BAWKU, Ghana — For as long as anyone in northern Ghana can remember, this town was renowned for its vibrant markets. It was established centuries ago as a place where products from West Africa’s forests were exchanged for goods from the arid Sahel desert region to the north. In more recent decades, it grew as a distribution point for manufactured goods from southern Ghana to small shopkeepers around the region, and brought in merchants from neighboring Burkina Faso and Togo.
Even sporadic violent confrontations that began in 1983 between ethnic Mamprusi and Kusasi over the town’s chieftaincy did not dim Bawku’s stature as a regional trade node. During those episodes, markets temporarily shut down but typically reopened a week or two later. Indeed, the central market was a place where Kusasi, who lived on the town’s peripheries and surrounding rural areas and have held the town’s chieftaincy since the early 1980s, mingled and exchanged goods with the Mamprusi, Mossi and Hausa who were concentrated in the center of town.
Now what was once a place for reintegration following violence has become one of the conflict’s central victims. “In the past, the market brought people together after a few days,” a Kusasi youth leader who asked to be called Abdoulai Ousman told me in his office in August. “But this time, we do not want to come together with the Mamprusi until we have ended our conflict.”
To achieve this end—in Ousman’s telling, the Mamprusi recognition of the Kusasi chief of Bawku—Kusasi partisans are enforcing an ever-tightening embargo on Bawku’s central markets. Instead of forcing Mamprusi to concede, however, the strategy is helping spread the conflict across northern Ghana and into neighboring Togo and Burkina Faso while severely complicating any potential attempts at reconciliation and reintegration.
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In November 2021, after 13 years of relative peace, Mamprusi and Kusasi partisans again turned to violence in their decades-long dispute over the chieftaincy position in Bawku. Soon after the first shots were fired, Kusasi tuk-tuk drivers from the outskirts stopped entering the center of town and their Mamprusi counterparts ceased venturing into the periphery.
Instead of going to the central market, Kusasi women from rural areas sold their vegetables at small informal market areas on the borders of town. Public transportation operators established a new depot in Kusasi territory at an intersection now known as “highway.”
A pattern emerged whereby mysterious killings were followed by propaganda campaigns from both sides blaming their opponents for the violence. Posts on Facebook and audio messages on WhatsApp portrayed the attacks, including the killing of a pregnant woman in late December, as supposed evidence of their opponents’ barbarism, further heightening fear and reluctance to re-integrate.
Meanwhile, the new markets established by Kusasi grew, prompting the Bawku Municipal Security Council to issue multiple orders in mid-January to re-integrate the markets, arguing that it was “improper for people to trade anywhere” in the municipality. A group called the Kusaug Youth Moment responded with a press release saying it was not safe to do so. A few days later, the Bawku Naba (the Kusasi chief) granted large pieces of land in Kusasi territory for use as a market area for selling vegetables and livestock. At the transportation station “highway,” prominent Kusasi advisers were given the right to organize certain routes. Interviews and satellite images show that by the end of January 2022, Bawku had two bus depots, two vegetable markets and two livestock markets, all divided along ethnic lines.
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In early February 2022, shops belonging to women from central Bawku in the small town of Atoba, a Kusasi settlement, were burned to the ground. In the nearby town of Zebilla, pieces of red cloth were tied to posts in the market area where women from central Bawku sold goods—a warning they were no longer welcome. A few months later, a Fulani herder was killed in a field outside town when he refused to sell his cattle in the Kusasi livestock market.
Those events marked the beginning of a new phase in the conflict in which Kusasi partisans began using violence and threats to shut down economic activity in central Bawku. Within months, preventing women from central Bawku selling at peripheral markets turned into threats and attacks on lone traders from outside town patronizing the central market. Mamprusi youths were also acquiring weapons and killing during this time, but their violence did not appear to have had the same economic motives.
My conversations in Bawku last October revealed disagreement among Kusasi leaders about how to present the embargo. Edward Abugurago, a young Kusasi member of the district assembly openly volunteered that Kusasi had instituted an “economic embargo” on their rivals “to show them that we provide for everything.”
Older Kusasi leaders such as a man named Thomas Abila, on the other hand, who refused to use the word “embargo,” did concede that “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.”
Regardless of whether the embargo was explicitly endorsed by the Bawku Naba, markets days in the central market gradually lost clientele while the “new market” blossomed. “Highway” became the town’s main transportation hub while mini-vans and buses sat empty in once-bustling lots in the town center.
At that point, the threats and attacks were limited to soft targets such as market women and lone traders. Container trucks from southern Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso still trundled into town with regularity. A businessman from central Bawku, whom I’ll call Abdoulaye Sawadogo, described how he still did business with small shop keepers in Kusasi territory at the time by sending photos of goods on WhatsApp and receiving mobile money payments. Thus, while the “lite” embargo raised food prices, gutted the transportation sector and undermined women’s income, large commercial interests continued to operate in central Bawku.
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That changed in early 2023. Sawadogo, the vendor from central Bawku, narrated how in April this year, armed men on motorcycles ambushed a shipment of his goods just outside Bawku at dusk. After the truck driver refused to stop, the assailants shot out the tires and fired into the cab, killing the driver. When police finally arrived and escorted the goods into town, Sawadogo noticed that nothing was stolen: “The point was to make us and our suppliers afraid.”
