Bawku, Ghana (AFP):
Standing near the dry riverbed that marks Ghana’s northern border, Alima can see her hamlet, lying in Burkina Faso less than two kilometres away.
Even though her home is just a short walk away, she says she will never go back there to live.
One night last year, gunmen arrived in the settlement and killed two watchmen.
Alima and her sons hid with other women and children, while the men fled briefly across the river into Ghana. The next day families packed up and crossed the border.
Their arrival reinforced what Ghana’s government already knew: Ghana along with Gulf of Guinea neighbours Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast was fast becoming the new frontline in the Sahel civil war ravaging their northern neighbour.
“We are staying here for now,” Alima said, looking over the border. “There is no security over there.”
Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast have already been struck by gunmen from across their northern borders.
So far Ghana has escaped a direct attack, but it is already tackling the economic and social fallout from the conflict to its north.
Like its neighbours, Ghana struggles with porous borders, a weaker state presence in the north, chronic smuggling and intercommunal tensions that can be a breeding ground for militancy to thrive, say local leaders, officials and experts.
Ghana’s government heeded the threat early, opting for a comprehensive strategy of increased military presence and community outreach.
British, US and French officials met with Gulf of Guinea governments in Accra in November to discuss increased “cooperation”.
President Nana Akufo-Addo has pushed for “home-grown” local cooperation with neighbouring countries through the Accra Initiative on joint military operations and intelligence sharing.
However, officials and local residents in north Ghana acknowledge the growing threat from militant groups operating just a few kilometres away.
“The threat is real, we are very close to the border,” Stephen Yakubu, Ghana’s Upper East Regional Minister, said.
The Sahel insurgency spread from Mali in 2012 to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015. Two million people have been displaced and thousands killed in Burkina Faso alone.
Security in Burkina has deteriorated rapidly in recent months, including more attacks towards eastern regions, which share borders with Togo, Benin and Ghana.
Military operations in the Sahel had prompted the ‘Support Group for Islam and Muslims’ (GSIM) and ‘Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)’ to shift south.
In northern Ghana’s border area of Bawku, residents are fearful. With easy access to Burkina, Mali, Togo and Niger nearby, they say their frontier is exposed.
Regional minister Yakubu said the army is establishing small, forward bases along the border and the immigration service is boosting its frontier presence.
“We are working with Burkina and sharing information,” he said.
Nearby a major border post and highway from Bawku into Burkina is heavily guarded with troops and immigration officials as trucks head north.
But in rural areas along the more open border, Burkinabe displaced families easily cross the dry riverbed on foot back into Burkina to tend their farms during the day. Their children still go to school there. But before night everyone returns to Ghana.
Burkinabe community leader Dauda Wahabu said the village was once peaceful. Only when they armed two watchmen did they come under attack.
“We hear they are killing people still,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen next so we will stay.”
Local Ghana community leader Abdullah Zakaria said the Ghanaian army is nearby and locals are constantly in touch if they see anyone suspicious. However, worry grows in border settlements.
“We are fearful they are going to come over here,” he said. “This is going to get worse. This is not going to stop.”