The Overwhelming Minority: Traditional Leadership and Ethnic Conflict in Ghana's Northern Region.


This paper investigates the importance of the historical construction of chieftaincy, and the interaction of traditional institutions with the state, in structuring the inter-ethnic conflicts of the Northern Region of Ghana between 1980 and 2002. During this period, the area experienced a series of episodes of large-scale violence, culminating in the 1994-1995 conflict that cost thousands of lives. This crisis has been interpreted variously as an interethnic civil war or as a rebellion against the traditional authority of some groups over others. Labelling the clashes in these terms, however, may disguise more than it informs, as tradition and its cousin discourses of ethnicity, are socially constructed and politically contested both at local and national levels. In Ghana, the powers of political and traditional leaders overlap and interrelate, making direct competition over access to traditional state structures important to these conflicts. Moreover, since most of Ghana's conflicts are connected with chiefs, traditional leadership in Ghana has become associated with a combined development and security discourse. The paper draws on interviews with members of the affected ethnic groups conducted in villages in the eastern part of the Northern Region in July and August 2005 and a review of primary and secondary documentary sources to provide a nuanced analysis of the social tensions. It challenges the common view of Ghana as a peaceful country, exempt from ethnic conflict. It also makes the case for alleviating some of the pressures that have caused such communal violence through careful review of traditional institutions and a constructive state presence providing effective security and discursive outlets for disputes.


CRISE Working Paper 30, 49 pp.

The Overwhelming Minority: Traditional Leadership and Ethnic Conflict in Ghana’s Northern Region.

Published 1 January 2007