TAMALE, Ghana — Around an hour after the sun set on June 6 in this bustling city in northern Ghana, three men armed with AK-47s pulled up to a mobile money stand, sprayed the squat yellow metal box with bullets, stole the cash inside and made off into the night. When the residents of the neighborhood, a dense residential area called Kalariga only three miles from the city center, emerged from hiding, they learned that two members of their community, Alhassan Suale and Afa Razak, had been killed.
A crowd began to form on the street. People were angry. This was the second robbery that week of a mobile money vendor in Tamale, the country’s northern capital of one million people. As has become the norm amid a perceived rise in banditry, the people who gathered at the scene of the crime assumed, despite a lack of evidence, that the perpetrators were from the minority Fulani ethnic group.
That same evening, a 37-year-old husband, father, herder, native of Tamale and Fulani man named Seydu Jallo was returning to the city with his younger brother after visiting their uncle in a nearby village. Unaware of the robbery, he turned down the tarmac street toward Kalariga and found a murderous crowd. Before he could turn around, he was pulled off his motorcycle and beaten to death. His brother was saved only by the arrival of the police.
Although Ghana has a reputation as a beacon of peace and prosperity in West Africa, this tragic incident is an example of how Ghanaian Fulani, a group already facing discrimination, are now becoming targets for deadly retaliatory violence amid a perceived rise in armed robbery for which the entire community is blamed. This national issue has regional implications as jihadist insurgents in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, who have bolstered their ranks partly by appealing to the grievances of segments of Fulani societies, appear to be moving south toward Ghana, keen to exploit local divisions. Despite the government’s reputation as more competent and less predatory than its neighbors’, jihadist recruiters will find festering grievances to exploit here, too, unless the authorities do more to include Fulani in Ghana’s national fabric and protect them as equal members of society.
* * *
Depending on whom you ask, Fulani have either been in the territory that is now Ghana since the 14th century, or they are all foreigners who arrived less than 20 years ago. The truth lies somewhere in between. There have never been Fulani-majority urban centers in Ghana. However, small groups of nomadic herders shepherded their livestock for centuries into what became northern Ghana following the seasonal rains and, in the process, built relationships with settled Dagomba, Konkomba, Mamprusi and Gonga communities.
When British colonialists seized northern Ghana in the late 19th century, they found a patchwork of ethno-linguistic groups that had developed various forms of governance. The new rulers managed their colony by co-opting (sometimes invented) chiefs from each ethnic group and incorporating them into the state as middlemen between the British and their subjects. However, due to the small number of Fulani, and their nomadic disposition, the colonial regime did not recognize them as indigenous.
In the early 20th century, small groups of Fulani began arriving from what became Burkina Faso to the north. With permission from the local authorities, they established small satellite communities on the edges of host villages. In exchange for land to farm, the Fulani agreed to look after the communities’ livestock. The migration of Fulani from Burkina Faso and Niger into Ghana increased during droughts in the 1970s and 1980s as herders moved south looking for greener pastures.
Ousman Hogo Diallo was in his late teens when his older brother returned to their small village in eastern in Burkina Faso and suggested they move to Ghana. It was the early 1980s and the erratic rains had decimated herds and made farming almost impossible. Hogo Diallo packed a few changes of clothes, a Quran and his herding instruments and never turned back.
The brothers headed for the rolling hills, small creeks, sporadic forest and plentiful pasture of the northwestern district of Gushegu. Fulani had been settling there since the 1930s, so host communities were accustomed to providing farmland in exchange for herding services. More than relations with neighboring communities, however, what Diallo remembers is the land. “It was so beautiful, so green,” the short, affable and now 50-year-old chief of the Fulani in Gushegu reminisced as we sat in the shade of his house by his horses and tractor. “It is the land that has held me here.”
When Fulani herders moved further down into central and southern Ghana, however, sporadic conflicts with farmers broke out. I spoke with Kaderi Bukari, a professor at Cape Coast University in Ghana who has written extensively on Ghanaian Fulani, about the phenomenon over the phone. He explained that while northern communities had developed mechanisms to resolve disputes related to crop damage or the killing of livestock, people in the south did not have similar precedents on which to fall back. When altercations occurred, settled communities often called in the police or military, who in some cases forced Fulani off the land at gunpoint.
