Main languages: English (official), Akan, Ga, Ewe, Dagbani, Hausa and other indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (71.2 per cent), Islam (17.6 per cent), traditional beliefs (5.2 per cent) (2010 Census)
Main ethnic groups: Akan (47.5 per cent), Mole Dagbani (16.6 per cent), Ewe (13.9 per cent), Ga-Dangme (7.4 per cent), Gurma (5.7 per cent), Guan (3.7 per cent), Grusi (2.5 per cent), Mande (1.1 per cent) and others (1.4 per cent) (2010 Census)
The six main ethnic categories used in Ghana mask a complex diversity of more than 90 ethnic groups and sub-groups. For example, the Akan group includes (Asante) Ashanti, Fanti, Brono, Akyem, Akwapim, Kwahu, Denkyira, Wassa, Nzima and Sefwi among others. While Ghana’s ethnic communities have traditional homelands, internal migration has rendered these regions somewhat less relevant over time as ethnic communities have become intermingled throughout the country. For Ghana’s minority groups and those outside the recognized chieftancy system, access to land and political power is an ongoing concern.
Updated October 2020
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Ghana’s more arid northern regions have been seen as marginalized, less developed and more conflict–prone than southern regions of Ghana. Much of the conflict in the region has deep historical roots in the interrelationships between ethnic communities inhabiting the region. These ethnic tensions have been exacerbated through changing population dynamics, land pressures and government policies that vested land rights in certain groups.
The northern region of Ghana is populated by multiple ethnicities that can be roughly divided into chiefly and acephalous social groups: the former, including Nanumba, Dagomba and Gonjas, are structured according to hereditary hierarchies with multiple levels of power while the latter, such as Konkomba and Basares, instead vest authority in traditional religious leaders and local clan elders. Traditionally semi-migratory farmers, acephalous groups have typically not held clear territories for the larger ethnic community.
During the pre-colonial period, chieftancy groups migrated to and established dominance in the northern region. The primacy of chiefs was reinforced during the colonial period. These agreements were largely peaceably agreed until the modern era. Under successive governments, land ownership was vested solely in chiefs in a form of communal title, for the benefit of the ethnic group to which the chief belonged. Accordingly, as population increased and land rights became more and more critical to economic success and political power, acephalous groups such as the Konkomba self-identified as the indigenous peoples of Northern Ghana and recognized the significant disadvantage in their exclusion from the chieftancy system.
Historical inequality in control over land along with recognition of political power in the chiefs sporadically erupted into conflict throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Konkomba, in particular, have organized and agitated for greater self-determination and inclusion in the chieftancy system through the Konkomba Youth Association. Major conflict flare ups occurred in 1981 (in which thousands were killed and displaced), 1994 (known as the Guinea Fowl War in which more than 400 villages were burned and more than 135,000 people displaced) and 1995. Since a 1996 peace agreement with the Nanumba, agitation for Konkomba self-determination has become largely political and led successfully to the setting up of a new North East Region following a referendum in December 2018. Conflict between other acephalous communities and the dominant chieftancy groups, however, continues to flare up. Political parties in Ghana have begun to exploit the demands of the northern communities to gain votes in Ghana’s extremely close elections.
Fulani (Peulh) pastoralists have been a part of Ghanaian life for more than a century. Herders and traders who migrate throughout the West African Sahel region, Fulani today have populations in several regions of Ghana. Over the past century, Fulani herders have been employed by members of other Ghanaian ethnic communities to manage their herds, leaving many in a vulnerable patron-client relationship with other dominant groups. Fulani are not one of the recognized ethnicities in Ghana and generally are seen as non-Ghanaian by other ethnic communities in the country. They have been subject to negative stereotyping, exclusionary government policies, denial of citizenship and even expulsion. Over the years, Fulani have not always been included in national identity registration exercises; accordingly, even some second and third generation Fulani often do not have full access to voting rights and other political rights within Ghana.
The Fulani people’s unique pastoralist lifestyle has repeatedly brought them into conflict with primarily settled agricultural communities. As climate change has accelerated, pastoralists’ search for viable grazing lands has only intensified, leading to increasing potential for conflict. Disputes between Fulani herders and local farmers have generated ongoing conflict in certain regions, such as Agogo, where there have been conflicts with Ashanti communities, and Gushiegu, where there have been conflicts with Konkomba. Media discourses tend to ascribe the conflicts to the supposedly violent nature of Fulani culture, which contributes to legitimizing the backlash against the community. As land pressures have increased throughout the country, government policy has been to deport or expel Fulani in response to flare ups in conflict. The government undertook mass expulsions known as Operation Cow Leg and Operation Livestock Solidarity in the late 1980s, in 2010 and again in 2015. As climate change continues to exacerbate land pressures, ongoing conflict over pastoralism and the place of Fulani in Ghanaian society continues.
