Development Discourse with Amos SAFO: Bawku must give peace a chance

peace and stability
President Akufo-Addo and Bawkunaba

The recent escalation of violence in Bawku due to the intractable and internecine chieftaincy dispute has the potential to destabilise peace and stability of Ghana. Just a few years after the country celebrated a peaceful resolution of the Dagbon conflict, the violence in Bawku has become a nagging headache for the country.

If left to fester, the conflict holds several repercussions for Ghana. First it will open Ghana to rebel activities from volatile West African countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Guinea. Secondly, some studies have shown that the unstable Bawku enclave is a thriving market for the trade in small arms and a transit point for many illegal and sophisticated arms entering Ghana. Unfortunately, these illegal arms have been acquired and are being used by both sides of the conflict.

What’s more, not only are the protagonists targetting and eliminating each other, they are also targetting and eliminating serving military and police personnel. A few months ago, two police personnel (a man and woman) were gunned down while riding on a motorbike. They were apparently misjudged as trying to fish out some members of one of the factions. Besides, last week, three military men and women were brutally gunned down in the cause of keeping peace in the Bawku municipality. At the last check, one had died while two were battling for their lives in hospital.

In fact, the situation at Bawku should not be allowed to continue. Not only is it an economic drain on our already stressed economy, the indiscriminate and unprovoked killing of military and police personnel is to be condemned and is intolerable. The factions to the conflict must be reminded that the military and policemen and women also belong to families. Due to past conflicts in Dagbon and the ongoing confusion in Bawku, the security of Ghana has often been compromised by the scope of unrest, wanton loss of lives and property, waste of the nation’s scarce resources and the dislocation of people. These are strong reasons why the feuding factions of Bawku (Mamprusi and Kusasi) need to give peace a chance.

Post-colonial phenomenon

Post-colonial Africa has witnessed a phenomenal increase in conflicts of various magnitudes, arising out of disagreements including ownership of land, succession to chieftaincy titles, and resource allocation among others. The West African sub-region has had been riddled with upheavals, notably in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra-Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.  Previously, Ghana was among the few countries in West Africa perceived to be an oasis of peace in an unstable sub-region. This image of Ghana, however, only masks a festering wound of communal violence, inter-ethnic conflicts and armed confrontations in the Northern part of Ghana, especially at Bawku. The root causes of these persistent conflicts are mostly traced to the introduction of secular political authority and chieftaincy in territories which, until colonialism, were described as stateless or acephalous.

Traditions of Settlement

Historians and anthropologies have indicated that the geographical location and socio-economic factors such as population growth, farming and poverty have made the Bawku Traditional Area prone to persistent conflict. Other contributory factors include: political interference, a proliferation of small arms and inadequate access to social services. The empirical findings support the proposition that political interventions and colonialism sowed the seeds of the Bawku conflict. By its geographical location and commercial activities, Bawku has become a multi-lingual society of immigrants from other parts of Ghana and neighbouring countries.

Economic opportunities, and commercial activities, have been the attraction for the presence of immigrants in Bawku; however, the Kusasi (who claim to be the indigenes) and the Mamprusi (seen by Kusasi as warrior newcomers), have remained the dominant ethnic groups.

Allodial rights

At the heart of the Kusasi-Mamprusi conflict is a collection of issues over allodial and chieftaincy rights. Rightly or wrongly, both the Kusasi and the Mamprusi claim allodial ownership of Bawku. These claims are disguised in their histories of origin and derived from claims of indigenousness. The Alhassan Committee which investigated land ownership in Northern Ghana in 1978 identified ‘first-comership’ as one of the bases to claim land ownership. However, in Bawku, answers to the issue of first settlers are highly controversial.

