Western Togoland, Africa’s (not so) new secessionist tension

Ewe organisations strive for independence from Ghana, claim grievances · Sporadic violent clashes have erupted · We speak to Institute for Security Studies analyst Andrews Atta-Asamoah

A pro-Western Togoland rally.
A pro-Western Togoland rally. Author: Awake TV screenshot @ Facebook
Ghana’s easternmost strip has been undergoing a tense situation since 2017, caused by a political conflict of growing intensity between the Western Togoland independence movement and the government of the West African country. Since September this year, a few violent clashes have raised fears of an escalation. We have spoken to Andrews Atta-Asamoah, an analyst at African leading think tank Institute for Security Studies, to help us explain how.

What is Western Togoland?

Western Togoland is the territory spanning the easternmost portion of Ghana, north to south, along the border with neighbouring Togo. It corresponds to the territory of the former British Mandate of Togoland (1916-1956). Some pro-independence organisations claim that the region connecting the former British mandate —which was landlocked— with the coast should also be regarded as a part of Togoland, since in 1952 the British merged both areas into a single administrative region.

The southern part of Western Togoland, the most densely populated, is mainly inhabited by the Ewe people. The Ewe make up 14% of Ghana’s population, and are at the core of the independence movement —especially in the Volta region around the cities of Ho, Kpandu, and Hohoe— although “not all Ewes are in support” of independence demands, says Atta-Asamoah. In Western Togoland’s centre and north, the Ewe have less of a presence, and support for the independence agenda is much more limited there.

Why is it part of Ghana, if it had been a different territory?

In 1916, the former German colony of Togo was divided up between the British, who retained its western part, and the French, who occupied the eastern part. Formally, neither of the two areas was set up as a new colony, but as a mandate —first of the League of Nations, and then from the United Nations— administered by each one of the two European powers.

A plebiscite was held in British Togoland on 9 May 1956 in which the inhabitants were asked whether to join the nascent Republic of Ghana —a former British colony— or to maintain their United Nations mandate status. A choice for independence was not included in the referendum. 58 per cent voted in favour of joining Ghana, but in the southern, Ewe majority regions, the international mandate option won. The latter was the proposal advocated by the Togoland Congress, an Ewe majority party that sought to reunify British Togoland with French Togo, once the latter became independent from France, with the aim of forming a single, Ewe-majority country.

Different perceptions on the conflict

The present-day independence movement believes that the 1956 plebiscite was illegitimate and that, in any case, a negotiation on the way Western Togoland was to join Ghana —with some federal agreement, for example— should have taken place. Anyway, the Ghanaian authorities divided Togoland into several regions, without autonomy. For these reasons, independence proponents claim that integration has no validity.

The Ghanaian government, on the other hand, argues that integration was legitimate and democratic, the plebiscite being a genuine exercise of the right to self-determination of Western Togolanders.

Independence supporters also denounce that Western Togoland has been discriminated against by successive Ghanaian governments, both politically and economically, and in relation to the territory’s infrastructures. They also claim that Ghanaian authorities are criminalising pro-independence sentiments, are hiding Togoland’s history, and are neglecting the Ewe people.

The Ghanaian authorities deny this, and recall that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on ethnic grounds. The government mostly views the independence insurgency as a security and crime problem.

According to 2018 data from the Human Development Index, Western Togoland’s Volta region shows worse indicators than Ghana’s central regions (including the capital, Accra). But it is also true that the Volta region fared in the country’s average, with the worst data hailing from the mainly rural, less populated north.

Who is part of the independence movement, and what is happening now?

In the past, there have existed several independence organisations, made up of Ewes for the most part. Following the dissolution of the Togoland Congress in the late 1950s, one of the most prominent was the National Liberation Movement of Western Togoland (NLMWT or Tolimo) in the 1970s, which Ghana declared illegal.

The two most prominent independence organisations now are the Western Togoland Restoration Front (WTRF) and the Homeland Study Group Foundation (HSGF), though according to Atta-Asamoah, more of them exist, some of which are not even publicly known. A diversity of groups that, according to the analyst, hints at the “challenges to unity and differences in interpretation” that Ewe nationalist groups have among themselves.

The WTRF is a political-military organisation established in 2019. On 1 September 2020 it unilaterally proclaimed the sovereignty of Western Togoland. On 25 September, according to local witnesses, its members blocked several roads in the Volta region and stole weapons from local depots. Their leader, Togbe Yesu Kwabla Edudzi, demanded that the Ghanaian security forces leave the region immediately.

The HSGF is a political organisation founded in 1994. It has been a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) since 2017. It advocates negotiations with Ghana to agree on the exercise of self-determination by Western Togoland. It is led by Charles Kormi Kudzordzi, who was arrested in 2019 over his pro-independence activities, along with 80 other people. Due to his advanced age, he was released. Although the HSGF has been accused of forming a militia, its leaders have always denied it. In October, Kudzordzi called on Ghana and the people of Western Togoland not to resort to violence.

In mid-October, a video circulated through social networks showing a group calling itself “Western Togoland Dragons”, who claimed to have 4,000 armed members ready to occupy the territory and implement independence. “Not much is known about the group,” says Atta-Asamoah, “though there have been reports of recruitments and trainings in that part of the country.” The analyst thinks however that it is difficult for them to have 4,000 fighters “without any infiltration by government agencies,” and considers it more likely that the video has a propaganda purpose. In any case, Atta-Asamoah believes it is more likely that the Dragons might be aligned with the WTRF than with the HSGF.

Several traditional leaders and chiefs in the region have condemned the actions of the secessionist groups, as “it appears” that they “have tended to suffer” in similar contexts in the past, Atta-Asamoah explains.

What consequences the violent escalation is having?

Over the past 50 years, the situation has generally been calm. In contrast, since 2017 the conflict has escalated, with dozens of independence supporters arrested by the Ghanaian security forces. On 25 September, as said, a qualitative leap forward took place with the blocking of roads in the Volta region and the theft of weapons by the WTRF. On the same day, and according to the Ghanaian security forces, an HSGF member was killed in a gunfight. Ghanaian forces have made over 100 arrests. Ghanaian and US authorities have issued warnings advising travellers to exercise extreme caution if going to the Volta region.

Asked whether the situation has the potential to escalate into a more serious conflict, such as the one in Southern Cameroons, Atta-Asamaoah fears it is “likely.” “Even though the contestation of the region and their intentions of independence are not new, the recent attacks announce a certain intention which can easily go wrong”, he explains. Furthermore, possible large-scale repression by the Ghanaian security forces have the potential to make the crisis worse.

Is the government ready to negotiate with the independence movement?

The approach of the first ever administration of the country under the mandate of the father of independence Kwame Nkrumah continues to weigh on current Ghanaian politics. Nkrumah supported a centralist approach to state integration, among other things for fear of a possible disintegration of the country and under the more general precepts of the quest for African unity.

“[I do not think] the idea of talks might be entertained anytime soon,” says the Institute for Security Studies analyst. “The president told a local radio station the [armed] group benefited” from the fact that they had carried out “a surprise attack,” and vowed to “crush them.”

Is this an internal conflict in Ghana, or is there some regional involvement?

Until the 1970s, Togolese presidents Sylvanus Olimpio and Gnassingbé Eyadéma voiced support for the separation of Western Togoland from Ghana and reunification with Togo. “Ghana has had major issues around the same secession challenge with some governments of Togo in the past,” Atta-Asamoah recalls, “but without any strong indications, one cannot directly blame any other country, save for maybe permitting training in a neighbouring country.”