the urban core and the Kusasi on the peripheries.

The security services responded swiftly. Within a day of the first gunshots, the Interior Ministry imposed a curfew and a ban on carrying weapons. When that failed to curb the attacks, the regional authorities banned motorcycles and later the small three-wheel tuk-tuks, believing that people were using them to commit drive-by attacks. The military was deployed in late November and set up a base at the center of town and checkpoints on major roads. An armored personnel carrier still sits at Bawku’s central junction.

The fighting continued nevertheless, sometimes with the security services in the crosshairs. In early 2022, a police officer was attacked and her rifle stolen while guarding a secondary school. Soldiers who raided a Kusasi compound to arrest suspected militants in April were met with gunfire. Three soldiers were injured in the firefight. While it is unclear whether the security forces are being targeted, it has become clear to residents that their presence is no longer a deterrent.

As the armed scuffles continued, Kusasi militants were gradually imposing an unprecedented economic embargo on the Mamprusi-dominated center of town. Fueled by threats on social media to kill vegetable vendors attending the central market, the embargo quickly escalated to burning the wares of market women from central Bawku who were selling in neighboring communities. While the militants could not stop large container trucks from reaching the city center, reports emerged that farmers bringing their surplus into town were being stopped on the road.

At the same time as they were cutting off the central market, Kusasi militants were also establishing their own parallel market spaces. In early 2022, they built their own livestock market and began forcing herders to sell their cattle, sheep and goats at their market. They also established their own public garage on the main road connecting Bawku to the rest of Ghana and compelled public transit operators to offload their passengers and goods at the edge of town. “We have never seen anything like this before,” said Ousamne Sawadogo, a roofing merchant in the main market. “The market used to bring everyone together, but now that it is divided, I do not see my friends and clients from outside town.”

Kusasi leaders are open about such tactics. In early 2022, the Kusasi chief explicitly endorsed segregating the markets. Abugurago, the Kusasi member of the district assembly, presented the embargo as a benign alternative to physical violence. The older sub-chief, Abila, suggested that perhaps people were attending the Kusasi markets instead because the central market was unsafe. In late October, he claimed the Kusasi leadership had distanced itself from the embargo, saying, “some of our young men think that when you are fighting, you must fight everywhere, including economic strangulation, but it’s not a matter of policy by our leadership.”

The embargo has begun to redraw the conflict’s fault lines, at least for now. “Even if you are not Mamprusi, if you are from central Bawku, you are considered to be with them,” explained Jaba, a secondary school teacher from the Mossi ethnic minority. He went on to describe how his uncle, a petty trader, had been killed by Kusasi gunmen who found it suspicious that he was crossing regularly between Kusasi and Mamprusi territory.

That accusation — that someone who regularly crosses between the two territories is collecting information — had been cited in the explanations for the killings of around a dozen civilians. While people from so-called neutral groups still avoid weighing in on the chieftaincy, the economic hardship and sporadic killings have made many feel they are now parties to the conflict in ways they were not in the past.

In September, the government sent a high-level delegation to meet with the warring parties in the northern capital of Tamale, in an effort to stanch the bloodshed. While it is unclear exactly what was said, it appears leaders on both sides agreed to set the issue of the chieftaincy aside and focus on stopping the violence. Everyone credits the intervention for the temporary pause in fighting between late September and December. As people began nervously rebuilding, not quite convinced the attacks were over, some were starting to ask why the last year of violence had been so different from previous periods of unrest.

Within Bawku, residents see the conflict as a matter of partisan politics, fueled in part by social media and an influx of small weapons. But outside the town, the narrative gaining steam is that jihadists have infiltrated the chieftaincy battle. In Accra, 800 miles away, there is a growing chorus of voices warning that the jihadists are watching Bawku. “Bawku is the weakest link when it comes to combating violent extremism in Ghana,” said Abid Saani, a Ghanaian security consultant. He suggested that insurgents across the border in Burkina Faso could offer support — fighters, weapons or training — to either side as a way to win local allies for a future insurgency against the Ghanaian government. That view dovetails with the argument advanced by many conflict analysts that jihadists have spread across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger over the last decade precisely by exploiting hyperlocal conflicts.

