The market town of Bawku, crammed into a nook of Ghana’s most north-eastern region, is about a day’s drive from the country’s coastal capital, Accra. But the distance between the two places is not merely geographical.
While Accra boasts rich culture, nightlife and a steady stream of tourists, rural Bawku has become a tinderbox of discontent as a long-running local conflict over the legitimacy of the town’s chief intensifies.
Insecurity has worsened in recent months, notably a brutal attack on a convoy of traders travelling from Bawku to the nearby Togolese town of Cinkassé in September that sent shockwaves across the country. At least nine people, mostly women, were killed.
Although no group has claimed responsibility, security experts believe the deadly ambush is linked to the ongoing dispute, one that has been infiltrated by Islamist militants, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.
Such is the risk of violence that government officials and security analysts claim Bawku has become too dangerous to receive visitors. “You shouldn’t go there,” warns one analyst affiliated with the government. “You could be killed and no one would know what group killed you.”
Above all, it is the location of these attacks that has most worried policymakers in the capital. They are playing out on Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso, a volatile country that has become the epicentre of Islamist violence in the region.
But the mounting concern stretches beyond Ghana. Governments across west Africa and their international allies are seriously discussing whether the Islamist groups wreaking havoc in the Sahel, the semi-arid strip south of the Sahara, would expand into the relatively peaceful countries on the coast such as Benin, Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast.
At stake is the region’s stability. West Africa’s coastal countries are a global gateway to the region, key to European shipping lines, and have attracted investment by countries such as France, Turkey and China.
Should the eruptions of violence be left to worsen, there is a risk of the danger spreading south, but also creeping north and ultimately closer to Europe.
The signs are ominous. In the border towns of northern Benin, sporadic attacks on civilians and police outposts are a constant threat. Two soldiers on surveillance duty in the town of Karimama, near its border with Niger, were killed by an improvised explosive device in December.
The sprawling W-Arly-Pendjari Complex, a series of protected land and national parks that stretch across Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso, has been used by insurgents as a smuggling route for some time, and a night-time bomb attack killed nine people in 2022. The parks, collectively a Unesco World Heritage site, are now closed to the public, though hotels in Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, still advertise them as a going attraction.
The Beninese military has pointed the finger at Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and other armed militants. JNIM, one of the Sahel’s main insurgent groups, is responsible for killing thousands of people and driving millions more from their homes. In Burkina Faso alone, violence linked to JNIM and Islamic State Sahel has displaced more than 2mn people, about 10 per cent of the population.
Fearful and grappling with economies ravaged by the pandemic and interest on debts, their neighbours on the Gulf of Guinea have been lobbying their allies in Europe and the US for military support to bolster security.
Last March, US vice-president Kamala Harris announced $100mn in security assistance to five countries — Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Togo — “to help address the threats of violent extremism and instability”.
The EU followed this in October with a donation of more than 100 armoured military vehicles as part of a €20mn support package for Ghana. At the time, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, warned that the spillover of insecurity and terrorism from the Sahel into the coastal countries was no longer a threat but “a danger that is happening now”.
The disorder in the Sahel has worsened over the past years, with several countries, all former French colonies, being the target of military coups. This has coincided with an increase of anti-French sentiment among locals in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, which has been seized on by military juntas there to force France to withdraw its troops.
It has left a void that can be filled by expanding insurgent groups, which remain resilient despite a decade-long fight with national militaries supported by France and EU member states. Russian mercenary groups have also become active as governments across the region grow increasingly desperate to stem the tide of Islamist violence.
Emanuela Del Re, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, says that leaders in the region have told her that assisting Burkina Faso as it deals with its insurgency crisis is a crucial step to avoid a spillover of insecurity.
“[The countries in the Gulf of Guinea] are asking for our help,” says Del Re. “The level of awareness is very high in the region . . . and we have to listen to their demands and understand why they make certain requests.”