Ghana has hosted tens of thousands of refugees over the past two decades as violent conflict engulfed its West African neighbors. Tens of thousands of Liberians fled to Ghana in the 1990s to escape devastating civil war in their home country. Refugees from Sierra Leone and Togo also found their way to Ghana, leaving behind persecution and violence in their home countries. The Buduburam refugee camp on the outskirts of Accra became home for thousands of West African refugees, many of whom lived in the camp for more than a decade. Over the years, conflict between refugees and the local population erupted. After the 2003 peace agreement that ended the Liberian conflict, discussions began about how refugees could return home. Almost a decade later, after multiple attempts by UNHCR and the Ghanaian government to close the Buduburam camps and return Liberians to Liberia, refugee status for Liberians was officially terminated in 2012.
Despite this, many Liberians refused to leave Ghana – indeed many had been in Ghana for two decades or more and many refugee children had never known any other home. Liberians who remained in Ghana became de facto migrants under the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Protocol on Free Movement of Persons. However, integration of the former refugees into Ghana has been fraught with challenges. While legally able to work in Ghana as ECOWAS citizens, the former refugees often are excluded through language requirements in job listings that make clear positions are for Ghanaians only. Moreover, former refugees have found it difficult to find land and housing outside of the refugee camp. At the same time, successive demolitions at the Buduburam site, which is no longer recognized as a protected refugee settlement, have rendered more and more former refugees homeless. While many saw the ECOWAS integration option as an innovation durable solution for refugees in Ghana, the reality has been much more complex. The search for true integration for former refugees remains a challenge.
Ghana is situated on the west coast of Africa with a total area of 238,540 square kilometers and is bordered by three Francophone states: Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo. To the south are the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. The tropical south gives way to a drier, hotter north. Ghana has large gold mines and is one of the world’s leading exporters of cocoa. A significant proportion of the population depends on rainfed, small-scale agriculture. The Black Volta, Red Volta and White Volta rivers merge into one river Volta, which has been dammed at Akosombo to form Lake Volta.
According to oral traditions, the ancestors of the Akan people, today Ghana’s largest ethnic group, entered the country from the north and spread southwards between CE 1200 and 1600. The various Akan tribes lived in well-organized feudal city-states and had a highly developed system of trade in gold, kola nuts, salt and slaves. Akan includes many sub-groups such as (Asante) Ashanti, Fanti, Brono, Akyem, Akwapim, Kwahu, Denkyira, Wassa, Nzima and Sefwi. Portugese traders who had been operating in the region since the 1400’s named the region Gold Coast.
By the 1700’s, the Ashanti kings had waged war to gain control of territory and the lucrative slave trade. Between 1500 and 1870 an estimated 10 million slaves left Africa, about 19 per cent of them from the Gold Coast. By the mid-1800s the British were becoming deeply involved in local tribal politics, backing the Fanti in their effort to stop Ashanti expansionism. Multiple military campaigns were waged by the British against the Ashanti Empire during the second half of the 1800s. By the turn of the century, Britain had declared the various territories that would make up modern-day Ghana as colonies or protectorates.
Growing pressure from the population of the Gold Coast for self-determination throughout the first half of the twentieth century forced the British to gradually relinquish control. A 1946 Constitution required the legislative council to have an African majority. Following civic disturbances in 1948, the colonial government agreed that a committee consisting entirely of Africans should make recommendations regarding a new government structure.
In 1949, Kwame Nkrumah set up the Convention People’s Party (CPP) to campaign for independence. Elections took place in 1951, and the following year Nkrumah became the country’s first Premier, though the country was still officially a British colony. The 1954 Constitution provided for a legislative assembly of 104 directly elected members, and an all-African Cabinet, while the colonial government kept responsibility for foreign affairs and defence. Nkrumah and his party campaigned for full independence, and the 1956 election resulted in a huge majority win for the CPP.
The British-administered part of Togoland voted to join the Gold Coast as part of an independent state in 1956. Ghana became independent within the Commonwealth in 1957 with Nkrumah as Prime Minister. Ghana became a republic in 1960, with Nkrumah as President. In 1964 Ghana was declared a one-party state, with Nkrumah’s CPP as the only legal political party.
In 1966, the military seized control of Ghana while Nkrumah was out of the country. The coup ushered in an era of long periods of military rule interspersed with short-lived civilian governments. Some among the Ashanti, part of the majority Akan cluster, wanted to carve up the country into a federation which would enable them to regain control over cocoa, timber and gold from the coastal Ewe, Fanti and Ga politicians who controlled much of the economy. Ashanti gained privilege with the rise of Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, who seized power in a 1972 coup, sparking secessionist sentiment from Ewe people. Economic mismanagement and ethnic grievances led to protests and eventual arrest by his own chief of staff, Fred Akuffo, in 1978. Akuffo re-opened Ghana to multi-party politics for the first time since 1972. The experiment was short-lived, as corruption within the military’s senior ranks kept Ghanaian politics at a boil.
Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, from the Ewe community, and a group of junior and non-commissioned officers seized power in a bloody 1979 coup, and executed both Acheampong and Akuffo, along with several senior officers they accused of corruption. The purge extended to other allegedly corrupt officials who through dubious proceedings were tried, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. During its brief tenure, the junta disproportionately brought Ewe into positions of power. Rawlings and his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council instituted a western-style Constitution and allowed planned elections to proceed. The junta handed power to elected President Hilla Limann in September 1979. Limann belonged to Nkrumah’s successor party and, like Nkrumah, was an adherent of pan-Africanism; a northerner, he had support among both Ashanti and Ewe. Rawlings grew impatient with Limann’s lackluster governance and inability to turn around the economy.
