On March 27, 2002, the King of Dagbon, an ethnic group in Northern Ghana was brutally beheaded and his body badly mutilated. This event re-ignited a five decades old intra-ethnic strife between the two royal families of Dagbon, the Abudu and the Andani resulting in massive loss of lives and destruction of property. The conflict remains unresolved and probably irresolvable. The divisions, feelings of insecurity, anger, frustration and the capacity to commit gruesome acts of violence against each other goes beyond normal and needs some explaining. While majority see the conflict as senseless, I argue that there is a logic in the evolution of conflict. Rather than a senseless phenomenon, conflict has an internal logic deriving from human cognitive and emotive processes. Events by themselves do not generate conflict; it is the meaning we attach to the events and our reaction to our perception, and interpretation of the event the drives conflict. In the dynastic struggle for power in Dagbon, we see one family re-categorize itself into two distinct groups, Abudu/Andani. Events and situations are processed based on this categorization and either accentuate or diminish the categorization. These social categorization processes influence the interpretation of events and situations and causal attributions made as people struggle to give meaning to events. This process is loaded with biases which can lead to serious errors in attributing causes. Depending on the goal significance, coping potential and legitimacy, specific emotions are conjured with corresponding behavior. Such an understanding is important for any resolution processes.
Human beings are organized into social groups in which they interact not only as human beings but also as representatives of their respective social groups. These social groups are created through a process of social categorization in which a person is put into a social group and becomes a member of that group (ingroup) or a non-member (outgroup). Ones these categories are formed, group members tend to exaggerate the similarities with the in group and contrast with the out group. This process of category accentuation creates homogeneity within categories and distinctiveness between categories. This ingroup-outgroup distinction and the consequent accentuation of differences between groups is important for understanding intergroup relationships and conflict.
Dagombas are divided into two categories, Andani family and Abudu Family. This categorization has to do with the chieftaincy institution in Dagbon. Dagombas move in and out of these categories. One is born an Andani and later in life becomes an Abudu. There were also cross categorizations in terms of political party and religious affiliations (one group maybe predominant in a political party or religious group). The boundary lines were however clearly drawn in 1965 when an Abudu king was deposed and an Andani king enthroned. In 1994 the boundaries were blurred as Dagombas mobilized to fight a common enemy, the Konkombas. However with the death of the king in 2002, the boundaries were clearly drawn and each category became salient. Andanis and Abudus accentuated their differences, denigrated and vilified each other. Some couples who were married for over twenty years separated.
It is in this context the question of the cause of the death of the king and who is to be blamed is constructed. There are bound to be errors of attribution on both sides.
The theory of social attribution is concerned with the way people explain human actions and events to themselves. People like to have answers to puzzles so they seek to explain and interpret the causes of events and experiences. The explanations they come up with have a major impact on how they react both emotionally and behaviorally to events. Attribution theory therefore looks at how people perceive and explain social events, their behavior and the behavior of others. From the above, the narratives that both families constructed to explain the causes of death of the Ya Na makes sense. The family of the deceased king (Andanis) accused the other family (Abudus) of premeditated cold blood murder of the king with tacit support from the government. The Abudus explained the death of the king as a result of war. Dagbon was at war with itself and the king died in a war he himself started the Abudus explained. These causal attributions had consequences in the emotional reactions and behaviors of both families. For the Andanis, Abudus are responsible for the king’s death and the perpetrators of the crime must be identified and prosecuted before the king is buried before any negotiations can take place (early days of the conflict). For the Abudus the king died in battle and there are clear stipulations in the culture as to what to do in such circumstances. These positions taken by both families based on the process of social attribution has influence the violence and the stalemate the peace process is experience.
In attributing the cause of the death of the King, there are bound to be biases. Put simply one is always right and one’s opponent is always wrong. In the days following the death of the king, ultimate attribution biases were clearly at play as each family tried to explain the cause of the death of the King to the group’s favour. For the Andanis, the king was brutally murdered by the Abudus so that they could get their own son into power. Lack of any indisputable evidence notwithstanding one could not question this storyline without meeting some violent reaction. All Abudus were described as dishonest, untrustworthy people who would kill at any excuse. The Andanis who were involved in the violent exchanges of fire which led to the death of the king were defending themselves from an unprovoked attack. These were gallant sons of Dagbon defending their king.
For the Abudus, the king was paying for his 27 years of ‘mismanagement’ of Dagomba affairs, his blatant refusal to have the funeral of Naa Abudulai celebrated and his abominable declaration of war against his own people. In these narratives, people sought information which confirmed their held beliefs, lending more weight to information which supported their beliefs, while discarding contradictory information, a process known as confirmation bais. Confirmation bias helps the group demonstrate they are right and ensures that entrenched positions are not challenged, thus making believers feel more confident.