Yendi’s glory days are far behind it. Set in the arid savannah of northern Ghana, the town was once the seat of the ruler of the 15th-century kingdom of Dagbon. Now, it has the air of a small and impoverished provincial capital. The only remaining clues to its pre-colonial might are its plethora of royal palaces.
The palaces are home to two rival branches of Dagbon royalty, the Abudu and Andani families, whose competing claims to the throne have been resolved for 200 years by a system of alternating succession.
However, 10 years ago on March 27, 2002, members of the Abudu family stormed the palace of the Andani king, Ya-Na Yakubu Andani II, decapitating and immolating the old ruler and murdering up to 40 other royal servants and advisers.
Now, after more than a decade of simmering conflict, the dispute between the two lines seems set to boil over, tipping the region into conflict. The dispute has brought development in Dagbon to a halt and some fear it may even pull the country apart.
Abdoulaye Yakubu Andani, the “caretaker regent” of Dagbon who is his family’s candidate to succeed the murdered king, lives in the Gbewaa palace, newly built by the government of Ghana to a level of luxury that far distinguishes Andani from most of his subjects. Neatly framed pictures of former ya-nas (kings) adorn the wall, and a 52-inch Sony Bravia flatscreen TV — current retail price in Ghana about ￡3,000 (US$ 4,647) — is fixed for ease of viewing from the throne.
“What happened in 2002 was inhuman,” Andani said. “Forty people murdered in cold blood. So many questions remain unanswered.”
Next door, the ruins of the old Gbewaa Palace remain a crime scene, surrounded by barbed wire, riddled with bullet holes and watched over by five military guard posts.
The Abudu family seat a few hundred meters away is different again.
Peeling paint and dangling electrical wiring speak of neglect and poverty. The throne is set in a small clearing in a pile of junk at one end of a corridor, beneath a dirty fan. The only decoration is a collection of useful telephone numbers scribbled on the wall and a showbiz-style calendar featuring the Abudu pretender, Abdulai Mahamadu, known as the Bolin Lana. Its glossy pages show a young man who looks a decade younger than his official age of 38, wearing his trademark red animal skin headpiece adorned with various spiritual and magical regalia.
Mahamadu spoke only through his guardian, an old man with two teeth and a straggly beard, who explains that it is not befitting for Mahamadu to address anyone directly. The new Gbewaa Palace was their true home, he insisted, and as long as Andanis occupied it, they would continue their struggle.
If there is one thing Abudus and Andanis agree on, it is that politics has played a toxic role in their rivalry, turning the relationship from tolerance — the communities once intermarried and lived side by side — to conflict. With national elections due in December, observers fear the growing anger between the families will spill over into violence during the campaign.
The perpetrators of the Yendi massacre have never been brought to justice. A trial last year of 15 Abudus resulted in acquittal, while a manifesto promise by Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) party of an official inquiry into the murders never materialized.