John Ndebugre and the Bawku Conflicts: Testimonies from History

“Government should advise itself as what to do with Mr. John Ndebugre, secretary for Agriculture who instead of being the brain work of peace in the district is rather the brainchild of war and the destruction in the district” – Col George Minyila (Rtd)

I have come across a news item published by an online media portal on June 2nd, 2022 which quotes the Speaker of Parliament, Alban Bagbin, as saying “fallen former Zebilla Member of Parliament (MP), John Ndebugre, deserves a state burial.” This was after the sitting Member of Parliament for Zebilla, Cletus Avoka, had advocated same for the late John Ndebugre.

I have also sighted a funeral Programme for the late John Ndebugre in which the venue for a pre-burial service is slated for the forecourt of the state house giving it a semblance of a state burial. Ordinarily, I would not have said anything about the burial of a man who I share absolutely nothing in common with save the fact that I am a citizen with equal rights just as he was before his demise. But since anything done in the name of the state is done with our taxes which I contribute, I deem it necessary to write this piece which is grounded in factual testimonies from history.

This article is very necessary and timely particularly considering the current state of affairs in one of Ghana’s once boisterous towns, Bawku, in the Upper East Region. History they say is meant to guide us and it is my belief that highlights captured here which most of the youth of Bawku were hitherto unaware of will help guide our collective behavior.

It is also necessary because Ghanaians deserve to know and be reminded that, the current predicament in which our beloved town of Bawku finds itself in has the handwriting of Ndebugre written all over it.

The Bawku chieftaincy dispute, which traces back to the unfortunate 1957/58 unholy political interference on the sanctity of the chieftaincy institutition affecting over 500 chieftains across Ghana, saw a very promising sign of ending after the restoration of chieftaincy status in 1966. Bawku, once again, became lovely and the previous inter-ethnic cohesion that existed for centuries prior to 1957 between various tribes (Mamprusis, Kusasis, Mossis, Bissas, Hausas, Bimobas, etc) was restored. The entire Bawku Traditional Area, irrespective of tribe/community was united under the new Bawku Naaba, Naaba Adam Zangbeo who had succeeded the skin of his ancestors tracing back to the 17th century. The rest of the over 17 canton chiefs, a good number of which were Kusasis lived peacefully with Mamprusis. For instance in Kusanaaba there was Naaba Akolbuni Ndeego, in Zebilla there was Naaba S. A. Akparbilla, in Binaba there was Naaba Ayadago Apiiga who were Kusasis; In Pusiga there was Naaba Mbugri Aguri ; In Bugri there was Naaba M. A. Agatoni, in Gagbiri there was Naaba Mangotiba, and in Tempane there was Naaba Abugbilla Apilu. In Bissa communities like Kulungungu there was Naaba Abugre Afobre and in Kugri which is originally Mossi there was Naaba Abdulai Asaman. In other traditional Mamprusi communities like Binduri there was Naaba Gumah Ninchema, in Werekambo there was Naaba Alhassan Mahamadu, and in Tanga there was Naaba Deborah Wuni. This is not an exhaustive list.

This was the inter-ethnic cohesion that thrived in Bawku. There were also strong intermarriages between members of all the ethnic groups. For instance, Ayariga Asumah (father of Hassan Ayariga) got married to 2 Mamprusi princesses (Hassan Ayariga’s mother and Mahama’s mother). There were also notable Mamprusis whose mothers were also Kusasis like Lawyer Mohammed Tahiru Nambe whose mother is a sister to Sumaila Bielbiel. My mother is a Mossi. It will be a tall list if I were to mention individuals from Bawku who are products of intermarriages contracted within the said period of peace and security. These intermarriages especially that of Ayariga Asumah marrying two Mamprusi princesses shows the extent of inter-ethnic cohesion and makes nonsense of the false claim of “colonization” by some Kusasis who will cling to any reason that makes their senseless wage of war in Bawku look good.

This peaceful coexistence continued until the late 1970’s and early 80’s when certain individuals, key among them, John Ndebugre, saw that the easiest way for him to rise politically was to break the inter-ethnic cohesion in Bawku and its surrounding areas. They launched the same tactic which was employed by their predecessor political godfathers in the 1950’s which resulted in the first ever crisis. There was no easier way to break the inter-ethnic cohesion than to break the key things that brought the inter-ethnic cohesion (chieftaincy and the Youth).