The Islamist groups active across west Africa have long sought to exploit local grievances between the state and marginalised groups to recruit fighters and spread their influence.
In Bawku, the source of the tension is a bitter feud over the local chieftaincy, a powerful office that dates back to colonial times. Once charged with duties such as tax collection and mediating community disagreements, it is still rewarded today with financial perks from the government.
The town’s two main ethnic groups, the Mamprusi and Kusasi, both lay claim to the title, which has led to a cycle of violence that has taken numerous lives, destroyed properties and crippled the economy of a town already suffering from limited opportunities.
After a decade-long lull, the conflict reignited in November 2021 with a devastating effect on everyday life in Bawku, with healthcare and education disrupted and an exodus of government workers. In response, local officials launched a crackdown on freedoms, including a ban on the three-wheel taxis that has affected the ability of drivers to make a living.
Just weeks before the attack on the convoy heading for Togo, the national government had imposed an 8pm to 5am curfew in Bawku and neighbouring towns, and enacted a “total ban” on anyone “carrying arms, ammunition or any offensive weapon”.
Society has become so polarised that people from the two ethnic groups avoid walking in so-called enemy territory or risk being accused by the other side of gathering information.
Adam Bonaa, a prominent security analyst who visited Bawku in 2022 alongside high-ranking government officials to assess the state of the conflict, says: “You can’t just drive into Bawku. It’s a no-go area.”
But a heavy-handed response from the government has the potential to foment more discontent.
Across the Sahel, pastoralist communities are frequently demonised by the government as collaborators with terror groups — often with little evidence. In Mali, the terror group JNIM has sought to exploit this by claiming the Malian government is waging an “ethnic war” against Muslims. It portrays itself as the defender of the civilian population, even as it wages war against them; attacking villages, killing residents or leaving them displaced.
In March 2022, a vicious crackdown in the central Malian town of Moura by the army, alongside foreign fighters believed to be Wagner, killed about 300 people. According to Human Rights Watch, most were civilians, a charge the Malian military has repeatedly denied.
In October 2023, a video circulated showing young men allegedly beaten up by the Ghanaian army in the northern town of Garu, supposedly a reprisal attack by the military for an assault on officers stationed in the town to fight terrorism. The government denied the allegations but MPs have called for an investigation into the incident.
Analysts worry these episodes could serve as recruitment tools for Islamist groups. “When governments take an overly militaristic approach to fighting insurgents, it has unintended consequences, which includes driving people to join the groups,” says Fola Aina, a lecturer of political economy, violence and development at Soas, University of London.
But perhaps the greatest risk factor for a jihadist incursion is the absence of the state in many northern regions of the coastal countries, where insurgent groups can flourish, and a chronic unemployment crisis.
There is a stark north-south divide across much of west Africa where people in southern regions are far more educated and prosperous than those in the hinterlands of the north. The young men drawn to insurgent groups do not all sign up because they believe in the ideology but rather as a matter of economic survival.
As one French security official who has worked extensively in the region puts it: “If you give someone [with no prospects of a job] $50 a week, a motorcycle and a Kalashnikov, that’s a pretty good deal.”
Abdul Zanya Salifu, a doctoral researcher at the University of Calgary who specialises in land-use conflicts and security in west Africa, points out that the economic disparity between north and southern Ghana is acute, with the northern region having a higher poverty rate.
“Poverty is one of the triggers of grievance against the state,” he warns. “We have a huge population that are jobless, hopeless and futureless. And these [insurgent] groups use financial incentives to lure people into joining them.”
The prospect of jihadist infiltration has inspired a wave of military initiatives in recent years as west African states and their international partners speed up collaboration efforts.
The Accra Initiative, a grouping consisting of Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo, aims to prevent the spillover of violence from the Sahel to the coast and to “address transnational organised crime and violent extremism in member countries’ border areas”, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Individual countries have started mass recruitment and deployment of law enforcement officers to their fragile northern regions. Benin has struck a military co-operation agreement for Rwanda, whose troops have fought insurgents in Mozambique, to assist its armed forces. A troop deployment is planned, but it is unclear when Rwandan boots will be on the ground in Benin.
