Natural Resource Conflicts in Ghana: Circumventing the “Resource Curse” Conundrum 

Natural resource conflicts arise when parties disagree about the management, distribution and or protection of natural resources and related ecosystems.

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Natural Resources and Conflicts
Both Peace and Sustainable Natural Resource Management are integral parts of the United Nations’ interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Agenda 2030.

According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), natural resources are “stocks of materials that exist in the natural environment that are both scarce and economically useful in production or consumption, either in their raw state or after a minimal amount of processing”. They include renewable (water, land, forest, fish etc.) and depletable resources (minerals, metals, oil, diamonds, etc.). Access to natural resources is increasingly seen as a security threat in the twenty-first century.

The High-Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which was convened by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004, iterated that commodity shortages can trigger social unrest and civil wars. In 2009, the United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Expert Advisory Group on Environment, Conflict and Peacebuilding found that “there is significant potential for conflicts over natural resources to intensify in the coming decades”

Conflict arises when two or more groups believe their interests are incompatible. According to the United Nations Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action, Conflict is not in itself a negative phenomenon. Non-violent conflict can be an essential component of social change and development, and is a necessary component of human interaction. Non-violent resolution of conflict is possible when individuals and groups have trust in their governing structures, society and institutions to manage incompatible interests.

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Conflicts however become problematic when societal mechanisms and institutions for managing and resolving conflict break down, giving way to violence. Societies with weak institutions, fragile political systems and divisive social relations can be drawn into cycles of conflict and violence.

The Extractive Industries (EIs) present specific challenges for both fragile states and developing nations; the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, including oil, gas, minerals and timber has often been cited as a key factor in triggering, escalating or sustaining violent conflicts around the globe.

Violent conflict is most likely to occur: where local communities have been systematically excluded from decision-making processes; when the economic benefits are concentrated in the hands of a few; and, when the burdens associated with EIs clash with the local socio-cultural, religious and environmental norms, or choose to align with pre-existing tensions.

Scarcity versus Abundance

Natural resource conflicts arise when parties disagree about the management, distribution and or protection of natural resources and related ecosystems. Over the past 60 years, 40% of civil wars can be associated with natural resources; since 1990 there have been at least 18 violent conflicts fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources. (UNEP 2009)

Resource conflicts typically occur together with other conflict items, such as: territory, regional predominance, system/ideology, autonomy and secession. The data also show that resources are the predominant conflict item in sub-Saharan Africa (32 out of 85, representing 38 percent) –far more than in all other regions of the world.

Rather than a blessing, much of the literature suggest that resource abundance increases the likelihood of resource-rich state to experience negative economic, political and social outcomes such as poor economic performance, low levels of democracy and bad governance resulting in conflicts and civil wars. In 1997, Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner shockingly revealed in their article, Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Growth that “resource-poor economies often vastly outperform resource-rich economies in economic growth”.

the resource curse thesis is underpinned by three main hypotheses: resource abundance (particularly oil and gas) results in poor economic governance/performance; resource abundance results in low or weak democracy, leads to rent-seeking behaviour by the political elites and weak institutions (political governance); and lastly, resource abundance is associated with conflicts and civil wars. This article mainly focuses on the last one, observes natural resource exploitation in Ghana from a National Security perspective; identifies causes, driving factors and how effectively the menace can be controlled.

Ghana: A potpourri of flora and fauna
Like some other countries in different parts of the world, Ghana is endowed with a lot of natural resources. These resources can be processed to meet several needs of her citizens. The country boasts of rich wildlife, cash crops and bountiful flora and fauna. Most of these resources are available and harvested in commercial quantities. The latest to join the plethora of Ghana’s blessings is crude oil, first discovered in commercial quantities in 2007. The prospects of Ghana producing petroleum resurrected the very important issue of ‘Resource Curse’, the notion of violence associated with resources and the human security problems often associated with the Extractive Industries.

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Resource conflict is one thing that has plagued some resource-rich communities in Ghana for centuries, though some may be severer than others. As a resource-endowed country, there should be (early warning) systems to guide and guard against resource related conflicts blowing into a full-blown violent conflict.
The two major scenarios that can let resource lead to conflicts as pointed earlier is either the scarcity or abundance of it. In Ghana’s situation, the latter is the case.

The Nature of Natural Resource Conflicts in Ghana

The most common natural resource conflict in Ghana is about land. Land-related conflicts in Ghana can be looked at in two broad ways, the usual bone of contention are acquisition and usage. The traditional use of land sparks conflicts on the grounds of who uses the land (acquisition) and for what purpose (usage). Example is the periodic farmer-herder (farmer- nomadic herdsmen) conflicts. Land acquisition related conflicts on the other hand, are prevalent in the peri-urban areas of the country. This often leads to long and winding legal clashes between multiple owners. This feeds into the issue of ‘landguardism’-a clear security threat. Multiple ownership of land is dotted across the length and breadth of the country and it is a testament of the somewhat cumbersome land tenure system existing in Ghana and a challenge to land administration officials.

