By Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq
‘The Geneva of Africa’ was how the late Bolga-Naba Martin Abilba III, used to describe Bolgatanga. And indeed, until the unfortunate events of the past weeks the Upper East Regional capital was a haven of peace in the entire northern sector – if not nationwide.
In contrast, it is surrounded by hotspots like Bawku, Yendi and Wa which are noted for protracted chieftaincy and land disputes that have manifested in communal violence and bloodshed at one time or the other.
With each outbreak of fighting, many of the residents from those areas would flee to Bolgatanga for refuge. Some of them, especially those from Bawku, ended up selling their houses and moving to settle in Bolgatanga because of the relative peace that prevailed there. As a result, the cost of a plot of land for residential building sky-rocketed due to high demand – to the extent that a single plot that sold at GHc1,000 around 1999/2000, now goes for GHc8,000 or more, depending on the location.
All of a sudden, however, the peace associated with Bolgatanga over the years has come under severe strain. First it was the dispute surrounding the choice of a successor to the late Naba Martin Abilba III, which is still unresolved. As if that is not enough, the unfortunate events that led to the death of the Upper East Regional Chairman of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) followed up to compound the already fragile security situation.
That is the nature of conflict – and peace too! It cannot, and should not, be taken for granted. In the fashion of natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, social conflict has the habit of taking everybody unawares in most instances, especially in societies or communities that ever experienced violent conflict in the past. The view of many experts in the field of peace and conflict studies is that the best way to resolve armed conflict is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
“With every violent conflict, a society loses part of its capacity to handle future conflicts in a peaceful manner”, according to Gerd Junne and Willemijn Verkoren (2005). They go on further to assert that such situations may linger on for years or even decades after open violence/warfare has ended, and can easily relapse into another wave of violence. All that is needed is a tiny spark, no matter how remote, to throw the normalcy of life into disarray.
The situation on the ground in Bolgatanga, therefore, provides a number of significant sign posts that should engage the attention of all. Which also brings into focus the words of the Interior Minister, Mr Mark Woyongo, who cautioned contestants in the Bolgatanga chieftaincy dispute to refrain from choosing the path of violence for the attainment of their objective.
The Minister who was speaking to journalists in during a visit to Bolgatanga, also called on the two sides involved to follow due process and to pursue their ambitions through the law courts. Ensuring that the rule of law prevails in such situations is extremely crucial to prevent anarchy and impunity.
The North, perhaps more than any other part of the country in recent history, already has to its credit a tall record of communal violence stemming mainly from chieftaincy and land disputes. Bolgatanga, which has been one of the rare islands of peace in that area, should not be allowed to go under.
Safeguarding the peace in the area requires the collaboration of all stakeholders including traditional authorities, religious bodies, women’s associations, youth groups, the various Assemblies, Members of Parliament, elders, opinion leaders and, of course, the mass media.
The media in particular have the responsibility to ensure that the already fragile atmosphere does not deteriorate further. They can achieve this by remaining truthful, impartial and avoiding the type of reportage that would incite/provoke either of the sides involved in the dispute.
Staying professional in their approach; cross-checking, verifying every piece of information before going public; generally being circumspect and knowing that media freedom should be used to promote the good of society rather than tear it apart, is the way to go.
Among many other Municipalities in the three Northern regions, Bolgatanga is one area that has a high potential for socio-economic development. Between the year 2010 and now, the growth rate both in physical expansion and economic development in the Municipality has been tremendous. Even though there is no scientific evidence to back this assertion, it is an undeniable fact any careful observer will attest to.
Compelling evidence, however, abound to the effect that protracted disputes or conflicts retard development. One does not have to travel far in the search for proof. Less than 50 miles to the north-east of Bolgatanga, Bawku was undeniably the most vibrant commercial town in that part of the country. Traders from Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali and Niger all converged there to conduct business, and the revenue obtained by the Bawku Municipal Assembly from their transactions could be matched perhaps only by that of Techiman in Brong Ahafo those days.
Sadly, protracted communal violence has reduced Bawku to a mere shadow of its former status today. It is painful to make this unfortunate reference but at the same time it is necessary for the purpose of drawing practical lessons from our recent past. “Bawku Assembly spends GHc50,000 monthly on peacekeeping operations”, said a news story headline recently, which also brings into sharp focus the costly nature of violent conflict or war. It is costly both in terms of resource depletion and the loss of precious lives/property. The money being expended by the Assembly on peacekeeping troops would have gone into providing better education, healthcare delivery and potable water for many communities in the Municipality.
Taking the discussion a bit further is to ponder over the role Central Government, the Municipal/District Assemblies and other development partners could play in finding lasting solutions to the incessant conflicts and disputes that plague the northern sector.
What readily comes to mind is the implementation of a development initiative that would create jobs and transform the area’s economic environment in a sustainable manner. Paul Collier and Jeffrey Sachs among other experts/scholars have observed that where development succeeds, societies and nations become progressively safer from violent conflict, thereby making subsequent development easier.
Conversely, where development fails, societies are at a high risk of becoming caught in a conflict trap. The argument being that economic development is capable of changing the people’s orientation from dwelling on past rivalries to focusing on future prospects.
Without the kind of economic development that would provide basis for income-earning, improvement in welfare and an even distribution of life’s chances, we should be prepared to contend with the possibility of conflict in the north – conflict generated mainly by the competition/struggle for a means of livelihood, but often coming in the guise of political, ethnic, chieftaincy and land disputes.