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06.10.2008 Politics

Northern Youth, Conflcit and the 2008 Elections

By Zaya Yeebo

Northern youth must reject the culture of violence.

Once again, Ghana is waking up to some painful realities: it cannot claim to be the sole island of peace and stability; that that politics in the north is inter-twinned with the numerous chieftaincy disputes that have lingered for years. In this case, I use 'the North' broadly to cover all the three regions – Upper East, Upper West and Northern regions. I am also aware that the majority of people in the North, like the rest of Ghana, would rather live in peace, regardless of political allegiances, and the choices that elections present. The current mayhem in some parts of the northern region, and in Bawku, will make the north a laughing stock in Ghana and Africa. It is not too late to stop this spiral of unnecessary and unwanted conflict.

What is driving this mayhem? The temptation is to blame the leadership of the two main protagonists involved in the violence. There is no doubt that they bear some responsibility for this. Dr. Edward Nasigre Mahama, Presidential aspirant of the Peoples National Convention (PNC) was more forthright and even brave. He was quoted as saying: “I visited the sites where both NDC and NPP property, as well as stores of some innocent traders had been destroyed and I condemn the two political parties NPP and NDC for being responsible for the destruction,” he emphasized. He also described some political groups as “violent parties.”

The Regent of Gulkpegu Alhaji Abdulai Ziblim, was quoted by the Ghana News Agency (GNA) as saying that “the recent disturbances in the Tamale Metropolis and the Gushiegu District were not entirely political.” Alhaji Ziblim went even further to say that “the recent disturbances were just like the events leading to the 2004 general election, in which some people openly wielded arms and the recent registration exercise, which witnessed gun-shots at certain polling stations.” Candidly, he added: “In all these instances, nobody has been arrested and this gives the impression that some people are above the law because the police seem to be helpless in the circumstances” (Sept 03, GNA)

The poor security in the Northern region was confirmed by the Metropolitan Chief Executive of Tamale, Mr. Mohammed Amin Adam, warned: “I could not guarantee a peaceful election in Tamale and therefore the need for the Regional Security Council to come in with all the force behind them to ensure that everybody is able to exercise his or her political right to ensure that Tamale one again does not become a flashpoint” was apramount.

In an article I wrote earlier that year, I cautioned the youth of the North, and followers of some political leaders as they could be used as tools for the political ambitions of some people who have lost political power in Ghana, and would do anything to regain it – 'by any means necessary.' Of course, others would do anything to retain the power they have gained so far. It appears that such caution has been thrown to the wind. Once again, the North has become the centrepoint for proxy wars and ambitions of certain individuals who think they have a God-given right to leadership by all means and at all costs. Is this unavoidable, and is there any justification for this?

The current problems in Tamale and Gushiegu, follows predictable patterns as there exists some chieftaincy disputes in the area. The unresolved difficulties following the assassination of the late Ya Na, and the fact that the community is divided along party lines makes this easier. Far away from Tamale, the Bawku crisis remains unresolved. This problem has its ethnic and chieftaincy origins, but always expressed along party lines – it used to be Busia/Danquah versus the CPP, but now it is now likely to be NDC versus NPP. There are other similar conflicts around chieftaincy in the Wa area as well. This is quite worrying. The cheerleaders of this violence are never the victims. The actions of some political leaders in recent Ghanaian history killed the very notion of respect for life, and fertilised the soil with bile and blood, out of which now festers ethnic and religious fanaticism. These vain and ignorant crusaders will never take up arms themselves, especially, now that people are waking up to what some of these forces really represent. That is why the North remains vulnerable to proxy wars and conflict.

The North is the most underdeveloped part of Ghana, a fact recognised by most Ghanaians and international organisations. Yet, it also remains the scene of intractable conflict. Poverty and conflict usually go hand in hand. Now, we have added another dimension: elections as a way of settling political, ethnic and chieftaincy disputes. But how can the north rise from the depths of underdevelopment if the people who can lead this fight against poverty – youth, women, civil society, chiefs', etc, are at each others throats. Who benefits from this cycle of violence?

The NDC ruled Ghana for over 20 uninterrupted years, while the NPP has been in power for almost eight years. The fact that the people of the north have not seen any redemption is a matter of objective analysis, and not a partisan issue. That the North still suffers from benign neglect is n undisputable fact. For the youth to start dividing themselves along NPP/NDC/CPP lines are worrying. The question the youth should be asking themselves is which of these parties can bring development and relief to the poverty stricken citizens of the North? Which of the major two parties has the political will, capability and the interest to address the marginalisation which the north suffers from after December 2008?

