Could Ghana Be Jihadists’ Next Target?

By Eliasu Tanko, Foreign Policy, 14 May 2024

Long seen as an island of stability, the country shares many of the same vulnerabilities that militants have exploited across the Sahel region.


NWAARE, Ghana—In July 2023, an audio message, calling for attacks on the Ghanaian government in response to the forced repatriation of ethnic Fulani asylum-seekers, spread via WhatsApp in northern Ghana.

“The Ghanaian government has begun to forcefully arrest and deport Fulani refugees to Burkina Faso … to destroy and exterminate the Fulani population in Ghana … I’m appealing to [Muslims] located along Ghana-Burkina Faso border to hurry to intervene,” said the message, which was heard by thousands of people. “Please do well to retaliate the blood spilt by the Ghanaian government,” it concluded.

The message was recorded and distributed by a media wing of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), a West African jihadi insurgent group affiliated with al Qaeda.

Between JNIM and affiliates of the Islamic State, insurgents today control almost half of Burkina Faso, parts of central and northern Mali, and territory along Niger’s borders with the two countries. Over the past two years, they have slowly expanded their campaign south into the northern parts of West Africa’s coastal states. Despite a handful of messages attempting to incite attacks against the Ghanaian government, of the four coastal states bordering Burkina Faso, Ghana is the only one that reports that it has not suffered an attack by insurgents.

In interviews, representatives of the Ghanaian government chalk this up to their firm response and the country’s inherent resiliency. However, despite Accra’s confident messaging, evidence gathered across Ghana’s northern regions suggests that insurgents are already operating there. At this point, it appears that insurgents see their access to the country as a safe haven and smuggling route as too useful to destabilize with direct attacks.

However, if the militants’ calculus were to change, they would find many of the same vulnerabilities in Ghana that they have exploited in other countries.

OFFICIALS IN AIR-CONDITIONED OFFICES in Ghana’s capital, Accra, projected confidence as they insisted that their government’s robust response has kept the insurgents at bay. Ghana’s decision to spearhead the Accra Initiative, a regional association intended to prevent the spillover of terrorism from the Sahel toward coastal countries, is one of many examples, said Daniel Osei Bonsu, the deputy director of Ghana’s National Counter Terrorism Center.

Since being established by Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin in 2017, a handful of joint operations along border regions and meetings of intelligence chiefs have been coordinated through the initiative, which is funded in part by the European Union. At a summit in November 2022, leaders announced the creation of a multinational joint task force that will be comprised of 10,000 soldiers and headquartered in Tamale, a city in northern Ghana.

Meanwhile, the Ghanaian government has reinforced the military’s presence across the north. In 2020, Accra released the funds to construct and upgrade 15 forward operating bases close to the borders of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Three new brigades and two battalions were created and deployed to the Upper East and Upper West regions. The military has acquired new vehicles and communications equipment from the United Kingdom and Israel. And the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, recently promised “aerial surveillance, electronic warfare [systems] and river crafts” as a part of a 20 million euro ($21.5 million) aid package to the military.

In 2022, the government launched a “see something, say something” campaign to urge citizens to report suspicious behavior. While officials say the program is a success, Ghanaian journalists have reported officials bemoaning the number of people calling with no other reason than to beg for cell phone credit.

Members of the National Counter Terrorism Center insisted that Ghana’s relatively high level of development compared to some of its neighbors and its culture of democracy protect the country from the same fate that has befallen Mali and Burkina Faso. They pointed out that the country is economically far better off than its Sahelian neighbors, with a GDP per capita more than twice that of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Furthermore, they added, unlike Sahelian countries where most people are Muslim, Ghana is split roughly in half between Christians and Muslims, and thus calls to radicalism have fewer potential followers. Referring to the insurgents’ strategy in the Sahel, they insisted that aggrieved Ghanaians would never be lulled by jihadis promising a more just order because “people know they can receive justice through the country’s institutions,” as Bonsu said. “There might be sentiments in the north,” he continued, “but there are no grievances.”

However, while officials insist that the government is mounting a robust response, there is significant evidence that it has failed to stop insurgents from entering Ghanaian territory.

Communities across Ghana’s 374-mile border with Burkina Faso have long used small footpaths and dilapidated dirt roads to smuggle fuel, fertilizer, and other basic goods far from Accra’s watchful eye. Over the past few years, insurgents have used these informal networks to acquire resources for their campaign in Burkina Faso. Dynamite manufactured in Ghana has been found at militant camps in Burkina Faso.

Sources in Ghana’s Upper East region—who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons—indicated that insurgents have paid Ghanaians to smuggle fuel and personnel across the border on motorcycles. Last September, Burkinabe security forces raided an insurgent camp close to the border and found Ghanaian voter registration cards along with receipts from a Ghanaian shop for bicycles, likely used for the smuggling of goods across the bush paths as motorcycles have become too conspicuous.

Beyond using the Ghanaian border to meet their immediate material needs, there is concern that militants are also involved in trafficking illicit goods to boost their coffers. Analysts have raised the alarm about the presence of insurgents at artisanal gold mines in the Upper West region as well as involvement in the opiate trade. And Maxwell Suuk, a Ghanaian journalist, recently reported that cattle stolen by jihadis were being sold in Ghana’s lucrative livestock markets.

Furthermore, as fighting in Burkina Faso has approached Ghanaian territory, there have been reports of militants retreating tactically across the border and using Ghanaian soil as a temporary safe haven. Late last year in Garinga, a Burkinabe border community, civilian auxiliaries to the Burkinabe military complained that the absence of Ghanaian troops nearby meant jihadis sometimes escaped across the border.