In this regard, the 8 member “Committee to investigate the Bawku Land Disputes” constituted in 1984 which was chaired by the late distinguished Colonel George Minyila (Rtd) said in it’s findings (Addendum; 5a) under the heading Activities of the Kusasi Youth Association:

“Before the establishment of this association there was the Bawku District Youth Association. It’s membership comprised all the different tribes who make up the Bawku area. The Kusasi Youth Association was carved from the former to fight for the objectives of only Kusasis leaving the other tribes. The Kusasi Youth Association is spearheaded by Mr. Ndebugri, Secretary for Agriculture, Mr. C. A. Avoka, Ag.Managing Director of Upper East Regional Development Corporation, Mr. Joe Abanga, a lawyer in Bawku and few other youngsters. The Association has spread its tentacles to the rural areas to embrace literate folk who instead of interpreting the correct Government policies to the people rather misled them. This was so glaring as we went from one village to the other”.

The above findings by the Minyilla committee heavily indicts John Ndebugre and the rest of the people mentioned some of whom like Cletus Avoka are still active in inciting division in the once peaceful town of Bawku.

Before I continue to show how Ndebugre and his cohorts must wholy take the blame for the recent situation and ethnic divisions in Bawku, we will need to first find out why the Committee to investigate the Bawku Land Disputes (Minyilla Committee) was set up?

In the late 1970s, the Kusasi Youth Association (indicted heavily above and as will be seen subsequently by the Minyilla Committee) incited Abugrago Azoka to illegally present himself as the Bawku Naaba as part of their renewed efforts to rekindle the inter-ethnic divisions. This led the Bawku Naaba at the time Naaba Adam Zangbeo (14th in the line of Mamprusi succession of the skin) to file a writ at the Bolgatanga High Court seeking to restrain Abugrago Azoka from presenting himself as Bawku Naaba. The High Court with Justice A. W. Dove presiding on 25th July, 1980 granted the application and ruled to restrain Abugrago Aninchema from acting as Bawku Naaba. It awarded a cost of 300 cedis against Abugrago Azoka.

Still determined to divide the town at all costs, John Ndebugre and his team pressed upon Abugrago Azoka to take the matter up at the National House of Chiefs. This action would have been very commendable if they had only stuck to such peaceful and civil ways of addressing their concerns. But even before the final determination of the matter by the Chieftaincy Tribunal of the National House of Chiefs, John Ndebugre and his cohorts actively worked to stir inter-ethnic tensions in the once peaceful and ethnic cohesive town of Bawku. They actively prevented the performance of the funeral of the 14th Bawku Naaba, Naaba Adam Zangbeo.

They then organized themselves with arms, stormed and ransacked the Traditional Council Offices then located right at the center of the town. On this issue, the Minyilla committee succinctly says that the Kusasi Youth Association which was spearheaded by the likes of John Ndebugre and Cletus Avoka “is the pivot from where disturbances are spread around the Bawku District and also the brain child of all disturbances such as the ransacking of the Bawku Traditional Council Offices”.

It was after the ransacking of the offices of the Bawku traditional council under the influence of John Ndebugre that necessitated the setting up of a 3 member Eminent Committee of Chiefs by the Asantehene Otumfour Opoku Ware II, who was the the President of the National House of Chiefs to look into the matter. The Committee was chaired by Nana Akuamoah Boateng II Kwamumanhene. As usual of Ndebugre and his group, they selected Cletus Avoka and Lawyer Joe Abanga to represent the Kusasis. The committee of Eminent Chiefs found among other things that the entire Upper Region consisting of the Frafra zone and the Bawku Traditional Area was under the jurisdiction of the Nayiri of Mamprugu (then referred to as Paramount Chief of Mamprugu). They also found that; “under the prevailing customs and traditions in the Northern and Upper Regions, the Paramount Chief (Nayiri) is the sole King Maker to all Divisional and Sub-Divisional Chiefs within his traditional suzerainty”. They further state that “The creation of the Upper Region did not abrogate the traditional relationship that existed between the Nayiri and the chiefs and people of the Bawku District as well as the chiefs of Frafra traditional area”

The Eminent Chiefs did not stop there but further made golden comments such as : “That by this time-honoured and hallowed custom, the Nayiri of Mamprusi enskins the Bawku Naaba as a Divisional chief and many other Sub-Divisional Chiefs in the Bawku District”

The Eminent Chiefs further took strong exception to the report of investigations by the police into the ransacking of the Traditional Council which indicated that there was no suspect even though the Kusasi Youth Association (spearheaded by John Ndebugre and Avoka) had claimed responsibility for the sacrilegious action.

