Farmer-herder conflicts in Ghana: repercussions on livelihoods and state-building

How is it like to live a life in a country where there is a complex and dynamic tenure system which always leads to tensions between the farmers and the herders? Relishing the Danish summer, Suhiyini Issah Alhassan, and Daniel Kojo Leon Brenya Yeboah, talk about their DANIDA funded Ph.D. project on the recurring farmer-herder conflicts in Ghana that has worsened over the past few decades. Their study forms part of the ‘Access and Authority Nexus in Farmer-Herder Conflicts’ (AAN) project jointly implemented by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and three other Ghanaian universities, namely Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University for Development Studies, and University of Energy and Natural Resources.

Issah and Leon are Ph.D. students at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and University for Development Studies, Ghana. Also, they are registered Ph.D. students at the Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen. As DANIDA fellows, they are currently in Denmark for four months starting August 2020, where they’ll be attending lectures at the University of Copenhagen. They will return to Ghana in December 2020 for their fieldwork and will subsequently get back to Denmark in 2023. Issah is supervised by Prof. Mariève Pouliot (University of Copenhagen), Prof. Kyereh Boateng (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology), and Dr. Mercy Derkyi (University of Energy and Natural Resources, Ghana). Whilst, Leon is supervised by Prof. Christian Pilegaard Hansen (University of Copenhagen) and Dr. Abubakari Abdulai (University for Development Studies, Ghana).

The principal objective of the project is to investigate the dynamic processes of the formation and erosion of access, identities, and political institutions in spatial and historic perspectives. It basically looks into how people gain access to land and other natural resources which is the bone of contention among farmers and herders, and also into how the idea of identities is used to incite conflicts, and how the authority of political institutions are affected by these conflicts. Leon and Issah are working on two of the three work packages under the Access and Authority Nexus in farmer-Herder Conflicts project in Ghana. Leon looks into the causes of farmer-herder conflicts and its influence on state-building in the Asante Akim North District (Agogo Traditional Area), whilst, Issah investigates the implications of the conflict on households’ livelihoods in both Agogo traditional areas and Afram Plains of Ghana. Apart from Leon and Issah, two other postdoc scholars and a Ph.D. student are also working on the project.

‘’As a government, you are entitled to ensure peace, security, and development among your people. So, when you are unable to provide these, you tend to lose your respect among the people. We are therefore looking at how farmer-herder conflicts are shaping the authority being held by these politico-legal institutions. Does it erode their authority or strengthen it?’’ says Leon. Despite the efforts of both the government and other non-governmental institutions, the conflicts continue to affect people’s livelihoods, state-building, and policy making. Also, the tenure system in the country has further aggravated the conflicts as most farmers perceive the politico-legal institutions to be in bed with the herders.

Seriousness of the issue

Conflicts have always had a toll on people’s livelihoods, leaving them insecure and hence, more vulnerable. It has also destabilized the authority, especially the chieftaincy and state institutions, whose legitimacy is no more acknowledged by the people of the community. Talking about how grievous the situation is, Issah emphasizes the role of land, water and other natural resources in inciting farmer-herder conflicts across the Sahelian region, where herding activities are predominant. ‘’Sometimes, herders intentionally bring their cattle to graze on the farmers’ field’’ says Issah. Though the herders sometimes do compensate the farmers for whatever losses they incur, often the situation escalates into bloody flights when the farmers try to confront the herders. It occurs especially when the farmers feel the compensation inadequate or when the herdsmen let their herd to graze on the farmers’ fields that they have already compensated. It is no different when the herders are in small numbers as the farmers could chase them away or mob them. In November 2019, the conflicts got some attention when the news about murders by the herders hit the headlines. Leon recollects a deadly conflict that happened during the time of his bachelor in 2015 that left 20 dead. Women now feel more insecure as there have been many cases of rape. The conflicts have also increased the cost of farming as the farmers now have to hire guards to protect their farms.  Many farmers have already abandoned their farmlands, especially in the hinterlands, for fear of being attacked by herdsmen.

Though the farmers always tussle with the herders, the situation becomes grim during the dry season when they move in with their cattle towards the water bodies leading to tensions with the farmers, who also depend on whatever meagre resources available at that moment. According to Issah, most of the farmer-herder conflicts occur during the dry season when the availability of grazing fields and water for cattle and agricultural activities gets limited due to erratic rainfall emanating from climate change. 

The migrant farmer population is increasing in the Afram plains and Agogo traditional areas, as many farmers from Northern Ghana and along the Volta basin migrate to this region for farming, leading to competition for land and water. Since 2016, the Ghanaian Government has been employing numerous measures, with the operation ‘Cow leg’ being the most popular to expel all cattle in the area due to their threat to farming activities. However, these policies have not been successful in completely resolving the farmer-herder conflicts but have further deepened the mistrusts among the feuding parties (farmers and herders).

In Ghana, the government owns just 20% of the land, whereas the remaining 80% is owned or controlled by the chiefs. In the Agogo region, it is the chiefs who are entrusted with the ownership of the land (for the whole community) and also the family heads. Migrant herders gain access to lands either through the chiefs or family heads or private individuals. Leon recollects how land was allotted to early migrant herders in the Agogo region way back in 1997 and says ‘’there were conditions, the herders have to fence their land to prevent their cattle from raiding the adjacent farmlands’’. But later descendants bought their land either from the family heads or private individuals, who unlike the chiefs, didn’t put forth any conditions of fencing. It was these groups of herders, who were not bound to any fencing conditions, that encroached the farmlands. Unlike the herders, who are wealthy enough, most of the farmers are small-holders and lack the resources to make a living in their own villages. Therefore, compared to the farmers, it is easier for the herders to buy land. The existing chieftaincy in the country further favours the herders as the chiefs usually allocate lands to whoever that can pay more.

