Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Africa: Ghana's Example 

Abayie Boaten,  
University of Ghana, Legon

People are organised in their traditional milieu by their ethnicity. Thus, in Africa and indeed, in other parts of the world, ethnic groupings give identity to people within the context of nationalism. Factors that have influenced ethnic behaviours have been: pride, superiority and inferiority complexes, hatred emanating from success of the other ethnic group, discrimination against the minorities and the question of land ownership. 
The Konkomba  / Nanumba / Dagomba / Gonja ethnic conflicts of 1917, 1940 and 1996 confirmed some of the factors enumerated above. The immediate causes of the conflicts were ownership of land and complex arising from ethnic superiority on the side of the Konkomba's opponents. 
The wild Konkomba who lived in villages were supposed to pay allegiance to the YaNa and the Dagomba sub-chiefs who were the original owners of the land. Though the Konkomba have lived among the Dagomba for a long time, the latter had never regarded them as owners of the land (Figs. 1 & 2). The strangers, that is, the Konkomba are not centrally organised, therefore talking to them has always been a problem. When they take up arms, it becomes difficult to stop them because it is not easy to talk to a group of people who are organisationally disjointed.  
The Konkomba are now being empowered to develop chiefship. This idea is being spearheaded by the Konkomba Youth Association KOYA, while the question of land ownership is being addressed. 

The term ethnicity refers to a group of people with a common socio/cultural identity such as: language, common worldview, religion and common cultural traits. It is used interchangeably with the term Tribe. Unfortunately, the early European writers used the term "tribe" to refer to a group of uncivilised people, as if it had a different meaning from the term "ethnic group". A European writer will refer to ethnic Albanians (because they are Europeans and refer to the Nanumba tribe).(1) 
It must, however, be stated that the main tenets associated with an ethnic group are the same as a tribe. 
In Ghana, like most parts of Africa, the colonialists encouraged factionalism and used it to rule the people through their tribal chiefs.(2)  Due to the fact that tribalism is so rooted in Africa, it has been postulated that it is important that ethnicity in Africa should be considered and analysed in the context of contemporary economical and socio-political changes. (3) This is because it plays such a significant role in both local and national polity. 
Certainly, the so-called Northern Conflict like other conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Nigeria and several African countries have ethnic dimensions.(4) In the case of Northern Ghana a small area, as the map depicts, contains about seven ethnic groups each with its district cultural traits and allegiance to its central polity. The administrative districts created by the Central Administration of Ghana just dumped these groups together without any ethnic group consideration or aspirations. This manner of grouping alone was bound to generate conflicts. (5) 

Causes of Ethnic Conflict in the North 
The geographic distribution of the Konkomba ethnic groups (Fig. 2) shows a widespread distribution of the group among the other ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the land tenure system among the ethnic groups regard the Konkomba groups as landless. The truth of the matter was that the Konkomba who lived in the Togo (French) territory made a safe haven of the Gold Coast, whenever they committed an offence in Togo. Therefore the Konkomba of Ghana and their compatriots from Togo who were regarded as criminals and landless(6) had lived in Ghana unhindered. 
The second problem is the fact that they are a minority group among the well established ethnic groups such as the Dagomba, the Nanumba and the Gonja. The number of Konkomba bandits from Togo kept swelling up while the British Colonial Administration of the Gold Coast refused to extradite or repatriate them.(7)  These landless and lawless people without a traditional central authority appeared uncontrollable. 
The Konkomba of Ghana has no central political authority. They are a people who only have the clan heads as their leaders. Martinson (1995) observed: 
"It is important to note that, according to Konkomba political theory and practice, in any clan emergency, the clan head sends out messengers to summon members of the clan who have broken away from the parent village. The summons is one which may not be denied. The usual summons even today, regrettably enough, is the call to arms" (p.49) 
I think this political philosophy of the Konkomba was expedient for their survival among people who regarded them as not only hostile but aliens. 
They also have the Tindana, the Priest of the land/earth, who handles their spiritual affairs. The religiosity of these people is so strong that the Tindana holds such a tremendous sway on them. 
Unfortunately, the Konkomba of Ghana do not consider themselves as aliens. History among the Konkomba has it that they were the first to occupy the heartland of Dagbon, that is the Yendi area. This claim was vehemently rejected by the account of Mr. Geofferey Parker, Acting District Commissioner, Yendi in 1924. (8) 
The point is that even if they lived in the Dagbon heartland as people of the soil, they were easily defeated by the centrally and militarily organised invaders. And because they could not build permanent settlements, but rather lived on shifting cultivation basis, no body gave them the chance as the original owners of the land. The Konkomba never had a lasting influence on the socio-political landscape. 
One major weakness among the Konkomba is their socio-political system. Since they do not have a centralised or focal point of mobilisation for peaceful purposes, therefore it becomes difficult to talk to them. They only seem to come together when they see themselves threatened. 