According to historians and anthropologists, the Mamprusi claim descent from Na Gbewaa and trace their origins to Tanga – an area located east of Lake Chad, from where they settled at Pusiga near Bawku. Na Gbewaa became chief over the indigenous Gurma and some Kusasi. Upon his death, his three sons – Tohugo, Sitobu and Mantambu – migrated and founded Mamprugu, Dagbon and Nanun respectively. Mamprusi accounts trace their presence in Bawku to the 17th century, and link it to military assistance they offered the Kusasi during the reign of Na Atabia as Nayiri (1690-1741). Incessant incursions of Bissa into Kusasi territory compelled them to seek military intervention from the Nayiri of the Mamprusi. It is unknown whether any historical links existed between the Kusasi and Mamprusi before the former sought Mamprusi military assistance in the seventeenth century.

However, available sources paint a faint picture of the establishment of Kusasi-Mamprusi relations prior to the 17th century, and suggest that the Kusasi lived under Mamprusi authority in Pusiga prior to the Kusasi-Mamprusi military alliance against the Bissa. In Mamprusi circles, it was this historical ruler-ruled relationship between the Mamprusi and Kusasi that compelled Na Atabia, the Nayiri of Mamprugu at the time, to respond to the Kusasi plea.

Mamprusi traditions maintain that Na Atabia responded by establishing security posts in Bawku, Sinnebaga, Binduri, Teshi, Tanga and Worikambo. With time, the Nayiri appointed Mamprusi princes as chiefs in these places – which were predominantly Kusasi settlements. This pre-colonial arrangement secured for the Nayiri the prerogative to install a Mamprusi as Bawkunaba (the ruler of Bawku). It is unclear whether this move was part of Na Atabia’s drive to expand the Mamprusi kingdom. Nonetheless, the Mamprusi chiefs did not seek to exercise political control over the Kusasi, but seem to have restricted their leadership roles to their Mamprusi brethren in Bawku and its environs.

Pre-colonial Political Structures

Anthropologists have categorised the political structures of pre-colonial Northern Ghanaian societies either as centralised or non-centralised. The centralised political systems refer to those with central authority embodied in chiefs like the Asante, Gonja or Dagomba kingdoms. The non-centralised groups were those which lacked an organised central political authority, and were instead headed by tendanas (land owners or earth priests).

Conversely, the Mamprusi were classified in the category of centralised states with advanced practices of chieftaincy. The Mamprusi had a hierarchy of chiefs or ‘Na’ – with the Nayiri as overlord and the tendanas operating alongside the Na. Despite these differences in political organisation, the two groups lived peacefully prior to colonial intrusion, as the Mamprusi chiefs did not seek to exert political control over the Kusasi

Colonial Administration

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British consolidated their occupation of Bawku and Mamprugu and established administrative stations in both. The endorsement of existing political arrangements enabled the Nayiri and Mamprusi to secure political sovereignty over the Kusasi. The use of indirect rule enabled the British to govern through existing ‘traditional’ rulers.

Given the prevailing misconception that the lands occupied by the Kusasi, Busansi and Frafra were all part of the Mamprugu territory, the British colonial Administration not only endorsed the six Mamprusi chiefs appointed by the Nayiri in the Kusasi area, but also appointed new canton chiefs – some of whom were Kusasi – in areas where none had previously existed. This decision interfered with and undermined the authority of the very chiefs they sought to empower.

Political expediency

Thus, by placing an acephalous society under the more authoritarian secular regime of neighbouring chiefs (the Nayiri), the colonialists sowed the seeds of conflict between the two communities. Instructively, the Kusasi conference of March 1931 established a dominant-subordinate relationship between the Mamprusi and Kusasi. This upheld the decisions of the Mamprusi conference of 1932, which created the conditions for conflict between the two ethnic groups.

These superficial arrangements eventually contributed to social tensions and ultimately clashes in the 1950s. In the case of the Kusasi, the Bawkunaba (one of the six Mamprusi chiefs in the Kusasi area) was elected from among his eighteen colleagues as head chief of the entire Kusasi area, as indicated in the Kusasi Conference of March 1931. As part of the new arrangements, the Nayiri would only install the Bawkunaba – who would in turn install the other five Mamprusi chiefs, as well as the newly-created set of twelve Kusasi canton chiefs. A new political hierarchy was thus created in 1931 and 1932.