Because the chieftaincy was a subject of arbitration at the chieftaincy tribunal brought by no other persons but the Kusasis, the committee of Eminent Chiefs declined to make final pronouncements of the case. Instead, they made a very wise recommendation that “the minds of the people of Bawku should be prepared to accept the verdict of the Judicial tribunal unfetted” and that “Government should enforce the decision of the Judicial tribunal”.

Fortunately, not long after presenting their report to the Chairman of the PNDC Jerry Rawlings, the decision of the Judicial Tribunal was given on 20th May, 1983. The tribunal ruled against the John Ndebugre sponsored petition by Abugrago Azoka in favor of the Bawku Naaba Naaba Adam Zangbeo who had passed away and whose funeral performance was frustrated by John Ndebugre. The decision of the Chieftaincy tribunal further described Abugrago Azoka who John Ndebugre and co had sponsored as “a commoner”.

Instead of accepting the ruling of the chieftaincy tribunal as recommended by the Eminent Chiefs, Ndebugre and his team set the militancy tone and beating of war drums.

This period was the peak of their war mongering and in fact the Eminent Chiefs had indicted the District secretary of the PNDC at the time by name Sulley Agholisi for war mongering. The eminent chiefs found that “the article written by the District Secretary Mr. Sulley Agholisi and published in the magazine Kpana, sometime ago before his appointment as secretary could be described as fanning anti-Mamprusi agitations and incitement of Kusasis against Mamprusis that can precipitate non-cohesion between the two main ethnic groupings in the Bawku District ”

Instead of working to implement the recommendations by the committee of Eminent Chiefs to Government to implement the ruling of the 1983 Chieftaincy tribunal ruling, John Ndebugre and his group who were fortunate to be in Government worked to frustrate the implementation of the ruling. Not only that, they prepared the minds of their people to war by first attacking the Mamprusis in December 1983 as will be seen soon and subsequently influenced Government to unilaterally promulgate PNDC Law 75 which effectively was against the time tested decision of the National House of Chiefs.

It was the PNDC Law 75 which was the brain child of Ndebugre and his group that acted as the precursor to the violent confrontations in Bawku is witnessing today. John Ndebugre and his group used the PNDC Law 75 as basis to confiscate land belonging to Mamprusis and their sympathizers, forcefully evicted Mamprusis and their sympathizers from market stores and confiscated Government lands. These were the circumstances that necessitated the setting up of the Minyilla committee.

In this regard, the committee found that “The PNDC Law 75 has caused more harm in the Bawku area than good.” Prior to the setting up of the committee, John Ndebugre and his group had organized for the first time in history what they called “Kusasi Cultural Display/Festival” which was later to be called the “Saman piid”. They used this program as a medium to launch violent attacks at the Mamprusis and their sympathizers in Bawku. The Minyilla committee aptly captured this fact when it said; “After the actions of the Kusasis as seen above, they organized a Kusasi cultural display/festival (siman ping) scheduled for 20th-23rd December, 1983. Please refer to Appendix ‘B’. The display of war weapons, the inciting speech by Mr. John Ndebugri, secretary for Agriculture and District Secretary, Mr. Sulley Agholisi, let loose the Kusasi dancers hence they attacked the Mamprusis. ”

The committee further reported that following their attacks in December, the Kusasi Youth Association met on 10th February, 1984 where they agreed among other things to seize all farm lands of Mamprusis and their sympathizers, seize all market stores owned by Mamprusis and their sympathizers and to transfer all civil/public officers of Mamprusi origin from the District. And these were to be implemented by the District Secretary Sulley Agholisi who had already started implementing them at the time the report was submitted.

The committee reported that 15th July, 1984 was the D-Day Sulley Agholisi was to implement their agenda of land seizures. The committee said “Mr. John Ndebugre was in town on 15th July, 1984 when the uprising started when farmers had gone to their farms due to the rainfall of the previous night. Border guards were able to bring the situation under control. At about 3.00pm, Mr. Ndebugre, Mr. Sulley Agholisi, Ndebugre’s body guard and a seargent went to the Police Station and insulted the DSP and his men as incapable of stopping the fighting and making arrest and threatened the DAO, Mr. Twum. He also threatened to shoot the DSP and the DAO. Ndebugri and his men left for the Mamprusi area of the town fully armed calling for the elimination of the Mamprusis but not a determined Mamprusis who fearlessly fought to protect their lives and properties. The Kusasis retreated, and the town was quiet at about 5.30pm.”

