BAWKU, Ghana — On November 23, 2021, Ousmane Sawadogo was jolted awake in the middle of the night by the rapid crack of automatic weapons firing in the distance. A well-heeled building supplies merchant and community leader, he was startled but not particularly surprised.

Over the preceding weeks, tensions had been building between Bawku’s two main ethnic groups, the Mamprusi and Kusasi, related to their decades-old dispute over control of this northwestern town’s chieftaincy. At worst, Sawadogo figured, the violence would transpire as it had for the past two decades: a few days of skirmishes followed by a tense peace, and within a few months, return to business as usual. [1]

Much to Sawadogo’s consternation, however, the gunshots that night were only the opening salvo in what would become a 10-month period of tit-for-tat retaliatory violence that has left the town of around 80,000 people ethnically segregated and killed at least 80 people. Unlike in previous episodes of conflict in Bawku, militants armed with automatic weapons continued fighting despite the intervention of the military, and one side imposed an embargo on the other, leading to more deaths, a longer period of violence and the further entrenchment of both camps.

While people here cite conventional causes for the shifting conflict dynamics—weapons proliferation, social media and partisan politics—outside experts have suggested that jihadists from neighboring Burkina Faso are co-opting the conflict. But that framing obscures the dispute’s political roots and could be used by local and national politicians to discredit opponents and pursue policies that only enflame the standoff.

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The first person I spoke to during my visit to Bawku last October was a leader in the Mamprusi community and member of the district assembly named Haruna Bashiru. After our conversation, in which he insisted I note that the town was founded by his ancestors, he made sure I took a photo of a mural listing every Mamprusi leader in Bawku since the early 1700s.

A few hours later, I spoke with Edward Abugurago, a Kusasi member of the district assembly, in his pleasantly over-air-conditioned office. There I was told a very different version, about centuries of Mamprusi imperial domination. It was immediately clear the battle over the Bawku chieftaincy has a complicated local history that has often been manipulated by both sides. Understanding how it has evolved would require reading between the lines of partisans and seeking out the opinions of more neutral parties.

Still, amid the divergent accounts, there is a consensus that the area has long been an important node in continental trade, and that the less-stratified Kusasi were already there when the politically centralized Mamprusi founded the town of Bawku 300 years ago. Neutral sources described how the two communities lived separately—Mamprusi (and minority ethnic groups such as Mossi and Hausa) in the town center and Kusasi in peri-urban and rural areas—but have long intermarried,[2] learned each other’s languages and generally lived in peaceful co-existence.

While Kusasi partisans like to chart the beginning of the Bawku conflict to the 1700s, the crux of the dispute revolves around the institution of chieftaincy, which can be traced back to the early 1900s when British colonial administers decided to rule through an (often invented) hierarchy of local chiefs.[3] In Bawku, the British recognized the Mamprusi monarch as chief in their indirect system of rule, making him part of the colonial state and giving him the power to adjudicate local disputes, collect taxes, recruit labor and appoint sub-chiefs.

However, in 1958 Ghana’s new president, Kwame Nkrumah, destooled (unseated) over 500 chiefs across the country and replaced them with his supporters. In Bawku, the Mamprusi leader was replaced with a Kusasi. The chieftaincy reverted to the Mamprusi in 1966, before returning back to the Kusasi in 1983, both times as a result of political upheaval over 400 miles away in the capital. While the powers of the chieftaincy were changing, argues the American scholar Noah Nathan in his forthcoming book The Scarce State: Inequality and Political Power in the Hinterland, chiefs in northern Ghana remained part of the state bureaucracy, expected to ensure local support for the regime in Accra.

The first mass violence[4] associated with the Bawku chieftaincy conflict occurred in 1983. Sawadogo was just a child at the time but he remembers his father barricading the family compound while Kusasi and Mamprusi youths fought in the streets. Thirty people were killed in the confrontations, which took place after a Kusasi celebration for their new chief.

A few months later, Kusasi militants tried to expel isolated Mamprusi farmers from rural areas, and in 1985, two days of clashes led to the burning of warehouses and residences. “But this all past,” Sawadogo told me. As an outgoing teenager in Bawku in the 1990s, he had close friends from all communities. “Sometimes there was small tension but there was no war.”

As state functions improved and multiparty elections became the norm, the chieftaincy began to change. Particularly in the north, chiefs were pushed out of the state apparatus and instead became (unofficially) affiliated with one of the two main political parties. In Bawku, the Kusasi gravitated toward the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the center-left party, while the Mamprusi leaned toward the center-right New Patriotic Party (NPP).