The attacks have indeed spooked transport unions in southern Ghana that have become reluctant to ship goods into central Bawku. I spoke with a young driver who asked to go by Thomas who had just arrived from Kumasi with a shipment of wood. He did not understand the nuances of the conflict, but confirmed that many drivers consider delivering goods to Bawku too risky. “I am young and I need money,” he said when I asked why he still drove into the town. “If you don’t think it’s safe, take me to America.”
An adviser to the Bawku Naba named Abugri, and other Kusasi leaders I met in August, dismissed the attacks as banditry unrelated to the chieftaincy dispute. However, a recent disagreement between Kusasi leaders and merchants from the town of Bittou in Burkina Faso suggest that at the very minimum, Kusasi leaders are leveraging the assaults to divert shipments toward their “new market.”
Over the last five months, there have been at least two attacks on vehicles carrying goods and passengers between Bawku and Bittou, a small town 20 miles north in Burkina Faso. Both times, merchants in Bittou announced bans on vehicles coming from Bawku. Both times, they were lifted following negotiations between Kusasi leaders and the Bittou transport union.
According to a Burkinabe (the demonym for people from Burkina Faso) driver involved in the negotiations, the Kusasi leadership constantly pressed the union to patronize the new market instead of the town center. The Burkinabe refused, saying they have better relations with traders in the central market, with whom they have been doing business for decades and who provide items on credit. Instead, the Burkinabe agreed to route all their traffic into central Bawku through the “highway” in exchange for promises their people would go unmolested.
The chief’s adviser Abugri, who also participated in the negotiations, painted a slightly different picture. He claimed that all traffic to central Bawku needed to pass highway for inspection to guard against bringing weapons into town. He denied the attacks on Burkinabe drivers were perpetrated by Kusasi, but confirmed that during the negotiations, the Burkinabe were urged to patronize the new market.
Although Burkinabe trucks have since returned to central Bawku, tensions now appear to be growing among business interests in another town, Cinkassé, 23 miles away in Togo. Like Bawku and Bittou, Cinkassé is a major trading center that attracts merchants from all three countries. In late September, Kusasi gunmen ambushed two passenger cars traveling from central Bawku to Cinkassé, killing at least nine people. A few days later, Cinkassé merchants proclaimed they would arrest the drivers of vehicles coming from Bawku—effectively implementing their own embargo against the town.
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My last day in Bawku in late August was a market day. While the central market was essentially empty, the new one was a bustling hive of activity even in the late afternoon. Still, while businesses in the town center are clearly suffering, there is no indication the embargo has “brought them to their senses,” Kusasi leader Thomas Abila (who now was willing to use the word “embargo”) put it when we met a second time.
Mamprusi youth outside Bawku have begun attacking Kusasi vehicles outside the larger Bawku area instead. In July, they assaulted a passenger bus in Walewale, a full 80 miles from Bawku, killing one person and injuring seven. In mid-August, a truck carrying livestock from the new market was ambushed and set ablaze outside Bolgatanga, likely by young Mamprusi.
A Mamprusi assembly man named Abubakar Iddrissu Bawa, who admitted the attacks were perpetrated by Mamprusi youth, sought to explain them away as retaliatory. “If they burn a Mamprusi truck, we will stop a Kusasi car,” he reasoned. On social media, Mamprusi radicals threaten to impose an embargo on the entire Kusasi region and attack Kusasi business interests across Ghana.
At the same time, growing allegations say Kusasi businessmen who have profited from the embargo have also become implicated in its enforcement. Business interests in the new market have acquired weapons and pay people, according to a local police commander, to “make sure there isn’t peace.”
When I brought those allegations to Abugri, our exchange became tense. Some Kusasi businessmen were benefiting from the embargo, he acknowledged, while denying Kusasi involvement in the ambushes, and repeatedly saying that resolving the situation only requires the Mamprusi to recognize Kusasi as owners of the land.
People on both sides often wonder aloud (sometimes conspiratorially) about the neutrality of the security services’ response. Following the killing of an immigration officer In April, a further 1,000 troops were deployed to Bawku. They now man major intersections in the town center and its suburbs, where they look for weapons, enforce the curfew and motorcycle bans, and respond to gunfire.
Asked what the security services were doing in response to the embargo, however, the policeman meekly pointed to the escorts they provide (for a price) to vehicles passing through “enemy territory.” The recent attack on Cinkassé-bound traders, which had a police escort, shows even their presence are not always a deterrent.
One problem, the police acknowledged, is that using force to break the embargo would be seen by Kusasi as siding with their enemies. Indeed, an effort by soldiers to forcibly reintegrate markets by intimidating (and in some cases sacking) stalls at highway in early 2021 significantly added to perceptions among Kusasi that the security services were biased against them. There have been no state-led efforts since then to break the embargo or reintegrate the markets.
As the conflict in Bawku grows more entrenched, jihadist insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda are strengthening their positions just across the borders of Burkina Faso and Togo. There is still no evidence these insurgents have intervened directly in Bawku’s conflict, but as the embargo draws in traders in Bittou and Cinkassé, there will be more opportunities to meddle. With each passing day, addressing the drivers of the conflict in Bawku becomes both more difficult, and more necessary for ensuring the region’s stability.
Top photo: Bicycles delivered in bulk to Bawku’s central market. They are among the few items that still make it past the embargo