Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
With most of the community situated in Ghana’s Northern Region in the area of the Oti River, Konkomba speak a language in the Gur group, but there are multiple dialects of Konkomba, some of which are quite distinct. Historically an acephalous society led by religious leaders rather than hierarchical chiefs, Konkomba self-identify as indigenous to north-east Ghana and north-west Togo, a claim supported by historians and anthropologists. When tracing their ancestry, Konkomba say they came from a hole in the ground. Konkomba were traditionally animists, but in the modern era many have adopted Christianity while smaller numbers follow Islam.
Traditionally, Konkomba were seasonal farmers, planting crops during the wet season and hunting and gathering during the dry season. Konkomba organized their social roles around lineages, and multiple lineages would come together to form a clan. Clans controlled territory that included land for cultivation, hunting grounds and water sources. Clan life centered on a village and around religious shrines. Konkomba practiced their own indigenous religion based on their belief in divination, important rites and some kinds of sorcery.
Other northern ethnic communities such as Nanumba and Dagomba that organize themselves around hereditary chieftaincy structures arrived in the region from further north and established suzerainty over the Konkomba and other acephalous groups. Konkomba had a clear sense of their territorial boundaries, and occasionally intragroup fighting would take place. However, in contrast to the chieftancy tribes of Northern Ghana, Konkomba did not have the type of social organization that produced a warrior class that could do battle with other tribes, in particular other northern tribes that maintained cavalry.
Konkomba have a long–standing antagonistic relationship with other northern chieftancy tribes, especially Dagomba, who expelled Konkomba from some of their traditional territory on the western side of the Oti River and who claimed sovereignty over lands in which many Konkomba were living. The chieftancy tribes historically raided the Konkomba for slaves and crops, claiming that this was required tribute to the paramount chiefs. With the exception of a few clans, the Konkomba did not accede to the claims of sovereignty made by the chieftancy tribes.
The chieftancy system was reinforced by the British during colonial period. In some cases, the Northern paramount chiefs appointed sub-chiefs and sub-sub-chiefs from amongst the Konkomba to govern in Konkomba-dominated areas. However, these chiefs, unless they were also clan elders, had little authority amongst their own people.
Konkomba have been marginalized in Ghana by virtue of being outside the paramount chieftancy system, with limited political power and land rights. They are not represented in the Northern Region House of Chiefs which is a major political institution taking key decisions in development and distribution of government largesse. National institutions recruit from the chiefs and northern government members are from Nanumba, Dagomba and Mamprusi. Konkomba, however, feel that they are being unjustly excluded from having a chieftancy title, and they now seek a paramountcy of their own. Fundamental disagreement over issues of land and political representation have led to violent clashes between members of Konkomba and other groups.
Konkomba have organized and agitated for greater self-determination and inclusion in the chieftancy system through the Konkomba Youth Association. They felt aggrieved that the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which they had backed in 1992, failed to respond favourably to their request. The mid-1990s saw a severe rise in the number of casualties as a result of violent conflict between Konkomba, Nanumba and Dagomba. A dispute at a marketplace over the price of a guinea fowl escalated into fierce violence centred on the town of Bimbilla in 1994-1995. The fighting claimed an estimated 2,000 lives, displaced 200,000 and destroyed over 400 villages.
Violence over land and political representation flared again in 2002, this time between Konkomba and Nawuri; several people were killed and hundreds displaced. President John Kufuor declared a state of emergency in the north, which was lifted in August 2004. In January 2006 fierce fighting erupted between rivals for the vacant Nanumba chieftaincy, leading to scores of wounded by gunshot and machete. Land prices have risen in recent years, raising the stakes for Konkomba and other northern communities, already at loggerheads over control of territory. A peace accord between the Nanumba and Konkomba was agreed in 2006 after significant government and military intervention.
Konkomba have settled in multiple areas, especially in the capital Accra. Despite the de-politicization of ethnicity in Accra, the colonial legacy of chieftaincy retains the potential to cause conflict, especially in the north.
Konkomba leaders have successfully sought increased self-determination through political channels. For instance, in December 2017, a delegation of 50 Konkomba chiefs petitioned President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo for a new region to be carved out of the Northern Region. The new North East Region was established following a referendum that was held on 27 December 2018 – five other new regions were created at the same time. Konkomba came out actively in support of the new North East Region, with the hope that it would bring greater development resources and opportunities. The new region has long been an aspiration of other communities as well; for instance, the new North East Region capital will be Nalerigu, the traditional capital of the Maprusi people.
The first months of 2019 have seen violent clashes affecting Konkomba communities in Chereponi district of the new North East Region. Violence between Konkomba and Chokosi broke out in January due to an unresolved land dispute; the same plots of land had already led to fighting in 2018. Further fighting occurred throughout the spring of 2019, with reports of several dead, houses burned and many members of both communities – especially women and children – displaced from the area for fear of reprisal attacks. The district is known for having few police on hand as well as poor roads – meaning that reinforcements take time to arrive and disputes can escalate rapidly.
Updated October 2020