The next major period of violence in Bawku occurred in 2000 as ballots were being counted during a tight presidential election. Once an NPP victory became apparent, street battles erupted. At this point, Sawadogo was in his mid-20s. He remembers being aghast watching from the safety of his house as people he knew who had been friendly were lobbing stones at each other. In total, 68 people were killed and more than 200 houses burned down. Similar election tensions in 2007 and 2008 led to street fights in which five people were killed. “Both times,” Sawadogo explained, “the youth stopped fighting once the military arrived” and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

After the 2008 violence, Bawku enjoyed 13 years of relative peace, including during three major election cycles. However, while 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.

Mural for the Bawku football club

Depending on whom you ask, the recent conflict started either with the gunshots from Kusasi areas on the night of November 23 or rumors of an impending funeral. Either way, it became clear soon after the shooting started that the violence was taking a new course.

“They waited 46 years to enflame the war,” Abugurago, the Kusasi member of the district assembly, asserted, referring to the funeral ceremony held by Mamprusi for their last chief, who died in 1981. In Ghana, he explained, noting the puzzled expression on my face, the funeral of a chief is traditionally followed by the ascension of his successor. The implication that the Mamprusi were going to install their own chief was perceived as a “clear provocation” to the current Kusasi chief.

Meanwhile, back at the mural of the Mamprusi chiefs, Bashiru shrugged off my question about why a funeral was held, pivoting instead to the Kusasi response. “They should seek restitution through the courts, not pursue illegal violence,” he said, conveniently ignoring that the police had explicitly forbidden the Mamprusi from holding the funeral.

A few days after the first gunshots, money traders in the central market were attacked in broad daylight. After that, 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) urban core and the Kusasi peripheries.

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

The fighting continued nevertheless, sometimes with the security services in the cross hairs. An off-duty policewoman was killed in late January when she visited a colleague at his post in Bawku. A few weeks, later another policewoman was attacked while guarding a secondary school and her rifle stolen. Soldiers who raided a Kusasi compound to arrest suspected militants in April were met by gunfire. Three soldiers were injured in the firefight.[5] While it is unlikely that security forces were explicitly targeted, there are clearly fighters in Bawku who are no longer deterred by boots on the ground.

Meanwhile, Kusasi militants in the periphery were gradually imposing an unprecedented economic embargo on the Mamprusi-dominated center of town. It started with social media threats to kill vegetable vendors attending the central market. It quickly moved 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. 

Thomas Abila in his "smock," a traditional outfit, outside his family compound on the edge of Bawku

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 disgorge their vehicles at the edge of town. “We have never seen anything like this before,” Sawadogo told me. “The market used to bring everyone together, but now that it is divided, I do not see my friends and clients from outside town.”

The Kusasi leaders I spoke with were open about such tactics. Abugurago explicitly called it an embargo, presenting it as a benign alternative to physical violence. Abila was less strident in our conversation, instead suggesting that people were attending the Kusasi markets because the central market was unsafe. He distanced Kusasi leadership from the embargo[6], 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,” a Mossi secondary school teacher named Jaba[7] explained, “if you are from central Bawku, you are considered to be with them.” 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 of 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.

Finally, in September, the government sent a high-level delegation to meet with the warring parties in the northern capital of Tamale. While it is unclear exactly what was said, it appears leaders on both sides agreed to leave the issue of the chieftaincy to the side and focus on stopping the violence. Everyone credits the intervention for the subsiding of fighting since late September. As people began nervously rebuilding, not quite convinced the fighting was completely over, some were starting to ask why the last year of violence had been so different from previous periods of unrest.

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People in Bawku tended to list prosaic factors for the changing conflict dynamics, such as weapons proliferation, social media and partisan politics. However, outside the town, security analysts and media figures have suggested that the chieftaincy conflict has been infiltrated by jihadist insurgents from neighboring Burkina Faso. While it is undeniable that the insurgents are getting closer to Bawku, approaching the conflict as the next battle ground in the “war on terror” could create more problems than it solves.

In the capital Accra, 800 miles away, there is a growing chorus of voices raising the warning that the jihadists are watching Bawku. “Bawku is the weakest link when it comes to combatting violent extremism in Ghana,” Abid Saani, a tall, polished Ghanaian security consultant with good connections in the security services, told me in his office. Asked to explain further, he postulated 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 a widespread belief that jihadists have spread across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger over the last decade precisely by exploiting hyper-local conflicts.

Over the last few years, jihadist insurgents have been moving toward Ghana, striking security forces just 40 miles from Bawku across the borders in Burkina Faso and Togo. There is credible evidence they have even entered Bawku town, incognito, over the past year.

The military still had a strong presence in town in late October

Like many people in Bawku, Sawadogo downplayed the jihadist connection. However, when I pressed further, he referred to an audio message that circulated the town in which insurgents describe walking around the Bawku market incognito and eating at a local restaurant in great detail. A trusted source also told me that a handful of young men from Bawku have travelled to Burkina Faso with the intention of fighting alongside the jihadists (although at least one of them returned after getting cold feet).

