The inescapability of local traditions in women’s peace roles in Dagbon
The Dagbon chieftaincy conflict in northern Ghana provides a valuable example of women’s agency in peace efforts in local communities. While being excluded from a formal peace process due to traditional and cultural restrictions, Dagbon’s women leaders engaged informally to reduce tension and promote dialogue between conflict parties.
BY FELIX DADE, Master's student and SCHOLARSHIP HOLDER AT THE NORDIC AFRICA INSTITUTE
Most feminist scholarship on peace focuses on women’s engagement in state-based conflicts, with little attention to non-state conflicts (i.e. conflicts without the state as a party). The minimal attention given to women’s local peace efforts leaves gaps for a more nuanced understanding of the push-and-pull factors that influence women’s work in conflict contexts. For example, women’s exclusion from a formal peace process in the kingdom of Dagbon requires a context-specific analysis.
The Dagbon chieftaincy succession conflict was one of Ghana's 352 unresolved chieftaincy conflicts in 2017 External link., until an all-male, liberal-local (hybrid) peace mechanism in 2018 reached a peace agreement. The second Ghana National Action Plan (GHANAP II, 2020-2025) on UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security calls for the “full representation and active participation of women… at all levels of the Ghanaian society” in peace mechanisms…” Thus, Dagbon women’s exclusion from formal peace process prompts inquiry.
The ‘ins and outs’ of the Dagbon chieftaincy succession conflict
The Dagbon succession conflict is one of Ghana’s most ruinous struggle for traditional political power, between the families of two half-brothers – Abudu and Andani – who constitute the royal lineages of Dagbon. It is from the two royal lineages, the ruling class, that the Ya Naa and other important chiefs are selected. Abudus and Andanis have been embroiled in intermittent internecine clashes due to disagreements over the eligible lineage to select the Ya Naa (literally, the “power chief”) in a given period, the validity of the nomination process, and the applicable customary rituals to install the Ya Naa.
The Ya Naa is overlord of the Dagomba people, the largest of four ethnic groups in the Northern Region, constituting more than half of the region’s population. As head of the Dagbon traditional state, all lands are vested in him. He presides over religious and ritual celebrations, appointing sub-chiefs and retaining a retinue of advisers. Since the late 19th century, the Ya Naa’s selection has alternated between the Abudu and Andani families. In 1954, however, the Abudu gate extended its reign, introducing primogeniture, and leading to intermittent episodes of conflict. The conflict has become protracted due to politicisation through central government intrusion, and corruption.
Lingering postcolonial disagreements and suspicions between Andanis and Abudus culminated in a three-day war External link. in March 2002 in Yendi. Ya Naa Yakubu Andani II and 30 others were killed External link., and the Gbewaa Palace and 38 houses destroyed, amid serious human rights violations and gender-based violence. The government’s peace plan for Yendi centred on a constellation of actors who straddle the liberal-local (hybrid) peace paradigm. Ya Naa Abukari II External link. (an Andani) was eventually installed in 2019, after 16 years of a protracted peace process. Dagbon’s peace process received a fair amount of coverage in academia, but women’s limited participation in the peace process has rarely been broached.
The diverse actors involved in resolving the Dagbon chieftaincy conflict
Resolution of the Dagbon dispute has involved multiple actors negotiating liberal-local peace paradigms. The central government declared a state of emergency in Dagbon during the violence, deploying police and army detachments to Yendi to bring the situation under control. In April 2002, it established the Wuaku Commission of Inquiry External link. to establish the facts of the previous month’s violence. The securitisation and fact-finding roles of the Ghanaian State followed a Western, liberal peace paradigm, external to Dagbon’s customs and traditions. In addition, the government also instituted a three-member Committee of Eminent Chiefs (CEC) chaired by the Ashanti king, using Dagbon’s customs and traditions to mediate the conflict. The CEC’s activities stemmed from the customs and traditions of Dagbon, hence the local peace mechanism. Third sector actors External link. which straddle the liberal-local peace paradigm, supported the peace process. For example, the United Nations Development Programme office in Ghana facilitated the work of the CEC and resourced non-governmental, civil society and community organisations to create dialogue platforms. The peace agreement External link. affirmed the rotation principle between the two families and the responsibility of four kingmakers to select the Ya Naa. However, the all-male testimonies at the Wuaku Commission, and the composition of the CEC confirmed Dagbon’s customary edict that men make decisions about war and peace, thus confining women to informal peacemaking spaces supported by third sector actors.
Women’s informal and complementary peace roles
Analysis of interview data from women groups, opinion leaders, youth groups, and third sector stakeholders in the Dagbon peace process showed that women engaged informally in the hybrid peace process in seven ways:
1. Women helped defuse tension by providing early warning signs to third sector dialogue platforms. “The shortage of fowls in markets (used for spiritual fortification), secret midnight meetings by men, wives and children sent to safe havens, prophetic declarations by ‘mad men roaming the streets’ are concerning signals for women,” a civil society organisation leader explained. Third sector actors compiled, verified and processed this information for the security agencies to act on.
2. Women engaged in peace education in the media and public spaces. “Women used the radio and TV to preach peace, calling on their fellow women to admonish the men to drop their weapons,” a youth leader asserted.