Kusasi sources affirm that the Mamprusi began to treat the Kusasi as subjects and with disdain from 1932 onwards. This treatment allegedly ranged from levying taxes or tribute payments to forced labour and marginalisation. It was Kusasi resistance to this diminished status, along with determination by the Mamprusi to eternalise it, which set the stage for ethnic frictions and, ultimately, conflict.


The social and political changes outlined above had significant consequences for two reasons. First, the elective principle replaced the appointive method previously exercised by the Nayiri. Beginning in March 1931, headmen and tendanas elected all chiefs before they were confirmed by the investing authority (the Bawkunaba).

Furthermore, the fact that the Bawkunaba had been elevated to the position of head-chief with the authority to install other chiefs in Kusasi had various implications. Formerly, chiefs had paid an installation fee directly to the Nayiri. With the new system, they paid fees to the Bawkunaba.  Subsequently, detachment from the direct authority of the Nayiri also reduced the frequent contact between the Nayiri and his subjects.  Nonetheless, this arrangement officially subordinated the Kusasi to Mamprugu for the first time.


Tensions between the Kusasi and Mamprusi intensified after the emergence of political parties in the Gold Coast, with Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) and Northern People’s Party (NPP) as the dominant parties. In Bawku and its environs, the CPP had support from the Kusasi and won massively in the Kusasi-dominated enclaves. On the other hand, the Mamprusi – led by the Nayiri – rallied behind the NPP (referred to as a ‘chiefs’ party’). Thus, by the dawn of independence, Kusasi-Mamprusi relations had assumed a national dimension along party lines. For the first time, Kusasi youth demanded that since the Kusasi were the indigenes, a Kusasi should be enrobed as the Bawkunaba.

Since the first clash in 1957, efforts by state and non-state actors to resolve the differences have yielded no positive results; and, indeed, interventions by some post-colonial governments rather protracted the conflict.  For instance, in 1958 the government established a commission of inquiry to investigate the claims of both parties and make recommendations to government. The effort was fruitless, as the commission’s report, which was in favour of the Kusasi, was rejected by Mamprusi leaders. They accused the commission of bias in favour of the Kusasi. The Mamprusi leaders challenged the report in court, which subsequently ruled in their favour.

Though the Appeals Court ruling of October 1958 overturned the earlier verdict and upheld the commission’s report, Mamprusi leaders petitioned the government of the National Liberation Council, leading to passage of the NLCD 112 in 1966. This new decree replaced the Kusasi Bawkunaba (Abugrago Azoka) with a Mamprusi (Adam Azamgbeogo), further deepening politicisation of the conflict.

In 1983, Kusasi leaders successfully lobbied the PNDC government to pass PNDCL 75. This decree, according to Kusasi opinion leaders, “only sought to correct an illegality committed by passage of the NLCD 112, which unilaterally ignored the 1958 Appeals Court ruling on the matter”. The PNDCL 75 decree posthumously re-instated Abugrago Azoka I and paved the way for enskinment of Abugrago Azoka II as Bawkunada in 1983.

In my opinion, the Bawku crisis is about two bald men fighting over a comb. The baldness in this scenario is poverty, which chieftaincy as a catalyst was supposed to help resolve. So, what relevance is chieftaincy when it is rather the cause of trouble and poverty? This is the riddle about the Bawku chieftaincy Ghana must resolve.  Admittedly, some historical mistakes have been committed by colonialism and partisan politics; however, for the sake of national peace, stability and development – and for the future of our children – both sides of the conflict must respect the Supreme Court ruling, which affirmed the current Bawkunaba as legitimate. I urge all stakeholders – such as the National Peace Council, the Muslim Council, the Christian Council, the Pentecostal Council and Ghana’s development agencies – to take up the challenge of mediation. Bawku should give peace a chance.


Felix, YT, Longi. 2014.The Kusasi-Mamprusi Conflict in Bawku: A Legacy of British Colonial Policy in Northern Ghana.

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