Vice President Kamala Harris’ choice of Ghana this week as the place to launch her show of U.S. commitment to a new partnership with Africa can be no surprise. Ghana is one of Africa’s more established democracies and is at the center of the coastal West Africa region that the United States has targeted for focused efforts to prevent instability and the spread of extremism that is driving insurgencies in the neighboring Sahel region. As Ghana confronts that threat, notably in its vulnerable north, its community and civil society groups form an essential resource that partners should support.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a state banquet during her visit to Ghana. She underscored U.S. support for Ghana’s democracy and for stability in West Africa, which is facing violent insurgencies in the Sahel. (Jessica Sarkodie/The New York Times)
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a state banquet during her visit to Ghana. She underscored U.S. support for Ghana’s democracy and for stability in West Africa, which is facing violent insurgencies in the Sahel. (Jessica Sarkodie/The New York Times)

Like many Africans, Ghanaians struggled for years, under autocratic civilian and military regimes, to shift away from the authoritarian model of governance under which their state was created as a European colony. Ghana has sustained elected, civilian rule since 1992 and has evolved better governance than in most of Africa, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. Ghana affords its people relatively better economic opportunities and human development standards, the index says, but has seen “increasing deterioration” in security, the rule of law and citizens’ “participation, rights and inclusion” over the past decade. Harris stressed the importance of continuing to build the inclusion of women in political systems across Africa — a point she is dramatizing again today by meeting the continent’s only current female head of state, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

The extremist insurgencies of the western Sahel region, including last year’s 50 percent increase in deaths from conflicts in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have pushed refugees into the north of Ghana and its neighboring coastal West African states. Ghana has so far avoided the violent attacks directly linked to Sahel-based extremist groups that have struck Benin, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire — a spread of violence that is multiplying the humanitarian and economic risks of the regional crisis.

In her visit, Harris announced a decade-long U.S. commitment of $100 million “to help address the threats of violent extremism and instability” in the coastal countries of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo. This coastal West African region is one of five priorities set by the U.S. government for its new, longer-term and more coordinated “Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability” in countries and regions where violence and extremism threaten to spread internationally.

Historically, most local conflicts in Ghana have been among the country’s scores of ethnic groups, either for land or other resources, or over local government power, according to research by the state-supported National Peace Council. Yet these conflicts — such as a years-old battle over the local chieftaincy of Bawku, a far northeastern town — open dangerous opportunities for exploitation by outside armed groups, analysts say.

Strengthening Ghanaians Who Build Peace

USIP is working with Ghanaian organizations and Catholic Relief Services to help Ghanaian grassroots and community groups better prevent and resolve local conflicts that risk violence. The Institute co-hosted a series of dialogues among organizations and community leaders to draw from their experiences in building trust among diverse groups within their communities. This process developed recommendations for more effective peacebuilding. The dialogues included — and underscored the importance of supporting — traditional ethnic, religious and community leaders whose mediating roles were central in Ghana’s pre-colonial past. These include tribal chiefs and “queen mothers” (tribal women leaders), and Christian, Muslim or other religious leaders.

As in so many states of the Global South, the foreign system of government imposed on Ghana by its colonial rulers undermined traditional methods of governance, including the vital task of resolving communal disputes and preventing conflict. This notably included a constriction of the strong, pre-colonial roles of the women leaders. “Ghana has a long history of strong civil society and indigenous traditional mechanisms where tribal chiefs, queen mothers, youth chiefs and religious leaders all have found ways to work together” to promote cohesion and respect among ethnic, religious and other communities said one dialogue participant, a member of the National Peace Council who joined in USIP’s consultations with Ghanaian groups in February.

USIP’s consultations with Ghanaian groups focus as well on building stronger ties among leaders across generations. USIP research has shown that communities marked by greater relationships of trust between youth and elders are better able to prevent or contain outbreaks of violent conflict.

Ghana’s Peacebuilders’ Dialogues

One dialogue among Ghanaian leaders and peacebuilders took place in its northernmost regional capital, Bolgatanga (or simply, “Bolga”), a bustling market city of some 50,000 people less than an hour’s drive across the hot, semi-arid plateau from the border with Burkina Faso. Northern Ghana’s mostly rural communities have received thousands of refugees from Burkina Faso’s years’-long fighting — a rising influx that this month led the U.N. refugee agency to declare an emergency, and that has increased tensions over how to shelter and feed the asylum seekers amid existing communities. Those tensions, alongside longstanding local conflicts, “is why now we see more of a security presence on the streets than before and we think that we have less social cohesion,” said a youth leader who was part of the dialogue in Bolga. (The dialogue sessions were held under a rule that speakers not be quoted by name afterward.)

Perhaps no community in Ghana reflects more the combined challenges of local disputes and the influx of refugees and conflict risk from across Ghana’s largely uncontrolled borders than Bawku, 50 miles northeast of Bolga and close to Ghana’s frontiers with Burkina Faso and Togo. In recent months, Bawku’s long conflict erupted anew over which of two area tribes should control the local chieftaincy. As the Ghanaian grassroots groups were conducting the inter-religious and inter-generational dialogues in February, members of the Bawku community reported to authorities the placement of explosives set to blow up a local highway bridge. Security forces removed the bomb. While Ghana’s defense minister told parliament that the plot had been a criminal, rather than political, act, he underscored that the aborted attack illustrated a heightened risk of violence spreading from across the border. And Ghanaian peacebuilders emphasized that it shows the importance of their dialogues to build trust across communal, generational and other divides.

“We need more opportunities to sit down with each other, to socialize and get to know each other so we no longer fear each other based on false assumptions,” said a youth representative at a dialogue in the north-central regional capital of Tamale. “I no longer fear that if I go to the mosque or spend time with my Muslim neighbors that they will convert me, nor do they fear that my motive is to convert them,” said a Ghanaian Christian participant in one dialogue. “And I share this with my friends so they can also build trust.”

“I now have a personal relationship with the sheikh (Muslim religious leader) in my community, and I can go to him if I have a problem or if I know someone from his community is creating a problem. I have eaten at his house; he has welcomed me like his own. This would not have happened if we didn’t have the opportunity to dialogue,” said a Catholic youth leader from Bolga.

Katie Todd is a program specialist for West Africa at USIP.

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