The security services have been notoriously 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.

Back in Tamale, the largest city in northern Ghana, I met Eliasu Tanko, the country’s foremost journalist covering security issues in the north. A young man from northern Ghana who grew up in the country’s commercial capital Kumasi, he is well regarded for understanding local politics in the north and how it connects to the country’s neighbors. After we finished our sodas and samosas at a small restaurant overlooking the city’s relativity new highway overpass, he began listing reasons why regional jihadist groups might avoid intervening in Ghana.

Insurgents currently benefit from Ghana’s stability to profit from criminal networks such as selling stolen fuel and cattle, he pointed out. He also echoed a common suggestion that elements within the Ghanaian security or intelligence services have reached an arrangement with jihadist groups. Finally, Ghana’s comparatively better armed forces and state capacity represent more of a deterrent to jihadists than, say, Togo or Benin. “They know the local politics of Bawku,” Tanko said, referring to the insurgents, “but that does not mean they have intervened.”

I realized that no one I met in Bawku listed jihadist infiltration among the main explanations for the changing violence until I had brought it up. Furthermore, none of the outside security analysts I spoke with could identify which side the insurgents would be supporting. They tended to view the conflict from a macro-level perspective instead of engaging with the minute details. A young security expert from Bawku who preferred to remain unnamed told me that if there were any jihadist presence in Bawku—a big if—it would be the result of people from Bawku reaching out to the insurgents for help, not the other way around.

Most of those I spoke with in Bawku instead talked about the proliferation of guns. “They used to fight with cutlasses and sticks,” Abila, the elderly Kusasi leader told me. “Now it’s automatic weapons.” That is a problem across northern Ghana where the wide 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 told me separately, “the fighting would have stopped much sooner.”

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

The Bawku central market at sunset

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 water than the idea of jihadist infiltration. Indeed, such framing of the conflict is not just analytically insufficient but also potentially dangerous. Since the beginning of the “global war on terror,” the label “terrorist” has been widely abused by governments and politicians to discredit their opponents and legitimize harsh military responses while ignoring communities’ legitimate grievances.

Introducing such logic would be absolutely devastating in Bawku’s highly politicized context. While the insurgents might infiltrate the Bawku conflict in the future, assuming that they already have would trigger a military response to a political problem. Instead, the chieftaincy conflict must be understood, and resolved, in light of the local history and politics of the area.

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The sun was setting and I wanted to catch the last bus out of Bawku but Sawadogo insisted we walk through the central market before my departure. The place was a skeleton of its former self, but he swore it was busier than it had been a month ago. I kept encountering that message—the situation is bad but getting better—throughout my time in Bawku. The tuk tuk drivers have been unbanned and now ferry people around town, although still avoid crossing territory between the two sides, forcing me to constantly change vehicles in the border zones.

This was in late October. After a three-month lull in the fighting, violence broke out again in mid-December, claiming the lives of at least seven people, knocking out power to the region and freezing all economy activity. In a widely-shared statement, Kusasi partisans blamed the military for failing to protect them and asked if they would be wrong to solicit foreign support.[8] Hearing this news from afar, I could not help but think of what Sawadogo told me as he walked me to the original Bawku bus park (much less busy than the new Kusasi terminal on the edge of town) a few months earlier: “Until the chieftaincy crisis is solved, we will always be waiting for the next gunshots.”

The government has successfully mediated thorny chieftaincy conflicts in the past. A number of local structures have also played constructive roles facilitating dialogue. However, addressing the issue as a matter of countering violent extremism—instead of identifying the real multiple causes and nuances—will likely only stoke the conflict.


[1] This and some other names are pseudonyms used to protect interviewees’ security. 

[2] Both societies are patrilineal, meaning more often than not that children of such marriages identify with their fathers’ communities, even though half their relatives belong to the other.

[3] Noah Nathan describes how in some cases colonial authorities would simply assign village chieftaincies to whoever invited them for lunch. His text, alongside Christian Lund’s 2003 article “Bawku is still volatile’: Ethno-political conflict and state recognition in northern Ghana,” was essential to understanding the history of the conflict.

[4] In 1962, there was an attempted assassination of President Nkrumah outside Bawku that is widely believed to have been carried out by Mamprusi who were upset with the destooling of their monarch.

[5] Young Kusasi later said they thought the soldiers were actually Mamprusi in military outfits, and that the military later shot at a group of Kusasi, an accusation the military denied.

[6] Video from early 2021 shows the Kusasi chief endorsing the segregated markets.

[7] This is a pseudonym.

[8] Again, this does not necessarily mean from jihadist insurgents. It is well known in Ghana’s northern border areas that Kusasi communities in neighboring Burkina Faso are part of the anti-jihadist “Kogleweogo” militias.

Top photo: The Mamprusi center of town with the mural of their leaders