Guinea Fowl War / Nawuri-Gonja War
Northern Ghana's recent history has included periods of conflict, including the 1994 "Guinea Fowl War" when an estimated two thousand people were killed in inter-ethnic clashes. While Ghana remains a stable democracy, sporadic ethnic and chieftaincy conflicts have been a recurrent feature of the political process.
The Nawuri-Gonja conflicts have destroyed the fabric of the society leaving behind squalor, breakdown of healthcare, education and psychological trauma. Women and children have suffered rape assaults and unprecedented high rate of mortality due to malnourishments respectively. The plights of these vulnerable groups were worsened by hunger due to the destruction of agricultural activities, social services and infrastructure. The resultant fear and insecurity has driven government employees from the area.
Of the estimated over one hundred chieftaincy and ethnic disputes across the country, the Northern Region alone accounts for 70 percent of them. The Northern Region is one of the ten administrative and political divisions of Ghana. It is the largest and most sparsely populated region of Ghana, which covers 70,384 km in terms of land mass and a total population of 2, 479,461, which comprise 1,249,574 females 1,229,887 males (Ghana Statistical Service, 2010). There are 37 distinct languages in the region spoken by approximately 17 ethnic groups that perceive themselves as indigenous (Johnsson 2007). Among the Mole-Dagbon (the principal ethnic group in the Region), Dagomba and Mamprusi are the largest subgroups, and Kokomba, Basaari and Bimoba are the largest of the Gurma group.
There are four paramountcies in the region, namely Dagbon Traditional Area whose overlord is Ya-Na, Mamprugu Traditional Area with Nayiri of Nalerigu as its head, Nanung Traditional Area is presided over by Bimbilla Naa, and Gonja Traditional Area is under Yagbonwura. Chiefs in these areas ascend to their skins (thrones) by a “gate” system (a branch of the royal family). In consultation with the king-makers and Councils of Elders, the Paramount Chiefs often “en-skin” sub-chiefs in sub-divisional areas under their jurisdiction and saddle them with responsibilities of payment of traditional allegiances to them.
In most of the Northern Region, the traditional land tenure practice has not recognized individual ownership of land. Land ownership, to a very large extent, has been vested in paramount chiefs and is held in trust or on behalf of the ethnic groups to which the chief belongs. This, therefore, has restricted land ownership to chiefly groups. These groups argue that they were original settlers who allowed the acephalous groups migrating from other areas to settle on their land and farm there by permission. For this permission, the settlers pay tribute to the chiefs, although in many instances the tribute has become more and more symbolic.
The acephalous groups have resented the monopoly of land ownership in the hands of the chiefly peoples as well as the tribute that they are required to pay. Some of the acephalous people refer back to the sixteenth century to justify their claim that they were actually the indigenous people in the area and were invaded by the chiefly groups, who then took over the land and imposed their rule on them. The acephalous people insist on the creation of their own paramount chieftaincy that can hold land in trust for them.
The population of some of the acephalous people has been increasing rapidly, and this has meant more demand for representation in national and regional politics. This was threatening traditional authority in the area, which was based on ethnicity and control of land.
The Kings of Mamprugu, Dagbon, Nanung and Gonja played a leading role in their Kingdoms pertaining the payment of royalties and tributes, otherwise known as taxes, before colonial and post colonial era. This served as an integrating factor in their respective domains. Individuals, headmen, village chiefs, sub-chiefs and divisional chiefs who visited their king were obliged to present a gift to the King. Another example is that in Mamprugu, the Tara-Naa was entitled to a portion of any gift the Nayiri received.
In the same vein, one could not go to one's father empty handed. In the pre-colonial era, Dagbon for instance had evolved a complicated tax system that nurtured Kingship. Before the coming of the Europeans, there existed a well defined system of royalties or tribute from the people to the local chiefs, from the local chiefs to the divisional chiefs and from the divisional chiefs to the King. At each stage of the transaction, a portion was retained. This practice was upheld in all the Mamprugu, Dagbon, Nanung and Gonja Kingdoms.