The Diasporan Konkomba 
 Martinson (1995) opined that "the most dangerous and destabilising groups of the Konkombas are those who have never had the opportunity of staying in Dagbon or Nanuung to test the conscience of the people and their hospitality." (p.65) (9) . 
 The last but crucial problem has been the ownership of the territory now called Dagbon, Gonja and Nanuum. The ethnic Konkomba think that they were the original settlers in those areas and must be accorded such a status. On Gonja land, C.A. Wallace, the Ag. District Commissioner in a letter dated 19th December, 1925 at p.5 noted: "The land belongs to Kombi Stool and it is not permitted to alienate any portion of it without the Stool holder being consulted".(p.85) (10) 
 In the case of Western Dagomba, distinction is made between the Tindana, the Earth priest, and a Chief. The earth priest did not own the land, he only propitiated the spirits of the earth/land. While the Chief was the of owner the land in Trust for his subjects. A. J. Cutfield, the District Commissioner on 14th February, 1927 wrote: "For all land in Dagbon, the People, the Community, the Stool, the Chief on behalf of the people for the period of his occupation as representing them, is termed the owner." p.87 (11) 
Martinson, quoting the Ag. District Commissioner of Yendi mentioned the conquest of Yendi land as a thing of the past. He wrote: As far as can be gathered from Linguists, and Troubadours attached to Na of Yendi's court, the conquest of what we now call Dagbon took place during the First twenty years of the fifteenth century. That is in 1420 AD." p.88 (12) 
If these are the territories the Konkomba are claiming today as theirs then it cannot be supported by any historical fact. 
These problems are the result of wars which the Konkomba have been waging with the other ethnic groups among whom they live. 
There had been several conflicts/wars between the Konkomba and other ethnic groups such as the Dagomba and the Nanumba, for example in 1940. That was the Zegbeli War: Konkomba vrs. Dagomba. The Konkomba were found guilty as the aggressors. Martinson. (13) 
The 1940 conflict was not the first encounter between the Konkomba and the Dagomba. 
Between 1914 and 1917, a period which coincided with the First World War, the Konkomba were said to be "hysterically busy cleansing the Dagomba in Northern Ghana." (p.54) (14)  Also between 1940 and 1943, the Konkomba unilaterally declared war against the Dagomba. This incidentally was during the peak of World War II. 
The Second Konkomba/Dagomba War was baptised the Cow War. Martinson clearly explains the cause of the Konkomba attack: "... That the Chief of Zegbeli (a Dagomba) had secretly come to an agreement with the British Veterinary Officer to kill their cows by administering a rinderpest dose, which to them (the Konkombas) was not proper. Hence since it was a Dagomba Chief who led the Veterinary Officers to their Kraals, all the Dagomba, including their Chiefs, should die as a result of the loss of Konkomba cattle." 
Indeed, the Konkomba complied when the Chief of Zegbeli was killed before the police arrived. Hence, this War was baptised the Cow War. 
The third recorded Konkomba/Dagomba war lasted from 19th to 21th May,1946. The war started when a Dagombaman was found fishing in a pond the Konkomba claimed belonged to them. Hence the Fish War. 

The Peculiarity of the Northern Conflict 
In most ethnic conflicts, while the majority use their sheer numbers to traumatise the minority, here, it is rather the minority who employed their aggressive attitude to start the conflict. Through their distribution, they are scattered among the other ethnic groups, but live their isolated lives. With the support of their kinsmen across the Ghana/Togo international border, they were able to cause mayhem on the people amongst whom they live. The Konkomba are feared not only as archers but also as good marksmen when they hold the gun. 
In the last conflict, in 1995, people wondered how they came by the sophisticated AK47 assault guns and communication equipment. 

