The Violence of Ghana’s North & Ghana’s Violence Contra its North

The Violence of Ghana’s Northerners and Ghana’s violence against its Northerners

Most people around the world and in Ghana may not know much about Ghana’s northerners except for the “fact” that they are violent. If you want to learn about the north (Dagombas in Particular) perhaps start with Staniland.1 Although many people in Ghana have never heard the word “Amaraaba” which comes from a language spoken by at least 1 million Ghanaians they are well versed in the story of the north. The “fact” that the northerners had a war over guinea fowls or that they killed their chief. In this article, I present the concept of Structural Violence and argue that the violence of the northerners is a visible manifestation of the biblical concept of “violence begets violence” (Matt 26: 52).

Structural Violence

Structural violence is a form of violence that does not necessarily involve arms or physical violence but involves the organization of societies in a fashion that perpetually disadvantages some groups. Medical Anthropologist Paul Farmer defines structural violence as “violence exerted systemically…by everyone who belongs to a certain social order…”2 In a Ghanaian context what does this mean? Let’s explore some contemporary “fun facts” whose meanings are probably best understood in their historical contextualization.

The Contemporary

Poverty rates have been consistently higher in the “north” defined as the three regions of the north than the “south” defined as the rest of Ghana for God knows how long? In fact, a World Bank report indicated that between 1992 and 2006, whilst the number of poor people decreased by 2.5 million in the south, it increased by 0.9 million in the north.3 More recently the National Education Assessment has indicated that pupils from the three regions of the north have “ distinctly lower [educational] performance” compared to the rest of the country.4 In terms of health outcomes such as anaemia, infant mortality, stunting and a host of others, they are consistently higher in the north than the rest of the country. Although the data are not available to tell whether life expectancy is shorter in the north than the south, there is no reason believe that it isn’t. But why is this the case? Are the northerners inherently unintelligent and cannot pass exams or inherently stupid and so they continue to fight amongst themselves? Or inherently biologically weak so that they develop these illnesses and die more quickly? Well let’s look back in history.

The Historical

If one had to give a one word answer to the reasons for these social maladies, it might simply be colonialism. In Ghana and elsewhere, the fervent pursuit of capitalist economic policies and more recently the adoption of neoliberal economic policies has led to what American sociologist Saskia Sassen describes as “ a brutal sorting of winners and losers”5 with the losers mostly concentrated in the north.

Did you know that before colonialism the north thrived very much and had resources which the colonial economy did not find profitable and whose cultivation the colonialist resisted and discouraged? A colonial report described northerners as “[A]n amiable but backward people useful as soldiers, policemen, and labourers in the mines and cocoa farms, in short, to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for their brothers in the colony and Ashanti”6  Professor Plange gives an excellent account of the proletarianisation of the northerners and the associated complexities of these dynamics.7,8 This obviously set the stage for the contemporary poverty we see in Ghana, and has nothing to do with the weather or climate of the north as some have sometimes sought to argue. Additionally, did you know that there was a time in Ghana when people in the north were not supposed to have more than 6 years of primary education?9 Before you get excited and think this happened under some violent dictator, it happened under a man (Guggisberg) described as the first to create a comprehensive plan of national development.10 It gets worse. A few decades after colonialism, under structural adjustment, when everyone was supposedly tightening their belts, the belts of northern children were likely tightened harder.11 From that time onward, we have created in Ghana an economy that is export based and that focuses on cocoa and southern resources12 to the detriment of the north.

What are the connections?

We live in a country that has an economic system organized to the disadvantage of the north. The northern disadvantage is a policy created one and every day that goes by, there is violence (of a structural nature) against northerners. Because it doesn’t always involve guns and shooting, it is easy to act like it doesn’t exist. But we need to know that every time we hear about the “violent northerners” and we tell only this part of the story, then there is “the danger of a single story” as Chimamanda Adichie says. When we see northern head porters (kaayaayo) in Accra living under precarious circumstances, it is no more than a visible manifestation of structural violence. Those women embody our national inequity and iniquity and the violence they suffer13 is violence we as a nation have inflicted on them. Whenever you hear about Ghana’s violent northerners remember to stop and ask “what about Ghana’s violence against its north?”.

About the Writer

Jacob Albin Korem Alhassan is a student in Population Health with a particular focus on the Political Economy of Health. He’s also a poet and some of his work can be found here.



  1. Staniland M. The Lions of Dagbon: Political Change in Northern Ghana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  2. Farmer P. An Anthropology of Structural Violence. Curr Anthropol 2004; 45: 305–325.
  3. World Bank. Tackling Poverty in Northern Ghana. 2011.
  4. Ministry of Education. Ghana 2016 National Education Assessment: Report of Findings (2016).
  5. Sassen S. Beyond Inequality: Expulsions. In: Critical Perspectives on the Crisis of Global Governance. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 69–88.
  6. Wardell A, Fold N. Globalisations in a nutshell: Historical perspectives on the changing governance of the shea commodity chain in northern Ghana. Int J Commons 2013; 7: 367–405.
  7. Plange N-K. ‘Opportunity Cost’ and Labour Migration: a Misinterpretation of Proletarianisation in Northern Ghana. J Mod Afr Stud 1979; 17: 655–676.
  8. Plange NK. Underdevelopment in Northern Ghana : Natural Causes or Colonial Capitalism ? Rev Afr Polit Econ 1979; 6: 4–14.
  9. Brukum NJK. The Northern Territories of the Gold Coast under British Colonial Rule, 1897-1956: A study in Political Change. University of Toronto (1997).
  10. Agyei-Mensah S, De-Graft Aikins A. Epidemiological Transition and the Double Burden of Disease in Accra, Ghana. J Urban Heal Bull New York Acad Med 2010; 87: 879–897.
  11. Konadu-Agyemang K. The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Structural Adjustment Programs and Uneven Development in Africa: The Case Of Ghana. Prof Geogr 2000; 52: 469–483.
  12. Anyinam C. Spatial Implications of Structural Adjustment Programmes in Ghana. Tijdschr voor Econ en Soc Geogr 1994; 85: 446–460.
  13. Awumbila M, Ardayfio-Schandorf E. Gendered poverty, migration and livelihood strategies of female porters in Accra, Ghana. Nor J Geogr Nor Geogr Tidsskr J Geogr 2008; 623: 171–179.



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