The Bawku community in Ghana represents many things not usually associated with the West African country. In the last four years, hundreds of people, young and old, have been killed due to ethnic and political differences. Yet the crisis is not abating.
The conflict in Bawku tends to recur every election year and this year is no exemption. 127 houses and stores were either completely or partially burnt, while five cars were set ablaze in a major clash on January 1. Local media reports put the death toll at between 16 and 20 people while about 25 others sustained varying degrees of injuries.
During the presidential elections in 2000, more than a hundred people were killed there in a matter of days. With less than six months to this year’s presidential elections, tensions are already mounting. But the crisis in Bawku isn’t so much about who becomes Ghana’s president. The dispute plays out in various forms ranging from tussle over chieftaincies to party politics, fight over land, markets and names of places.
Commenting on the January clash, Mahama Ayariga, Member of Parliament for Bawku Central, noted that unlike the past when the conflicts in the area lasted for just one day, that one developed into a situation where people could not cross into ‘enemy territories’.
Since the beginning of the year, violent clashes have occured every month. In March, not less than 10 more houses were burnt down in renewed clashes.
After the latest clash in May which was the most violent since January, the government imposed a 22-hour curfew in the community. It was later relaxed to 12 hours when situations subsided.
So far, President John Kufuor’s attempt to reconcile the Kusasis and Mamprusis, the two ethnic groups at the centre of the crisis, has yielded little result, as killings continue to take place sporadically. About 101 Mamprusis fled the area last month to Goulougonsi in neighbouring Togo following renewed conflict in the community. They were allegedly chased out by some Kusasis youth.
Bawku, a predominantly Muslim community in northeastern Ghana, has an estimated population of 206,000 most of whom are either from the Kusasi or Manprusi ethnic groups. Confrontation between the two groups has been there for over 50 years, but the dimension it has assumed the last decade has become alarming. Over the years, the antagonisms have been crystallised and a pattern entrenching conflict between the two groups has been perpetuated.
Abdulai Faruk, a teacher and stationery dealer, told officials of the Bawku Municipal Assembly during a visit to Goulougonsi that his store containing goods worth over GHc1,500 ($1,500) was completely burnt down in the wake of the May upheaval. The Assembly officials had gone to assess the conditions under which the Mamprusi refugees were living.
John Agobre, Member of the Assembly in a press conference in Tamale, the commercial hub of northern Ghana, sent what he termed a ‘save our soul’ call to well-meaning Ghanaians and the international community. “The Bawku conflict has shamed, defamed and disgraced all of us,” he said.
“Our municipality has become notorious for persistent ethnic conflicts. You know only too well that it is a shame and disgrace for one to identify him or herself as coming from Bawku,” the municipal officer lamented.
“We can barely execute development projects now. Our resources are depleted for peace keeping operations, yet the crisis remains.” Agobre said the situation is critical for the Assembly as its treasury is now ‘empty and dried up’. The Assembly has been feeding the security agencies and providing other essential services for them since their deployment.
While many commentators say the conflict in the community is largely political, George Abugri, columnist with Daily Graphic, the state-owned daily, points to poverty and climate change as the major cause. “Bawku has gallantly absorbed the environmentally devastating impact of the advancing Sahel. Now the ecology can barely support agricultural production. Smuggling, an alternative illegitimate commercial activity which made some locals rich, is no longer lucrative,” he writes.
As he further notes, at the peak of its commercial boom, Bawku was one of the government’s highest sources of local council revenue. “There was a time when long caravans of push carts transported sugar cane from my village of Zawse to the Bawku market on market days. From a valley at the foot of the Agolle Hills at Zawse, also came cassava, sweet potatoes and fresh water crabs. That sounds like a fairy tale today, but it is true,” he states.
Abugri says the conflict continues to recur because an increasingly impoverished population and a huge army of unemployed, despondent and secretly armed youth find themselves trapped in a community with little or nothing to offer, and manipulated by politicians for their selfish interests.
Alhassan Samari, chairman of the Regional Security Council in Upper East region, told Peter Cardinal Appiah Turkson, the Catholic clergy who led a delegation of the National Peace Council of Ghana to Bawku last month, that the conflict has affected everything in the municipality including its revenue.
“Bawku is Ghana’s Niger Delta. The difference between it and the Niger Delta in Nigeria is that while the latter has so much oil and so every violence in it makes international headlines, Bawku has no such mineral resources of international importance, and so most of the killings there are never reported in the international media,” a local journalist told me in Accra. The crisis, he said, has lingered because most politicians from the region have not demonstrated strong commitment to ending it.
President Kufuor considers the conflict in Bawku a national embarrassment. Some analysts say the management of the crisis was partly responsible for the sacking of Kwabena Bartels, former minister of interior and his subsequent replacement by Kwame Addo Kufuor, former minister of defence, who returns to government after a failed bid to become the presidential candidate of ruling New Patriotic Party. He is seen as a hardliner with good diplomatic skills.
Christian Lund, a researcher who has written on the Bawku crisis, says the crisis presents a double argument. According to him, while communal conflict challenge the state and expose its incapacity, the conflicts at the same time invoke a powerful idea of the state as the most significant institution to qualify claims as rights or discard them as illegitimate.
All over the community, children are looking on helplessly unsure what the conflict will bring next. Everybody you talk to speaks of frustrations and are not in the least happy about what is happening in Bawku. A few workers who have braved the storm and are still at post during this conflict times are equally worried and not sure how things will turn out.