Belko Diallo sitting in the shade in the remains of his former compound outside Zakoli
Across the country, Fulani have increasingly become stereotyped as poor, violent and foreign. I saw that firsthand in casual conversations in the national capital, Accra. When I told a taxi driver I was in Ghana to spend time in Fulani communities, he replied that there is no such thing as a “Ghanaian Fulani” and that they are all actually Burkinabe (from Burkina Faso). Another person with whom I struck up a conversation in a bar warned me in hushed tones to be careful because all Fulani were bandits and kidnappers.
After hearing about those stereotypes, I found it refreshing to finally meet a large group of Fulani on my first day in Tamale. After introductions, I asked about the challenges Fulani face in Ghana. The most common complaint from the dozen or so people squeezed under the shade of a mango tree in the courtyard of my hotel, was that Fulani, even those born and raised solely in Ghana, are derided as foreigners and denied legal citizenship.
Indeed, the Ghanaian constitution stipulates that one has to have at least one parent of Ghanaian citizenship to qualify as a national. That automatically excludes a number of younger Fulani born and raised in Ghana to parents who both came from Burkina Faso or Niger. Thus, many younger Fulani are effectively stateless, meaning they can’t get a passport, open a bank account or buy land and are often hassled by police and government bureaucrats. Even those with documents, I was told, are accused of holding fakes.
I was also told that Gushegu, the home of Hogo Diallo, is notorious for anti-Fulani bureaucratic harassment. When I brought up the issue with him, he shook his head and sucked his teeth. Despite the fact that he was naturalized and has a national identity card and all his children were born in Ghana, he explained, he had to travel to Tamale—where bureaucrats tend to be less hostile—to get their identification cards. “Even if you spend 100 years in Ghana, they treat you like a stranger here,” he said.
* * *
While anti-Fulani discrimination has long been rife, in recent years, Fulani have also been singled out as responsible for the perceived rise in banditry. Fulani communities have been targeted in retaliatory attacks following armed robberies, leading to an increased sense of victimization and exclusion.
Armed robbery is no new problem in northern Ghana. Those I spoke with generally agreed that it began rising around the early 2000s with small groups—always foreigners in everyone’s telling—setting up roadblocks late at night and robbing passersby. Cases have waxed and waned over the years, Bukari, the scholar, says, mostly in response to how much attention the police give the issue.
Despite a lack of publicly available data, the general perception I encountered in the north was that insecurity—in the form of armed robbing, kidnapping and cattle rustling—is on the rise. Residents of Tamale pointed out that armed robbers who previously operated only on rutted roads in rural areas are now striking near the city center. Car thefts have increased. Wealthy Fulani in particular are worried about the spike in kidnappings seemingly organized by well-coordinated groups with rumored origins in Nigeria.
Although little is known about the identities or organization of the perpetrators, it is commonly and erroneously believed that Fulani are the sole culprits. The stereotype is exacerbated by the national media, which for years have identified perpetrators’ ethnicity only when Fulani are involved, leading to a slew of misleading headlines such as “Fulani robbers kill 8-year-old girl” and “Man Killed, 5 Injured in Clash Between Fulani Herdsmen, Residents.” The problem is worse on social media, where “citizen journalists” with thousands of followers compete to break news and rarely corroborate information. “It is deep rooted that Fulani are bandits,” Bukari said, “and it is very difficult to change people’s minds on this matter.
The stereotyping has deadly consequences. This year alone, there have been three documented cases of civilians attacking and killing Fulani in the aftermath of armed robberies. In late May, a mob killed a Fulani man following the armed robbery of a fuel station in Kabori near the border with Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, Seydu Jallo, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, was murdered in Tamale. However, the deadliest of these incidents occurred in early April, when around a dozen people attacked the small village of Zakoli around 60 miles east of Tamale and killed eight people and burned the houses to the ground.