That is not all. The report further states about the role of Ndebugre “After the escape of Ndebugre from the fighting he went to Tanga in the Tonde area and ordered the Kusasis to burn down the houses of Mamprusis. We attach a report from a neutral person who saw things for himself and wrote to the PNDC Chairman. (Appendix ‘E’). ”

These are the undisputed testimonies of people of high repute from history. They are not my testimonies nor that of any Mamprusi. There is still more that could be quoted from these testimonies but I believe this will suffice for now. It exposes how Ndebugri and his group have worked to undermine the inter-ethnic cohesion that existed for centuries in Bawku. It reveals how Bawku has been plunged in its current predicament by Ndebugre and his ilk. They did this by deceptively influencing Kusasis who hitherto were peacefully living with Mamprusis and other ethnic groups. The Minyilla committee summarizes their modus operandi as follows “As we went from village to village on our rounds it was so apparent that the Kusasi Youth Association had miseducated the people and were spearheading all the troubles in the towns and villages. Even in front of us when we were trying to solve a problem, they will tell Kusasis not to agree and threatened in front of us that if the Mamprusi dare step a foot on the farm he will be killed”.

Sad as it may seem but that is how Ndebugre and his group polarized Bawku. Colonel Minyilla and his team members did not leave their work without recommendations. They ruled in favor of all the Mamprusis and their sympathizers who had their lands and stores confiscated by Ndebugre’s men. They also recommended that the PNDC regime repeal the PNDC 75 which was the animal used by Ndebugre and his men to deepen the inter-ethnic tensions. They further recommended that Government should remove the then District Secretary Sulley Agholisi from his post and deal with John Ndebugre as it wishes. These testimonies and the current situation in Bawku should be a lesson to all of us especially those from Bawku township to work collectively for peace.

If only politicians like Mahama Ayariga and Stephen Yakubu will take lessons from these happenings. These people together with Cletus Avoka still take pride in using the same strategy of misleading their people just as the Minyilla committee reported. Just take the issue of a so-called 2003 Supreme Court ruling as an example. Avoka and Mahama who are lawyers know too well there was no decision of the Supreme Court saying Aninchema is the chief of Bawku or Kusasis are owners of Bawku. But because of their personal interest, please revisit their interviews on Citi TV and Mahama’s 5 page article in response to Nayiri’s letter to the President and see how they came so low to an extent that an illetrate will not even go. And just as the Minyilla Committee indicted Ndebugre as someone who “… instead of being the brain work of peace in the district is rather the brainchild of war and the destruction in the district”, it is a serious shame that the likes of Stephen Yakubu and Mahama Ayariga are threading the same path. It is only wise for Government to remove Stephen Yakubu from his post as the Regional Minister and Chairman for the Regional Security Council.

A close look at all those who spearheaded these evil machinations and violence in Bawku reveals something shocking. None of them is from Bawku. John Ndebugre is from Timonde around Zebilla, Cletus Avoka from Teshie area around Zebilla and Lawyer Joe Abanga from Tempane. None of them is from Bawku. Ndebugre is dead. Not even his dead body that will be buried in his village Timonde will be hearing persistent gun shots that still ring in Bawku. Cletus Avoka is MP and he and his children who perhaps live in Accra or may have rooms in his village around Teshie will never hear persistent gun shots. Lawyer Abanga’s offsprings from Tempane will be oblivious of the daily gun shots all over Bawku. But the Kusasis of Tinsungu who for several years had been allies to Mamprusis have been turned against Mamprusis and their sympathizers. Not even Mahama and Hassan Ayariga who not only because of their mothers but also because of how their grandfather Asumah lived peacefully with Mamprusis are left out. They ahave been recruited for the frontline work against Mamprusis. Gun fights almost every day between Tinsungu and the Bawku township. Not even the Kusasis of Wande and Wiidi who had strong ties with Mamprusis for several decades are left out. Gun fights everyday because of what Ndebugre and his group have done. Not the Kusasis of Baribari and Bulugu have been left out after the peaceful coexistence between them and Mamprusis. Not even the Kusasis of Zabugu have been left out. Those who had very peaceful coexistence with my great grandfather Naa Bugri who was the first chief of Zabugu. Not the Kusasis of Gozesi and Zawu have been left out. They have all been brainwashed and their main goal as captured clearly by the Minyilla report is to “drive the Mamprusis and their sympathizers out of the Bawku area”. Is there no single person amongst them to tell them Allah will never let this happen?

This is no legacy anyone should be proud of and the state must definitely not make the mistake of giving a state burial or any semblance of it to a man who more than anything, sowed ethnic division and violent armed conflict in Bawku.

Ndebugre is gone and it is my prayer that the seed of hatred and division that he and his group sowed in Bawku will be buried with him forever…Aameen.

Written by:

Dr. Issah Imoro


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