The extraction of both intrusive and extrusive minerals produce conflicts. Places like Rocky areas for quarrying, lands rich in mineral deposits like precious stones and wetlands for aquaculture, salt mining, the fetching of clay and sand wining are all potential flashpoints. Disagreements happen in these communities when resource extracting companies and the indigenous people or residents are engaged in accusations and counter accusations. This mostly happens due to lack of broad base consultation, participation (local content), disrespect towards custom and practice, culture, cherished values and low sensitisation or ignorance on both sides.

Lumbering and Poaching also happens on a vast swathe of land in Ghana where vegetation abounds. The menace of illegal chainsaw operators and unscrupulous foresters often clash with the local folks (custodians of the land) and law enforcement agencies. Poachers of endangered species are also contributing agents to this flashpoint of violence.

Drilling of crude oil offshore the country is the latest to be added to the resource management challenge or test case of Ghana. If exploited well the petrochemical industry can lift the country to a full fletched middle income economic status and beyond. However, it doesn’t come without hiccups. Just a few years ago, the country legally battled her way out of a landmark court case initiated by her immediate western neighbour, La Cote d’Ivoire challenging the demarcation of the international boundary (Economic Exclusive Zone) thus claiming ownership of the oil fields been exploited by Ghana. Domestically the oil fields have not been immuned from causing disaffections. Accusations from fisher folks about the dwindling fish stock affecting their catch as a result of the drilling activities offshore keeps rising. So far, the possibility of oil spillage in the basin and the reality of dead marine mammals awashed ashore have occupied public discussion in the region. The issues of inadequate property and land compensation, pollution and general dissatisfaction about the expansion of the petrol-chemical industry onshore in the western region continue to soil relationship between the local people and the EIs.

Some causes and contributing factors
The causes of most of these conflicts are mainly human factors which includes but not limited to corruption, dishonesty, poor governance structure, weak institutional and legal framework. Others are improper or the lack of consultation/negotiation and participation. Ignorance (i.e. lack of education and sensitisation), cronyism/nepotism, weak local content regime and lack of institutionalism are also other factors. The effects of these conflicts on the communities are profound. In the worse scenarios the conflicts turn violent: citizens are maimed, livelihoods and properties are destroyed and regrettably human lives are lost. In the event where the police are called in during such clashes to instil calm, more often than not they are seen protecting the EIs while in some cases they shoot at the demonstrating or at times rioting citizens in a desperate move to disperse the mob. These among other unhealthy development further soils the relationship between the governed and the governor on the one hand and between the citizens/residents and the resource extracting companies on the other hand. This creates a tension-filled atmosphere in the mining communities. Mining communities are surprisingly impoverished across the country.

What is being done?

Government over the period have strived to strengthen the governance structure of the various institutions which have mandate or oversight responsibility over mining and resource exploitation in the country some of which are Environmental Protection Agency, the commissions of Land, Water Resource, Forestry and Minerals among others. Ghana as a country has a conducive legislative and adequate legal framework to harness her resources optimally. However the implementation of the rules to the letter has been a major challenge –this dovetails into the issue of corruption. On the issues of local content and local participation, the country has thus by far performed poorly, evidently for example, for more than 100 years of continuous mining of gold and other precious stones in the country, all the large-scale mining companies are expatriate-owned. Ironically, Ghana is the biggest gold exporter in Africa.
Education is the surest bet to defeating ignorance-no argument about that! In the light of sensitisation, Ghanaians are becoming more and more aware, conscious and knowledgeable about their environment so far as resource extraction is concern. However, this feat is defeated by the fact that many a times, poor or lack of; consultation, negotiation and the involvement of the host communities before the extraction of natural resources results in conflicts and at times violent clashes.


The Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources with all the other Ministries and Government Agencies within the Natural Resource Management Framework must look at these issues from a national security perspective thereby considering Ghana’s natural resources as a strategic national asset. Since people will revolt only when they feel cheated, the enforcement of the local content laws must be looked at with all seriousness. Good neighbourliness with the aim of preventing conflicts in the resource-tapping communities can only be achieved through tolerance, consultation, negotiation and credible corporate social activities from both sides. More importantly, there should be a deliberate and concerted public/government effort to harmonise and foster peaceful co-existence between the resource extracting companies and the host communities by a strong peer-peer engagement and effective early warning mechanism in place. In all, an unbiased and trustworthy judicial system will instil the culture of rule of law in the citizenry. With this whenever disagreements arise, people will not be quick to take arms but rather resort to the courts. It should not be lost on us that peace is a product of justice.

[An earlier version of this article was first published in the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College Magazine, The Flame in August 2022]

By Joshua Kudzo-Norsah
[email protected]




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