When I arrived in Zakoli last month, I was stopped by a group of eight police who had been posted to the area after the incident. After I explained myself to them, we greeted the village chief. As is common in northern Ghana, the Fulani there lived in a small satellite village attached to a Dagomba settlement in this case. After we answered the Dagomba chief’s questions, he gave us permission to walk the 350 feet to what remained of the Fulani settlement outside Zakoli and speak with survivors.
Of six Fulani families, only one remained. We met with the family head Belko Diallo under the shade of a shea tree by one of three boxy white camping tents. He had rough hands, a skinny frame and piercing eyes. He estimated that he was in his 50s. Behind one of the tents, his wives were cooking lunch in the clay skeleton of a hut whose roof had been burned, exposing them to the punishing sunlight.
Around 12 years ago, Belko Diallo explained, his three wives, over a dozen children and all their herds migrated to Zakoli from the Fada-Ngourma region of Burkina Faso after their traditional pasture was converted into a protected forest. With the approval of the chief of Zakoli, they and five other Fulani families built houses outside the settlement and began farming and looking after the village’s livestock.
By all accounts, the Fulani in Zakoli had amicable relations with their hosts. When cattle ventured onto Dagomba land, the Fulani paid compensation immediately. While Belko Diallo—who was no longer young when he moved to Ghana—never learned English or Dagbani, his sons mastered the Dagomba language Dagbani and saw a future in Ghana for themselves.
Before daybreak on the morning of April 13, a schoolteacher from a nearby Konkomba village was murdered on a potholed stretch of road less than 10 miles from Zakoli. Unaware of the killing, Belko Diallo and the other Fulani families began the day as they usually did with morning prayers and checks on the livestock followed by a late breakfast. However, around midday, Belko Diallo said, while he was lying in his hut avoiding the heat of the day, he heard the shouts of a mob and crackle of fire.
Exiting his hut, he saw around a dozen people who had snuck up on the settlement from nearby forest and were lighting the thatch roofs. Using machetes, the assailants broke into houses and chased out the inhabitants. Belko Diallo watched in terror as three of his sons, between the ages of 24 and 34, were killed in front of him, by machete or burned to death. By the time the police arrived 30 minutes later, eight people had been killed, a dozen injured and the Fulani settlement had been destroyed.
After Belko Diallo recounted his story, the police, who accompanied us the entire time we were in Zakoli, offered to show what remained of the other Fulani households. They escorted us across a field where the grass, nurtured by recent rains, was already covering up burn marks from the attack. A rectangular brick building with a tin roof remained, but the wooden door and mosquito screen were cleaved with machete marks and blood stained the walls where a man had been killed.
“We ran from Burkina Faso to escape hardship,” Belko Diallo told me at the end of our conversation. “But now hardship has found us here as well.”
* * *
Thus far, the government’s response has been lackluster. Police in Tamale acknowledge the recent spate of armed robberies, but insist they are helpless to fight them. Meanwhile, Fulani leaders complain that justice is rarely served and that they are the victims. Still, many of the Fulani I met favorably compared Ghana’s government and security services to neighboring countries by differentiating between mere discrimination and outright predation.
Frustration over the security services’ inability to curb armed robbery is contributing to vigilantism against Fulani. When asked about the rise in insecurity, northern Regional Minister Shani Alhassan Saibu complained that police are being transferred from Tamale because people in the region refuse to cooperate with the authorities, leading to fewer police in the city today than there were a year ago. In multiple casual conversations, people I spoke with accused the police of being complicit in the rise in crime. The allegations, although unproven, speak to a troubling distrust of the security services.
Meanwhile, many Fulani complained of a lack of investigation into, or justice for, violence against their community. Despite promises from the country’s vice president of an investigation into the Zakoli killings, no one has been arrested. I asked Belko Diallo what kind of justice he would like to see for the murder of three of his sons. He wanted the perpetrators arrested, charged and locked in prison, he said. “If a snake tries to bite you and you do not beat it,” he explained, “the snake will strike again. But if you hit the snake, it will not bite you again.”
The sense of state neglect in northern Ghana extends beyond justice for killings of Fulani. Despite comprising only 17 percent of Ghana’s population, the north is home to 40 percent of the poorest people. The region receives a lot of attention from non-governmental development organizations, but investment in infrastructure, rural services and commercialization of agriculture are skewed towards the south. “Ghana has laws,” Hogo Diallo remarked as we discussed the differences in government services between northern and southern Ghana. “But they don’t reach all the way to Gushegu.”