For western officials, providing support to these countries is the best way to prevent the so-called last dominoes in the region from falling to terror groups.
When asked by reporters if the US was now paying closer attention to the instability on the doorsteps of its allies, Molly Phee, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said on Thursday: “We have long been concerned about coastal west Africa, as well as Nigeria, because if the terrorist threat in the Sahel were to disrupt life in those countries, it would be really problematic for a huge portion of Africa.”
In Benin, where the government has ramped up security efforts in the north of the country, including a recruiting drive to hire 5,000 soldiers, its foreign minister, Shegun Adjadi Bakari, tells the Financial Times that the key to keeping jihadis at bay is to redress the lopsided economic opportunities between the country’s north and south.
“It cannot be only a question of arms or military response. The response should also be development,” he says. “We have to invest heavily in development and job creation. Because at the end of the day, it’s a question of jobs. If our young people have access to jobs and basic needs, they will never move to those terrorist groups.”
Governments across the littoral states — in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Togo — are increasing investment in public services in their northernmost extremes.
Ivory Coast, which borders Mali and Burkina Faso and has experienced at least 16 attacks since 2020 — announced plans in 2021 to revitalise schools and invest in hospitals as well as provide jobs in a bid to “occupy our youth to keep them away from the call of terrorists”, according to its then prime minister, Patrick Achi. It was part of a $55mn spending plan to shore up resilience in the north.
Peter Lanchene Toobu, a former high-ranking police officer who is now an MP with the opposition National Democratic Congress and sits on the defence and interior committee in Ghana’s parliament, says the government needs to bring Accra and the periphery of the country closer together.
“Without development you can’t maintain security,” says Toobu. “The government needs to ensure that life is worth living, that people have decent jobs and can make ends meet.”
Despite the resilience measures being put in place by coastal countries and their allies, some analysts say they see no concrete proof that jihadis are interested in spreading farther south.
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, the director of academic affairs and research at the Accra-based Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, argues that while jihadi infiltration was a “potential” outcome, the attacks being recorded in coastal states were “isolated incidents” that did not suggest a looming expansion of terror networks.
“It doesn’t make strategic and operational sense to even conceptualise that they want to come down to the coast,” Aning says of the terror groups. “It’s lazy scholarship that doesn’t challenge this, and political expediency because it generates a lot of money from Europe.”
Aning says the insecurity in northern Ghana, for example, is a case of criminality being exacerbated by the proliferation of small arms and smuggling gangs benefiting from untaxed trade of maize, fuel, soyabean and gold. Looking at the issue through the lens of “the terrorists are coming” is unhelpful, he adds.
“We’re seeing a narrative that is sowing and creating fear, but creating funding opportunities for coastal states whilst weaponising migration in Europe.”
One person familiar with the Ghanaian government’s thinking, who requested anonymity, says there is some logic to that argument. The EU’s worries over irregular migration could be exploited by governments in the region for additional aid and security assistance, the person claims.
When Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged in Washington in late 2022 that Wagner fighters had been employed by Burkina Faso, diplomats and analysts privately disputed his claims and described it as an effort by Accra to curry favour with the US.
Akufo-Addo’s comments set off a diplomatic firestorm between Accra and Ouagadougou, and Ghana’s ambassador was summoned by the Burkinabé government to provide an explanation.
But a growing group of analysts say there is no denying that the conflict in Bawku deserves extra attention and that a long-running conflict of this nature has the potential to engulf more than just the country’s north.
“Leadership in the country has failed to deal with the issue,” says Bonaa, the security expert. “We have ignored Bawku and Bawku could one day spell doom for this country.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels
Data visualisation by Steven Bernard