The two ethnic groups that engaged in one of the fiercest conflicts in modern Ghana, the Nawuris and Gonjas are found in the Northern region of the country. Geographically, they belong to the savanna belt where the effect of climate change has left grass in places of trees because they have been harvested for timber from the 19th century. Linguistically, the Nawuris and Gonjas are Guans whose dialects are interconnected.
They became political allies following the exchanges of diplomatic missions between the chiefs of the Nawuri and the Gonja in the late 16th century. They also became trade partners when Salaga became the lucrative slave market in Ghana between the 16th and 18th centuries.
The strict compartmentalization of the Northern fiefdoms into minority and majority groups, in which ethnic groups are frequently defined as two blocks, elicited conflict and violence among the competing forces such as Nawuri and Gonja. The Nawuris maintain that the imposition by Gonja settlers on their land in the late 17th century was consolidated in the 1930s at the peak of the British colonial policy of indirect rule. To this political division a religious one has been added. Catholic missionaries have long converted Nawuris into Christianity while Gonjas, though not generally Muslim, regard themselves as closer to Islam than Christianity.
Even prior to the return to democratic rule in 1992, several inter-ethnic conflicts have been fought in the Northern Region such as the 1984, 1986 and 1989 Kokomba-Bimoba wars, which claimed over 97 deaths. Small ethnic groups would construct alliance with others to fight dominant ethnic groups regarded as ‘overlords’.
Several interrelated factors precipitated the Nawuri-Gonja war of 1991. A first incident, which occurred in April 1991 was ‘the mob attack which led to the death of a Nawuri in a predominantly Gonja town of Salaga’. Gonja forces extended their ferocious attacks on all Nawuris and chased them out of Kpandai and its environs. However, in June 1991, the Nawuris regrouped, returned to Kpandai and gave warning by marking non-Gonjas and non-Nawuris compounds and houses with green leaves to distinguish them from the target groups.
The conflict was resurrected in May 1992 when 30 well armed Gonjas accompanying a new chief to Kpandai invaded farmlands, harvested crops and looted animals from the market and in the process killed a Kokomba storekeeper. The Nawuri youths responded with a strong force by attacking and destroying a petrol station, which killed the owner who happened to be a Gonja.
The chain reaction was disastrous. Gonja-Vagla, Konkomba-Nanumba, Mamprusi-Kusasi, and Kokomba formed a war pact and fought against Gonjas, which lasted several months, thereby destabilizing the peace of the area. The ‘alliance war’ did not end completed when Kokomba and Mossi war broke out in 1993.
The non-chiefly verses chiefly groups entered into war pacts and fought one of the brutal ethnic wars in the Northern Region. Thus, the Nawuris-Kokomba Nchmuru- Basare alliance on one hand against Gonja-Nanumba-Dagombas forces, on the other. In the process, the Nawuri-allied forces overpowered and massacred Gonjas, mutilated their bodies and beheaded the chief and confiscated their weapons.
The unresolved conflict and mounting tensions due to politicization of the ethnic issues contributed to the reoccurrence of another bloody war between the two forces in 1994. A more fierce interethnic battle unprecedented engulfed the neighboring groups.
The Konkomba-Nanumba war was sparked on 31 January 1994 in the market of the small town of Nakpayili, near the Togolese border in up-country Ghana, over the price of a guinea fowl. Initially, the clash occurred between two men: a Konkomba and a Nanumba. The two men were engaged in a common, intense Ghanaian pastime - bargaining. One outbid the other for a black guinea-fowl. Tempers flared into a brawl. Next day, the man outbid killed his rival, the Nanumba man, sparking a less common Ghanaian activity: tribal war. The clashes resulted from longstanding grievances over land ownership and the prerogatives of chiefs. A military task force restored order, but a state of emergency in the region remained in force until mid-August 1994.
The hundreds of people who lost their lives and thousands of them that lost their valuable possessions and several hundreds who were rendered homeless constituted a national catastrophe. A major war strategy of the combatants involved the destruction of farmlands of opponents in order to force them to surrender.
The ‘soft African state’ has proven incapable of structuring society in a manner to contain ethnic conflicts once they have occurred. By the close of 1995, the Guinea Fowl War had claimed over 1,000-2,000 deaths, 150,000-230,000 displaced and destruction of over 500 villages.
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