Despite these problems, as mentioned earlier in this piece, many Fulani I spoke to commented that the overall situation is better in Ghana than its neighbors. Due to transnational familial and trade networks, even Fulani who have never left Ghana are aware that Burkina Faso is struggling with protracted rural insurgency, that Togo has been led by the same authoritarian family for almost 60 years and that Ivory Coast has descended into civil war twice in the last two decades. Meanwhile, Ghana has never suffered a civil war, has held peaceful competitive democratic elections since the 1990s, and is by most measures better at providing basic necessities for its citizens.
That point was made most clearly by a prominent religious leader whom I will identify as the Sheikh. He recounted his ordeal with the Ghanaian state to me outside his modest compound on the edge of Tamale. Dressed in his full body earth-red robes with a blue scarf around his head, prayer beads in hand and sunglasses, the slight, elderly man from a distinguished Burkinabe Fulani family calmly exuded respect, and downright cool.
As we settled into plastic chairs under a pungent neem tree, the Sheikh explained that he had moved to Ghana around the year 2000 to serve as a religious leader in Tamale. While concerned about the retaliatory killings and lack of justice, he also knew that in Ghana, unlike its neighbors, the state did not physically abuse Fulani. When I asked him to explain, he replied he was speaking from experience, having been arrested and detained four years earlier accused of recruiting Ghanaians to join jihadist groups in Burkina Faso.
“They had reason to question me,” he said, chortling at the shocked expression on my face. Around 2014, he explained, the Burkinabe government asked the Sheikh to help provide Fulani herders who migrate seasonally to Ghana with Burkinabe national identity cards so they would be hassled less at border crossings. The Sheikh obliged, and travelled across Ghana collecting herders’ information, later distributing the cards. He estimated that he had helped register a few hundred people, all of whom listed him as their emergency contact.
Four years later, he continued, the Burkinabe military killed five jihadist militants in a firefight. When the military checked their identification, they noticed the jihadists had all listed the Sheikh as their emergency contact. The Burkinabe intelligence agencies alerted the Ghanaian government, which arrested him and brought him to Accra for questioning.
During his two-week detention, the Sheikh told me, he was given three meals a day, a comfortable bed to sleep on and his regular medication. “If it had been Burkina Faso or Mali,” he said, “they would have tortured or killed me.” After an investigation found no evidence, he was flown back to Tamale. “The government of Ghana has many problems,” he concluded, “but they respect people’s rights.”
* * *
The typical challenges Ghanaian Fulani face are daunting enough. But they are grappling with these systemic issues as jihadist groups in Mali and Burkina appear to be moving south. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM), a coalition of smaller al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali and Burkina Faso, has conducted at least 12 attacks in Benin and 14 in Ivory Coast in the last two years. In November 2021, the group’s first attack in Togo was repulsed, but in May of this year, it struck again, killing eight Togolese soldiers close to the borders of Ghana and Burkina Faso.
While the individual assailants in those attacks are unknown, in Mali and Burkina Faso, groups aligned with JNIM have appealed to the grievances of particularly marginalized segments of Fulani society to bolster their ranks. Indeed, it is known that some Ghanaians (including, but not exclusively, Fulani) fight alongside jihadists in Burkina Faso. In June 2021, a young man from northern Ghana released a video in which he implored Ghanaian Fulani to join the fight. He later killed himself in a suicide attack in Mali. In September, Ghanaian national security operatives raided an Islamic school in Savelugu, 15 miles north of Tamale, where the founder was alleged to have links to jihadist groups.
However, that does not mean northern Ghana will necessarily succumb to the same dynamics faced in Burkina Faso and Mali, where rural insurgencies flourished following the collapse of those states. Just because there are a handful of Ghanaians fighting in Burkina Faso does not guarantee they will attack Ghanaian security forces, a trusted contact who knows militants fighting in Burkina Faso suggested. Instead, they and others warned, those with weapons and training are more enraged by mob violence against Fulani communities, such as what happened in Zakoli, than by petty harassment from state agents, and were more likely to attack those associated with anti-Fulani violence than representatives of the state.