Most of the court verdicts on tenancy related issues involving the migrant herders and farmers go in favour of the herders as they possess valid documents to claim their ownership over the land. Whilst, the farmers who mostly claim ownership of their lands by virtue of being the first to farm there don’t possess any valid documents. Issah says the farmers feel the judiciary to side with the herders.

Motivation to take up the project

A historian by profession, Leon, whose father was a cattle owner in Northern Ghana, had experienced a symbiotic relation between the farmers and herders. He got enthused to farmer-herder conflicts upon relocating to Southern Ghana in 2015, where the situation was more gruesome. Since then, his research has focused on farmer-herder conflicts to help understand the intricacies surrounding farmer-herder relations in Ghana.

On the other hand, Issah hails from Northern Ghana, where farming and herding activities forms an integral part of everyone’s life. Trained as a developer, agribusiness expert and educationist, Issah has been researching and sensitizing communities on climate change, land grabbing, livelihoods, food security and agribusiness related problems. He is a veteran enumerator with experience working on many social and developmental projects. From his experience and previous research works, Issah no more feels farming and herding as complementary activities but antagonizing in nature as herding activities have completely pushed away farming activities from hinterlands.  Furthermore, his research experience in northern Ghana made him realize that herding activities have forced the farmers to vacate their lands, which aroused in him an interest to research more on this topic.

Challenges and obstacles of the project

As the repercussions of farmer-herder conflicts are not widely known to the conflicting parties, it has become increasingly difficult to resolve the conflicts. Being a controversial topic, they have adopted a neutral stand, and therefore, they will be considering views from all the actors of the conflict. They envisage to locate community-based causes and to find means to resolve the problems. Any recommendations that they put forth, should therefore be acceptable to the people affected by the conflict.

Available literature on farmer-herder conflicts revealed that most studies are either biased towards farmers or herders. A major challenge for the research team would be to maintain their neutrality. For Leon, overcoming this challenge is a heinous task as conflicting parties might have erroneous perception about their neutrality as they’ll be interacting with all the parties involved in the conflict. However, their survey approach may allay all their fears as it intends to cover the collective views of all the conflicting parties. Also, in November, 2019, the research team launched the research project in Kumasi, Ghana where all feuding parties and stakeholders in the farmer-herder conflicts pledged their support to cooperate with the research team to embrace their recommendations to resolve the long-standing conflict in the region.

How important is this work to common people?

Their study area is considered the hotspot of the conflicts in Ghana (Ashanti region in the Agogo Traditional and Afram Plains Areas). The land here is fertile and bears pastures that are most preferred by the cattle. People feel insecure, and some have even abandoned their communities in fear of the conflicts. Same with the herders, as they have stopped going to communities which they think are unsafe. Any recommendations based on their findings could be a relief to both the farmers and herders. Also, the conflicts affect the education and health of the people. Teachers and medical professionals refuse to render their service in remote locations fearing conflicts. ‘’Development is also curtailed’’ says Leon. For the past two decades or so, district development funds are mostly channelled to fight the conflicts and not on developmental projects. Huge amount of money is spent annually on food, transportation, and accommodation of security agencies to maintain peace and order in the country.

Responding to what changes they would recommend in the legislation, Leon says ‘’it would be prudent to strike down the 20:80 rule on land ownership’’. As long as the constitution of Ghana recognizes the supreme authority of the traditional rulers to hold lands in trust for members of their communities, the conflicts will also continue as wealthy farmers and herders would always have their way through the chiefs to access land and other natural resources depriving the less privileged. The indigenous groups believe that they don’t require any documentation to access land handed to them by their ancestors. It is high time that the indigenous community members are sensitized on how to claim ownership over their lands through documentation so as to have full control and benefits from the resources therein. Issah feels that the research team may not be able to issue a clear-cut legislative instrument but would recommend setting up land allocation committees to avert situations where chiefs make unilateral decisions on land allocations within their jurisdictions that often result in conflicts.


Leon and Issah will publish their findings and recommendations to be taken up for implementation by relevant stakeholders of the conflict, which otherwise would not have been easy. The project intends to produce a total of 12 manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals, 8 M.Phil./M.Sc. theses, and to start an international Ph.D. course on frontiers and territorialisation. Their research findings must reach the grassroot level. DANIDA has helped in giving the project a better outreach to engage with the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), the West African Network for Peace Building (WANEP), and the Kofi Annan Peace Centre in addressing farmer-herder disagreements in Ghana and the West Africa sub-region.

A total of 10 district level stakeholder forum meetings and two national level forum meetings will be organised by the participant universities to disseminate their findings. They also intend to engage with the policy makers to infuse their recommendations into the national policies. One of the expected outcomes of this project is a panel on farmer-herder conflicts in a major international research conference.

Talking about their plans after Ph.D., they are not sure if their home universities would be ready to employ them after the project. They believe a PhD degree would help them engage in other consultancy works either with the government or with private firms. Also, it gives them self-assurance for a permanent position in their home universities in the future.  Currently, they are employed as Ph.D. fellows with the partner universities, and their allowances are paid by the main project through their respective universities, where they are based during the study.

Like any other social research on contentions, they cannot substantiate their claim to reinstate peace before the project is over. However, the initial responses from both the farmers and herders have boosted their morale in resolving the conflicts.  Leon and Issah will hopefully be in the field in early 2021 for data collection if the COVID pandemic does not interrupt their plans.

Krishnanunni Mavinkal Ravindran has a MSc in Sustainable Tropical Forestry, University of Copenhagen