In 1981, Rawlings seized power again as head of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). Rawlings banned political parties, crushed dissent, and pursued a radically socialist economic model. Divisions surfaced within the military over the direction of the revolution, and Rawlings had to fend off coup attempts in 1982 and 1983. As economic deterioration continued, Rawlings changed course in 1983, abolishing subsidies and price controls, devaluing the currency, then embracing structural adjustment programmes put forward by international financial institutions. Ghanaians grew impatient for a return to multi-party civilian rule – a sentiment that was particularly strong among peoples including the Ashanti and Mossi–Dagomba who were largely excluded from power under the Rawlings regime. By the early 1990s, international pressure for political liberalization also had grown. In response, Rawlings accepted a new Constitution in April 1992 that returned Ghana to a multi-party system. Rawlings’ new National Democratic Congress contested and won a majority in the election despite an opposition boycott. The 1993 Constitution ushered in the Fourth Republic, with Rawlings sworn in as President.
During the 1990s, Ghana experienced an upsurge of regionalist, ethnic and other exclusivist sentiments which accompanied a restructuring of local government into 110 district assemblies. These became the focus of power struggles that were sometimes ethnic. Chieftaincy power was traditionally rooted in ethnic particularity and is strongly patriarchal. The government interfered in chieftaincy matters in a rapprochement with those groups and institutions whose power it had previously threatened. Chiefs now enjoyed an influence unrivalled since the colonial era. However, ethnic groups such as the Konkomba had been traditionally excluded from the paramount chieftaincy system and land ownership, and their petitioning for the elevation of some of their chiefs to paramount status was seen by other ethnic groups as a back–door move towards land ownership. Fighting erupted between areas that have chieftaincy and those that do not, claiming the lives of an estimated 2,000 people, displacing 200,000, and destroying over 400 villages. Displacement of Ewe who straddle the Togo-Ghana border in 1991-92 as the result of conflict with the Kabre-dominated Eyadema in Togo led to an influx of refugees in Ghana. At the same time tens of thousands of refugees from the Liberian civil war were also fleeing into Ghana.
In 1996, the opposition fully contested the elections, but Rawlings won re-election, and despite flaws, international observers largely regarded the vote as free and fair. Rawlings was constitutionally barred from running in the December 2000 presidential election. For the first time in Ghana’s history there was a democratic transfer of power, after National Democratic Congress (NDC) candidate Vice-President John Atta Mills was defeated in the second round of the presidential contest by New Patriotic Party (NPP) leader, John Kufuor. Despite fears that the end of the Rawlings era and a rapid halt to Ewe favoritism could lead to ethnic unrest, Kufuor managed to weaken the Ashanti-Ewe rivalry. However, there were also increasing allegations of nepotism. A National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) working from 2002-2004 and modelled after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, delved into human rights abuses since independence, with a focus on the brutal early years of Rawlings’ military regime.
Kufuor won the December 2004 presidential election, gaining an outright majority in the first round. In October 2006 the Ghanaian government began making reparation payments to around 2,000 victims of past human rights abuses, in accordance with the NRC’s recommendations. People who suffered abuses including torture, arbitrary detention and confiscation of property – mostly during the rule of Jerry Rawlings – were slated to receive payments between US$217 and US$3,300.
Elections in December 2008 were very close, with the presidential election going to a second round. The NDC’s Atta Mills narrowly beat the NPP’s Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. Following the death of President Atta Mills in July 2012, Vice-President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in. Mahama won a close 2012 presidential contest in the first round with just over 50 per cent of votes but was beaten in the 2016 general elections, and former foreign minister Nana Akufo-Addo, of the opposition NPP, was elected President.
Ghana is a unitary republic with an executive presidency and a multiparty political system. The President is head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and serves for a maximum of two four-year terms. Ghana’s unicameral Parliament is elected every four years and was increased from 230 to 275 members before the 2012 elections. Ghana also recognizes the authority of traditional chiefs. The membership of the National House of Chiefs is composed of five Paramount Chiefs from each of Ghana’s ten regions elected by the House of Chiefs of each region.
Ghana’s legal system is pluralistic, including a common law tradition inherited from the British colonial period, and customary law and usage developed over time by Ghana’s many ethnic communities. Ghana’s history of multiple military coups also has imposed various laws and quasi-judicial structures on the judicial system. These include local tribunals established under the 1980s Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) military regime, which had jurisdiction over certain criminal offenses, and which were integrated into the formal court system at the end of military rule.
African Bar Association
Ghana Committee on Human and Peoples Rights
Tel: + 233-21-223-875, 237-171
Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ)
Tel: +233-21-664-785, 31-23-730
Northern Youth and Development Association (NORYDA)
Tel: +233-71-22655, 24796, 24435, 26239
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