Overall, I found that many Fulani leaders are paying close attention to developments and actively working to prevent recruitment in Ghana. Multiple leaders in Tabital Pulaaku, a national Fulani association I visited, mentioned they have contacts at all layers of government they call on for assistance in cases when Fulani are victimized. The association also regularly holds news conferences to speak out against discrimination and stereotyping. They help Fulani access the state, for example helping people obtain documents to apply for national identification cards, while also keeping tabs on suspicious activity.
That all may help Ghana counter jihadist recruitment better than its neighbors. But experts such as Bukari say the government still must do more than pursue a solely security-based response, which could exacerbate the situation. The Accra initiative, signed in 2017 alongside Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso to prevent spillover of violence from the Sahel region, focuses on intelligence-sharing and combined border patrols with no mention of improving governance in the signatories’ stagnant northern regions. In the event of further security deployments to the north, something the respected Ghanaian journalist Eliasu Tanko recently mentioned as being planned, anti-Fulani prejudice among rank-and-file officers could lead to more harassment of Fulani communities.
The grievances jihadists are trying to weaponize to attract recruits are rooted in problems of the Ghanaian state and society. Reforming citizenship laws and ensuring petty bureaucrats issue national identification based on provided documentation, not ethnicity, for example, would go a long way to making Ghanaian Fulani feel included. Top government leaders, as well as celebrities and media figures, could also do more to promote Fulani voices and perspectives. Addressing the socio-economic discrepancies and differences in government services between the north and south is essential. And reducing crime, tackling the proliferation of light weapons and bringing the perpetrators of violence against Fulani to justice would also help interrupt the cycle of violence. Ghana could buck the regional trend and ensure that jihadist recruiters appeals fall on deaf ears by tackling discrimination and reforming and investing in equitable local governance, all of which is well within the government’s ability.
 The eastern part of what is today Ghana was actually ruled as a colony of Germany from 1884 to 1914. After World War I, German Togoland was divided in two vertically, with the west half a League of Nations protectorate for the United Kingdom and the east half going to France. In 1956 people in the British-ruled territory voted to join Ghana, which gained independence a year later, while the French-controlled territory became the independent country of Togo.
 See Setrana, Mary B. “Citizenship, Indigeneity, and the Experiences of 1.5- and Second-Generation Fulani Herders in Ghana.” Africa Spectrum 56, no. 1 (April 2021): 81–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/00020397211002940.
 The Armed Conflict Event Location Database has a wealth of information, but is based largely on local press reports, which do not cover all the robberies or kidnappings.
 Bukari and other Ghanaian analysts point out that bandits come from all ethnic backgrounds. However, there have been reported cases of non-Fulani dressing as Fulani in order to hide their identity. See “True story of Nigerians using ‘Fulani herdsmen’ identity to kidnap, murder in Ghana.”
 For more on this issue see Bukari, K.N., Schareika, N. Stereotypes, prejudices and exclusion of Fulani pastoralists in Ghana. Pastoralism 5, 20 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13570-015-0043-8
 Actually, two people were arrested, but in connection with the killing of the teacher on the road, not the subsequent attack on Zakoli.
 Abdulai, A.-G., Bawole, J.N. and Kojo Sakyi, E. (2018), Rethinking Persistent Poverty in Northern Ghana: The Primacy of Policy and Politics over Geography. Politics and Policy, 46: 233-262. https://doi.org/10.1111/polp.12250
 Matthias Krönke, M., Mattes, R., Naidoo, V. Mapping state capacity in Africa: Professionalism and reach. Afrobarometer. (2022). https://www.afrobarometer.org/publication/wp190-mapping-state-capacity-africa-professionalism-and-reach/
 Statistics taken from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Database project. See https://acleddata.com/.
 In Mali, the state collapsed in 2012 following the outbreak of a rebellion in the north. In Burkina Faso, decades-old clientelist relations were disrupted following the ouster of the longtime autocrat Blaise Compaore in 2014.
Top photo: Central Tamale, regional capital of northern Ghana, at sunset