Over the last few years, jihadist insurgents have been moving toward Ghana, striking security forces just 10 miles from Bawku from across the borders in Burkina Faso and Togo. In recent weeks, nearby attacks have pushed thousands of displaced Burkinabe across the border into Ghana. There is credible evidence that jihadists have entered Bawku, incognito, over the past year. Both Sawadogo, the merchant, and Jaba, the secondary school teacher, referred to an audio message that circulated in the town in which insurgents describe walking around the Bawku market and eating at a local restaurant. Two separate sources said that young men from Bawku were known to have traveled to Burkina Faso with the intention of fighting alongside the jihadists.

The security services have been tight-lipped about the possibility of jihadist infiltration. An internal police memo leaked in April revealed that security officers had witnessed Burkinabe nationals fleeing across the border following an operation to arrest suspected Bawku gunmen. While the memo noted that the Bawku conflict could “serve as a conduit for jihadists,” its author pointed out that “there are no established links between the Burkinabe fighters and terrorist cells” and instead suggested that fighters could be motivated by ethnic affiliations or financial gains.

However, there are reasons regional jihadist groups might, in fact, avoid intervening in Ghana. According to the Ghanaian journalist and security researcher Eliasu Tanko, insurgents currently benefit from Ghana’s stability to profit from criminal networks, such as selling stolen fuel and cattle. Ghana’s superior armed forces and state capacity also represent more of a deterrent to jihadists than weaker neighbors like Togo or Benin. “They know the local politics of Bawku,” Tanko said, referring to the insurgents, “but that does not mean they have intervened.”

No one in Bawku named jihadist infiltration among the main explanations for the changing violence, and outside security analysts could not identify which side the insurgents would be supporting. They tended to view the conflict from a macro perspective, instead of engaging with the minute details. A young security expert from Bawku who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons explained that, if there were any jihadist presence in Bawku, it would be the result of people from Bawku reaching out to the insurgents for help, not the other way around.

Instead, people in Bawku are more concerned with the proliferation of guns. “They used to fight with cutlasses and sticks,” Abila, the elderly Kusasi leader, told New Lines. “Now, it’s automatic weapons.” Across northern Ghana, the ready availability of light automatic weapons, mostly smuggled from neighboring countries, has meant that even petty criminals can challenge the security forces. “If these boys did not have these weapons,” Sawadogo explained separately, “the fighting would have stopped much sooner.”

Social media is also commonly cited as a contributing factor in the conflict. Rumors now spread faster and further than ever before. Public Facebook groups have become venues for vitriol, while private WhatsApp groups are used to spread mis- and disinformation. Within minutes of the sound of gunshots, Jaba told me, phones are inundated with messages from both sides framing themselves as the victims and promising reprisals. Partisans on both sides use the same video of a dead man riddled with bullets as “proof” their rivals are secretly supported by the government.

Politicians also feed into the conflict to fit their own narrow ends, many complained. Although the next national and local elections will not take place until 2024, both sides are already mobilizing their bases by suggesting that holding onto or winning the chieftaincy requires maintaining political power regionally or nationally. While NDC politicians have spread the message that the national government is supporting the Mamprusi and thus eroding trust in the security forces among their Kusasi base, some local NPP politicians have riled up their mostly Mamprusi supporters by making them believe that, with their party in power in Accra, this is the moment to reclaim the chieftaincy.

Ultimately, the prosaic explanations appear to carry more weight than the idea of jihadist infiltration. Yet the latter framing of the conflict is not merely insufficient, it is also dangerous. Since the beginning of the global war on terror, government entities and politicians have abused the term “terrorist,” using it to discredit their opponents and legitimize harsh military responses while ignoring communities’ grievances.

The introduction of this logic would be devastating in Bawku’s highly politicized context, warned Tanko. While jihadist insurgents may yet infiltrate the Bawku conflict in the future, assuming they already have could trigger a military response to a political problem. Instead, he said the chieftaincy conflict must be understood and resolved in light of the local history and politics of the area.

The situation in Bawku remains tense. After a three-month lull in the fighting, violence broke out again in mid-December, claiming the lives of at least 15 people, knocking out power to the region for days and freezing economic activity.

A fragile peace has since returned, but people are still waiting to start rebuilding. The market is a skeleton of its former self, and the town remains segregated. Speaking via phone, Sawadogo summed up the mood: “Until the chieftaincy crisis is solved, we will always be waiting for the next gunshots.”

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