In 2022, 43% of all global terrorism deaths occurred in the Sahel – the region south of the Sahara Desert and stretching east-west across the African continent. West Africa had recorded 1,800 terrorism attacks as of June 2023, resulting in nearly 4,600 deaths.
The region has also seen a series of coups , making countries more vulnerable.
Coastal west African countries worry about terrorism in the Sahel spilling over into their territories. It is against this backdrop that discussions and commentary about terrorism are taking place in Ghana.
I have researched and analysed security and militancy in Africa for a decade. My most recent research examined how terrorism is viewed in Ghana in light of insecurity across the Sahel and the country's reputation as an oasis of peace in the sub-region.
There has been criticism of the way terrorism is spoken of globally, due to its potential to be divisive and serve as justification for violence by security agencies and the abuse of citizens' rights.
For this reason, my aim was to assess whether these global perceptions influenced views in Ghana. I also aimed to understand the security implications of the nature of the terrorism discourse.
I found the discourse to be contradictory, dangerous and simplistic. It lacked a coherent theme, except for repeating problematic narratives and platitudes.
One of these narratives was the mistaken idea that terrorism was foreign to Ghana, and now entering the country. Secondly, the discussion equated terrorism with violence involving jihadist groups. While jihadist forms of violence are present in the region, there are other types of terrorism too – including terrorism by states and their agents.
Analysing news articles
I brought a sceptical attitude to the discussion of terrorism in Ghana by critically analysing the titles of 60 online news articles published between 2015 and 2022.
The titles were sampled from a Ghanaweb.com dossier captioned “ Terror attack on Ghana ” and accessed between July and September 2022. Ghanaweb.com is the most widely used online news source in Ghana and has existed since the late 1990s.
The titles were selected using two criteria. The first was the use of threat and risk language. Here, I looked for titles that communicated space or place (for example, Sahel, Togo, Burkina Faso), vulnerability (“ porous borders ”), pre-emption (“ be vigilant ”), othering (“ strangers ”) and assurance (“ don't panic ”).
The other criterion was the assumed authority of the source. I selected titles that cited security officials, analysts with significant media presence, politicians and religious leaders.
The analysis revealed that the character of the discourse was lopsided and gave an incomplete picture of the state of security in Ghana.
Ghana's overlooked culture of violence
The discourse overlooked Ghana's endemic culture of violence, including acts by militia groups, political assassinations and police brutality.
Recently, several militia groups have been involved in violent events in Ghana, including election violence in 2019 that led to two fatalities and 18 injuries. A security analyst has named 24 violent groups in the country, with names like Kandahar Boys, Aluta Boys, Al Qaeda, Invincible Forces and Delta Forces.
On 16 January 2019, an investigative journalist was shot dead in front of his home in an alleged act of political assassination.
In 2020, a sitting MP and government minister fired gunshots during a voter registration exercise – an act she explained was for her protection. In the same year, another MP threatened to burn down the house of a former president of Ghana.
There are many cases of violence by security agents, including the police killing of seven Muslim youths mistaken for armed robbers.
Ghana's 2020 elections – its eighth since 1992 – recorded five deaths and scores of injuries.
Some scholars argue that extra-legal uses of force and violence in Ghana are due to a culture of impunity resulting from a “systemic decapitation of the police by the political elite”.
Blaming the Sahel
Despite the above terrorising acts of violence, the terrorism discourse in Ghana creates the predominant impression that terrorism and political violence are now heading towards Ghana from the Sahel.
The fear of the coming terrorists has united “ everybody ” in Ghana to protect the country. The list includes community vigilantes, civil society organisations, political parties, business organisations, churches and traditional leaders. The measures to safeguard Ghana include counter-terrorism drills , vigilance, border security, prophecies and prayers.
This collective national effort presents political violence from other countries in the region as if terror events do not exist within Ghana. Commentators say that terrorism is now heading towards Ghana, causing Ghanaians to panic and grow apprehensive.
Three examples show how the terrorism discourse is contradictory and simplistic – hence deceptive.
“ Accra safe but Ghana not out of the woods – ACP Eklu ” and “ Government ready for terrorist attack – National Security ministry ”. These claims are contradictory. They mean Accra and Ghana are safe and unsafe simultaneously.
The “terrorists are in our communities, they are our neighbours, they are our siblings, they are our fathers, they are our mothers”, claims an analyst . This claim is dangerous as it could create unnecessary social and communal tension.
Ghana is the only country bordering Burkina Faso that has not experienced a terrorist attack . This claim is simplistic and it is only true if terrorism is defined to mean “jihadist” political violence.
My conclusion is that any future acts of terrorism and political violence in Ghana will not be anything new. Shooting to kill during elections and firing a warning shot at a polling station are acts of terrorism. Police brutality, election violence and assassinations are also acts of political violence.
Implications of the discourse
The terrorism discourse in Ghana shows how flawed views of the so-called global war on terror shape how we think about security, even when those views create dire consequences such as Islamophobia and more violence .
These lopsided narratives can alienate some communities and threaten social cohesion. Worse, they undermine Ghana's responsibility to address insecurity within the country.
To avoid such problems, some scholars have argued that terrorism should be defined to suit specific contexts. I have made a similar argument elsewhere that terrorism is a process rather than an event.
This avoids the dangers of a single story about terrorism and political violence in general. In particular, it creates a conducive environment for solutions that sustainably secure Ghana and its citizens.
Muhammad Dan Suleiman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
By Muhammad Dan Suleiman, Research associate, Curtin University