3. Ya Naa Yakubu Andani II’s wives pressured the government to bring peace to Dagbon by finding the killers of the Ya Naa. An opinion leader disclosed: “When President John Kuffour sent them money and goods, they rejected it, declaring their interest was justice and peace in Dagbon… This made the President urge the CEC to quicken the peace process”
4. Women engaged in “secret-channelling”, whereby princesses provided information about the interests of their families’ representatives at the CEC. “A woman tells you who the sympathisers are even though he is influential; this person is a spoiler, this person has an interest in this, so if you want the core family members, this is the person, deal with him”. The act of “secret-channelling” helped mediators to categorise stakeholders and predict behaviour.
5. With local governance structures weakened, third sector actors supported women chiefs to mediate local conflicts in communities far from Yendi.
6. Women-led third sector actors such as Women in Peacebuilding mobilised women to build capacity in peacebuilding and socio-economic initiatives.
7. The Gundo Naa, the pre-eminent woman chief at the time testified at the CEC. She was said to have testified against her own Abudu family by “setting the records straight”.
Although women only played informal roles in the peace orders in Dagbon, their agency affirms UN Women’s observation that peace processes around the world emerge due to the intense and deliberate informal efforts of women and women’s groups External link..
Cultural spaces for women and peace in Dagbon
The women's chief system offers a platform for highly placed women in Dagbon to participate in peacemaking spaces. Women chiefs exercise exclusive powers over their territories. They are not chiefs only over women, but men also. The Gundo Naa is so powerful that she could, in theory, veto the Ya Naa’s decisions. Only two women chiefs in Dagbon’s history have instigated conflicts; otherwise, all others have urged peace. Gundo Naas encourage Ya Naas and sub-chiefs to act with moderation, fairness and a sense of mercy, thus bringing them into the peacemaking space.
Also, the Dagombas respect old age. Widowed older women who have reached menopause and live exemplary lives are invited to join in men’s deliberations, often urging men to settle disputes peacefully since, “Abudus and Andanis are from a common patriarch, Naa Yakubu I.” Women’s social status is also respected in Dagbon. Princesses from the ruling class and wives of chiefs in the royal court advise chiefs and future chiefs (their sons) to embrace peace. Finally, children’s upbringing in Dagbon is the exclusive responsibility of mothers: “If a child is bad, it reflects on the poor upbringing of his mother, not his father, since the role is exclusive to mothers.” Therefore, women, especially princesses, are expected to train their sons (future chiefs) to act in ways that preserve the peace in Dagbon.
The customary practices outlined above are not forms of formal participation, but they show Dagbon’s cultural soil has nutrients that can fortify changes to women’s participation.
The restrictive role of culture on women in peacemaking spaces
The peace process in Dagbon exposed the inescapability of tradition in local peace interventions. Four aspects of Dagbon culture restrict women’s engagement in formal peace processes. Politically, men are the heads of families, villages and towns. Decision-making is the exclusive right of men, and decisions about war and peace are definitively reserved for them. Hence, only men can represent the families in peacemaking spaces. In terms of religion, Islamic beliefs and practices dominate the religious cosmology of Dagbon. According to the Ghana 2010 Population and Housing Census, 95% of Dagombas identify with Islam External link., followed by adherents of ancestral worship and a negligible Christian following (Christianity was introduced in Dagbon towards the end of the 20th century and is very popular in southern Ghana). In Islam, women’s awrah (bodily features) must be covered in sacred and secular spaces. Women’s voice (i.e. their political representation) is construed with their awrah, laying the foundation for gender injustice in peacemaking spaces. Thus, women are barred from participating in peacemaking spaces among groups of men on both secular and religious grounds.
Similarly, African traditional religious beliefs and practices also construe women’s presence and menstrual practices as capable of ruining spiritual fortification associated with conflict and peace; hence, women’s exclusion from secular and sacred peace spaces. Lastly, in what they called “women’s mouths”, male interviewees accused some women of using gendered language External link. to lower “men to the status of women” for their refusal to fight in the March 2002 war. Comments such as: "If God had blessed us with manhood, it would have been better than giving it to our husbands. We would have fought” acted as a barrier to women’s participation in peacemaking spaces because they pushed Dagomba men to prove their bravery by going to war. It is hard to see how “women’s mouths” are to blame for a power contestation between two families in a society with deeply ingrained patriarchal practices. However, political, social, religious and linguistic factors in Dagbon combine to restrict women’s participation from formal peacemaking spaces.
The steps to take in Dagbon
The peace process in Dagbon present mixed issues with a silver lining. While women’s formal participation in the peacemaking spaces is restricted by culture, women have shown resilience by forming alliances with liberal-local third sector actors such as the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding External link. (WANEP-Ghana) and Women in Peacebuilding to engage informally in peace mechanisms. Women’s agency in local communities has helped resolve conflicts and created dialogue platforms for the conflict parties to work together. Women “in the male corridors of power”, such as women chiefs, princesses and wives of chiefs, promote peaceful undertakings among their menfolk. Still, due to low capacity, they cannot contribute meaningfully to the conflict situation in the “kingdom”. It may also be that the top-down construction of the peace process removes women from the process; otherwise, it is hard to fathom why the Gundo Naa, revered by all sides and who “balances” the power of the Ya Naa can be removed from the formal peacemaking space.
Capacity-building in advocacy, conflict mediation and other training for “women in the male corridors of power” and other local women would provide a cadre of women for formal participation in peacemaking spaces in the future. The Ghanaian government must follow through on the plans for gender mainstreaming outlined in GHANAP II. The third sector appears better placed for capacity-building efforts to support the establishment of a women chiefs’ wing of the traditional council so that women in customary roles and places can make customary-placed changes to open up the peacemaking spaces in Dagbon.