With the scenario painted about the Konkomba, any time they get any flimsy excuse they may take up arms again. In view of this, the government has set up a permanent Review Committee as well as Police Peace Keeping Service in the affected areas in the Northern Region, just to contain the Konkomba. 
In addition to the above arrangement, consideration may be given to a Ten-point Peace Plan put forth by Prof. Martinson: (15) 

1.  A total ban of firearms (including bows and arrows) in the Northern Region of Ghana for an unspecified time. 
Note:  The people of the North use bows and arrows for hunting purposes. 
2.  A non-aggression pact to be signed by the warring factions and witnessed by the UN. 
Note:  The Konkomba genocide, unlike the other ethnic conflicts, had not attracted the attention of United Nations or the International Community. 
3.  All those found liable for the genocide in the North (burning down of houses, villages, killing of children, women and old men) should be tried by special tribunals. 
4.  Compensation for life and property lost in this 'Konkomba War' should either be paid by the aggressors or from the donations by  foreign donors. 
Note: I do not see how foreign donors should come in. Since the Konkomba have taken to arms with very flimsy excuses they should be made to pay for the damages they cause on otherwise peaceful ethnic groups. 
5.  Regional Assemblies should be created in all the 10 Regional Capitals, starting from the Northern and Volta Regions, because of the current conflicts. 
Note:  This will mean an amendment in the country's Constitution. Our Constitution has persistently stood against regionalism which eventually leads into Federalism. Ghana voted against this system of governance, as far back as 1954 and 1956. 
6. Creation of Regional Vigilantes, as well as District and local Vigilantes to be "watchdogs" of National Security to be supervised by traditional security agencies. 
7. Identification and registration of the Diasporan Konkomba that is the Togo Konkomba from the indigenous Konkomba from Ghana (Nafeba, Gbimba and Chamba). 
8. Ghanaians should be told through a Gazette the true owners of the lands on which lived the Dagbon, the Nanuum and the Gonja. This may discourage future incursions of aggressors into lands of peaceful a people. 
9. The presence of military (bases) in Yendi, Bimbilla, Salaga and Kpandai. A permanent Air Force base at Chereponi or Karaga and Airborne at Saboba Geostrategically, this is very commendable, since around this area, we can oversee what Togo is doing. 
10. A proper appraisal of military accoutrements: especially the AK47s. Who supplied the warring factions with this type of weapon, since this is the bona fide property of the Armed Forces? 

Lastly, we must emphasise the peculiarity of the Northern conflict. It rather emanates from the fierce ethnic Konkomba who are in minority but who are materially rich because of their hard work, mainly as yam farmers. The wealth they had amassed had given them a false sense of superiority over the other ethnic groups amongst whom they lived. For the establishment of peaceful coexistence they have been allowed to have a chief but the chief has to be enthroned by the Yana whose overlordship is now not in doubt. Now there is absolutely no cause for any Konkomba uprising in the Northern Region of Ghana. But news filtering through indicate that the Konkomba are still not happy with their status as aliens and landless, a status which is very difficult to obliterate so quickly. 


(1). The term tribe has a derogatory characteristic  
(2). Mike Oquaye, 1995 ed "Politics, Society and conflict in Africa An Overview" in Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Ghana ed. Oquaye, Accra Old type Publication Ltd. 
(3). Ibrahim J. and Pereira C., 1993 On Dividing and Uniting Ethnicity Reaction and Nationalism in Africa, Dakar, CODIC, CODESRIA. 
(4). Oquaye, 1993  Op.cit 
(5). Oquaye, 1993  Ibid. 
(6). Martinson, H.B., 1992 The Hidden History of Konkomba Wars. 
(7). Ref. No. 2433/1928 of 19th November, 1943  Signed, Chief Commissioner, P. O. Box 25, Tamale quoted by Martinson. 
(8). Parker's letter dated 21st August, 1924, quoted by Martinson, op.cit., pp.90-91. 
(9). Ibid.  
(10). Matinson quoting: Chief Commissioner's letter No.CS310, Tamale NT, 17th September, 1940.  
(11). Ibid. p.87 
(12). Ibid. p.88 
(13). Ibid. 
(14). Ibid. p.54 
(15). Ibid.

© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cette article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.

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