In the nearby Ghanaian village of Nwaare, a community leader confirmed that locals had seen mysterious men who pushed their motorcycles around the edge of town and spent the night in nearby shrubs. Local assemblymen and village chiefs from half a dozen nearby communities reported similar sightings.

Beyond the immediate border, insurgents from Burkina Faso have used Ghana for recuperation. Sources in Tamale who asked to remain anonymous for their safety revealed that they personally knew at least two young Ghanaian men who spent around four months in 2022 resting and receiving medical care at a local hospital before returning to Burkina Faso.

Ghana is not a hotbed of recruitment, but there have been some notable cases. In 2017, Burkinabe preachers visited the dusty town of Karaga and urged young men to join the fight in the Sahel; around a dozen people heeded the call. In 2021, one of these recruits—with the nom de guerre Abu Dujana—recorded a video urging Ghanaians from the Fulani ethnic group to join the jihad. The man later committed a suicide attack against French forces in northern Mali.

While the insurgents operate in Ghana, reports suggest that they explicitly avoid targeting Ghanaian citizens who travel through the territory that they control. There have been multiple reports of people with Ghanaian identification cards being spared at JNIM roadblocks in Burkina Faso. A Ghanaian man who had been detained by insurgents told one of the authors that his captors released him once he was able to prove his nationality.

Ultimately, the insurgents derive significant benefits from using Ghana as a place to rest and restock. “If the insurgents attack Ghana, it would become much harder for them to use Ghana as a safe haven,” said Clement Aapengnuo, a peace and security activist: “At this point, Ghana is more useful stable.”

But the strategy of insurgent groups could change.

GHANA SUFFERS MANY OF THE SAME VULNERABILITIES that militants have preyed upon in other countries. Similarly to other coastal states in West Africa, northern Ghana is comparatively less developed than the south—a trend with roots in the nation’s colonial history, as a recent analysis by Ghanaian Ph.D. candidate Iddrisu Mohammed Kambala showed. Banditry—ambushes of container trucks, kidnapping of wealthy individuals, and even attacks on businesses in towns—has long been a problem. Beyond relative deprivation and a degree of lawlessness, there are social cleavages and disputes over chieftaincy that could be manipulated by savvy recruiters.

Growing anti-Fulani sentiment across Ghanaian society is also concerning. In the Sahel, some insurgent groups initially attracted recruits from marginalized segments of Fulani communities, which led to stigmatization and widespread abuses against Fulani, which in turn facilitated further recruitment. In Ghana, where Fulani make up around 1 percent of the population, they are often derided as foreigners, scapegoated for crimes, and victimized in mob violence—and high-level officials still repeat dangerous tropes about Fulani being rootless nomads prone to criminality.

These attitudes have resulted in the kind of discrimination that feeds insurgent propaganda. In mid-July 2023, Ghanaian security services forcibly repatriated at least 250 Burkinabe Fulani asylum-seekers who had fled to Ghana. The government claims that these were targeted operations based on security threats, but multiple communities describe mass arrests targeting Fulani—including Ghanaian citizens.

There also appear to be worrying lapses in the Ghanaian government’s response to the escalating conflict in Burkina Faso and Togo. Ghanaian troops were deployed in border regions in 2021, but it was not until a JNIM attack that struck two miles from the border in early 2023 that the soldiers began to patrol with any regularity. A local military source who requested anonymity revealed that the infrequency of patrols was related to a lack of fuel. Residents of border communities still complain that they only see security forces on weekly market days, when they harass rural residents traveling into towns.

Despite the fanfare around the Accra Initiative, information-sharing between Ghanaian forces and their counterparts in neighboring countries is sparse. A Burkinabe commander in the border town of Bittou complained that his conversations with Ghanaian security personnel were infrequent compared to talks with Togolese commanders, and that he instead relied on trusted Ghanaian citizens to pass important messages to Ghanaian soldiers. Beninese Col. Faïzou Gomina confirmed that bilateral channels have thus far been far more useful for coordination than going through Accra. Meanwhile, the multinational joint task force has barely broken ground on its Tamale headquarters.

Informal conversations with police, immigration officers, and other security services reveal a profound ignorance of the severity of the situation in Burkina Faso and Togo. The military purposefully deploys soldiers from southern Ghana; as a result, personnel lack local context and often do not speak the languages of the places they are deployed. When visiting the hamlet of Zakoli, where eight Fulani were killed in mob violence in April 2022, nearby soldiers asked one of the authors to translate for them so they could speak to the survivors that they were guarding.

Furthermore, there have been a number of incidents in which Ghanaian soldiers reportedly used excessive force against citizens, further alienating themselves from the population they are meant to serve. In October, personnel from the Ghana Armed Forces stormed the town of Garu in Upper East, allegedly brutalizing around a dozen men in retaliation for an attack on national security operatives by local vigilantes. In June 2022, police responded to students protesting in Kumasi with pepper spray and live bullets.

While the situation across coastal West Africa is precarious, Ghana is better positioned than its neighbors to confront it. Accra still has time to increase investments in infrastructure, health, and education in the north. Changing the narrative around Fulani and other minorities is also critical. Abuses by security services must be investigated, and perpetrators held accountable.

Ghana can learn from its neighbors and eschew the overly militaristic, Western-led “counterterrorism” approach that enflamed the crisis in the Sahel. It is not too late for Ghana to harness its institutions, resources, and personnel to deal with the threat at its doorstep.


Eliasu Tanko, a researcher and journalist covering security issues in coastal West Africa, and James Courtright, a researcher and writer based in Dakar, Senegal.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CEMAS Board.