When this election is over and the politicians have attained the ultimate prize, Northern youth will go back to their communities, live and work together. So why go on a burning and killing spree for the benefit of others? Youthful enthusiasm, and the perceived interests of the parties' at elections could be some of the reasons, but I go for the other reason for this behaviour, that there are some dark forces intent on making the North look like a violent backyard, something they cannot do in their own constituencies'. Of course, the 2008 elections is quite crucial, with the discovery of oil, and all the wealth that comes along with being a Minister of State, a party apparatchik, or even a Member of Parliament. Where does the interest of the ordinary citizen, the mmoborowas (downtrodden masses) of the North feature in this scenario?

The current problems in the North are also about the lack of leadership in the three regions. We have seen the frenzy surround the choice of “running mates”. It is almost becoming like a fashion accessory. If you want northerners to vote for you, chose a Northerner as a running mate. But which of the choice names that have emerged have shown exemplary leadership in the North? History repeats itself, but never exactly in the same fashion. History can also provide lessons for the future. History tells us that the North suffers from benign neglect, and has done so under the two parties' whose supporters are involved in the current conflict. It also tells us that northern leaders are no different from those from other parts of Ghana. The North is poor, the people wallow in abject poverty, and children do not go to school, while northern women still suffer from backward traditional practices. This is likely to remain the case even after the December 2008 elections, no matter who wins. Where are the voices of reason? What does history tell us about politicians and their promises to help lift the North from poverty and deprivation?

Northern leaders, whoever they are, should accept some responsibility for the current state of affairs. They are responsible for failing to understand the challenges, or the consequences of enlightened and progressive politics in the era of globalisation that the state cannot be expected to redeem our people, especially one led by people who have to reason to care. The Northern elite (me included) seem incapable of responding with humanity when confronted with genuine challenges, glaring injustice, and clear political choices. Some of us are even complicit in the oppression of our people. What is clear is, ever since independence, Northerners have become a backyard for proxy violent party political struggles. First between 'matemeho' (Busia/Danquah) and the CPP during the independence struggles. Then in the Unigov years, between pro-and anti-UNIGOV supporters. The story goes on.

My advice to fellow Northerners is to reject the politics of violence and hate, to reject those leaders who seek to turn the North into a conflict zone in order to feather their political nests. The Northern leadership should speak with one voice against violence, and against those forces that are fanning these proxy wars in the three regions. For the meantime, I expect the two running mates of the NDC and the NPP to come out strongly against the use of violent political actions, and the suffering that it brings to ordinary people. This is about humanity and decent behaviours, not about party politics. Nationally, the heated, sometimes, abusive language of some leaders sitting in the comfort of their state sponsored homes in Accra, while inciting violence in the 'zongos' should be rejected by northerners', by the Imams, chiefs, and youth leaders. If political leaders resort to abuse instead of informed, civil debate, the youth will follow suit.

History has shown that some of these so-called leaders actually thrive and blossom in times of mayhem and violence, when law and order breaks down. Some of them seek the complete destruction of the modern state, that way, and they can justify their violent personal and political behaviour. Such elements are beginning to peddle once more, ideas that were dismissed as peripheral and unacceptable in any decent society. But why use the North? Their houses never get burnt down, they are not prevented form undertaking economic activities to sustain their livelihoods, their children are not prevented from going to school, so what do they care? Such people should be asked to foment conflict and mayhem in their own backyard, and leave the suffering innocent people of the north alone. The northern political leaders who belong to the “parties of violence” should be ashamed of themselves in equal measure.

Northern leaders, especially, leaders of political party representatives in the North should begin to speak with one voice, and for the nation as a whole to say enough is enough. We need a peaceful election, but cannot have one if the leaders of political parties encourage young people to resort to mindless violence about nothing. If the national leadership fails to achieve this, then the whole question of national unity is in peril. As for the northern leaders, I can only say this: If you cannot bring a halt to the emerging violence, then you lose your raison d'être to aspire to national office and leadership. The time for unity is now; ordinary people in the North have suffered for far too long. Let us call a halt to these proxy wars.

© Zaya Yeebo / September 2008