Home / Dagbon / THE BATTLE OF ADIBO (BATTLE WITH THE GERMANS) – Ghana’s Dagbon History


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There is a popular date in the history of Dagbon that every son of Great Gbewaa knows. It is recalled by Dagbon drum historians as Adibo Dalle (The Day of Adibo). This was the day over a century ago in September 1896 when Dagbon fought a battle with German colonizers at Adibo, a village 10 kilometers south of Yendi. At the time the king who reigned was Yaa Naa Andani II (popularly called Andan Naanigoo) and he said that his kingdom Dagbon, would not be taken over by the white man, and will protect it at all cost. His kingdom was threatened by the Europeans from all directions; from the south by the Germans, from the west the British and from the north the French. In all, Dagbon resisted colonialism for seven long years


Andan Naanigoo’s reign was long and in his youth he led and personally commanded the Dagbon army to score many victories. He had warded off the invading Zambarramas who had come conquering from afar; he also subdued the notorious slave raider Babatu and permitted him to settle in Yendi where his grave is now a tourist destination. He had also undertaken the unpleasant duty of disciplining recalcitrant sub chiefs who had become bullies in their areas or had become treacherous. Unfortunately all these exploits were in his youth and when the treat from the white men became a reality, Naa Andani was very old and nearly blind. Nevertheless a hurriedly assembly army fought a heroic battle under the leadership of army divisional chief from Saŋ, Mioŋ, Sunsoŋ, Dimoŋ and Gbungbaliga.


Rumors had been rife in Dagbon of the coming of the white man. News filtered from the Atlantic coast about them into Dagbon and various description of what they looked like had been narrated. Some said the white man were like monkeys because they had long nose like those of the monkeys; others said they looked like human but came from the sea, and what else could be coming from the sea other than fish? It is recounted that the people of Sunsoŋ, north of Yendi, laugh at how easy it will be for them to catch these human fish; since these white men were coming from the sea they could be captured with the help of a fishing net!. During the last quarter of the year of 1896, rumors intensified about the imminent arrival of the white man. On 27th November they had reach Kpandai and by 30th November they overrun Bimbilla and were now at Pusuga 30 miles south of Yendi. The Bimbilla Naa sent a messenger to inform the Yaa Naa of the fall of Bimbilla to the white man, whose advance had been too swift and without notice. The long awaited clash with the white man had come but the Dagbon army had not been assembled.


Stop the Germans:
When news of the capture and burning of Bimbilla reached Yendi, it was ordered that the big war drum be beaten to signify that the Yaa Naa had declared Dagbon at war and that an attack on Yendi was almost at hand. The section elders of Gagbini, Balogu and Zoɣi rushed to the palace, hotfoot and dispatched messengers to all corners of the kingdom to tell chiefs, whom they represented in court at the palace, that all the armed might of Dagbon should rally to Yendi to repel an invader, the white man. But as this move was too late, the German’s advance was too swift and only a handful of chiefs were able to rally. The important and powerful chief of Kumbungu, Savelugu, Tolon, Tampioŋ, etc., all in western Dagbon and also great armies of the Paramount chiefs of Karaga, Gushiegu and Yelizoli (Zabzugu) had not got the news and were not in Yendi nor did they even have the time to prepare to come to the defense of Yendi. The Yaa Na who was very old, and after consulting his oracle, he advised his lieutenants to negotiate but KANBOŋ-NAPKEM ZIBLIM will have none of this; the White man would not enter Yendi while he was still alive. 


From Dagbon’s points of view, one man whose name comes out for his bravery on the battle days, 3rd and 4th of December 1896 was the chief of GBUNGBALIGA, KANBON-NAPKEM ZIBLIM. He had promise the Yaa Na that he would apprehend any white man who would step foot in Dagbon. This chief warrior was indeed a remarkable soldier and fighter. Well built, brave and an inspiration to his troops. He was affectionately called KANBON NAKPEM WOHU and rode a white stallion horse, carried two guns and a sword to match his status, Kanbon Nakpem means chief warrior, and waɣu means snake. He was likened to a snake because he said that to kill him, the combined effort of many people wielding truncheons was needed, as is done with a snake. He was also known as the-one-who-sweeps-all that stands his way, he fortified himself wearing his powers, a Gba’ano, a local bullet proof vest (the Gba’ano, a simple smock decorated with talisman and soaked with concoctions, is still abound today. It is the Gba’ano that is worn by southern kings and chiefs as “BATAKARIKESE”, something which is obviously bequeathed to them from Dagbon) and believed that no metal in the form of a bullet or knife could penetrate his body. Several Dagbani poems and accolades are dedicated to the memory of this great son of Dagbon. 


The Sapashinnema (warriors of Dagbon) dressed like Southerners preferring to wear cloths (however cumbersome) instead of the smock that is identified with northerners, they jokingly refer to any king or chief of Dagbon as Mmaanbia ;and referring to Yaa Na as Mmaanbia Naanigoo. They asked him to wait patiently; so they will capture and bring the white men to him alive. By the time the five divisional chiefs reached Yendi on Wednesday 2nd December the Germans were already at Laginja, only fifteen miles from Yendi and in the afternoon Kanbon Nakpem Waɣu marched his troops southwards in a bid to halt them. 


Thursday, 3rd December 1896, the Dagbon army was encamped on a hill at Adibo they waited and watched, and by afternoon the horsemen were sent to search and scan through the thickly wooded bushes below them. It was harvest time and the guinea corn crop used for brewing pito, a local beer, had grown tall, nothing was observed all day. Historians have relayed that accounts from persons who were actually present in this battle agree in accessing the numbers of the Dagbon army at about 2500 gunmen, 130 horse men and about 2000 archers. The Germans expedition was led by DR. GRUNER and consisted of 136 soldiers armed with rifles and commanded by captain Von Massow. 


Next morning Friday 4th December. They took up positions again and Kanbon Nakpem Waɣu drew up his war formation; he was at the center at the head of the Yendi force of gunmen. On his right wing he put the chirifo and backed him with the chief of Mioŋ and Saŋ who were also leading a group of gunmen. To his left he placed the Damankung who had behind him the chiefs of Dimoŋ, Kunkoŋ and Sunsoŋ with their Powers. Between the three divisions and to the front were mounted spear men and an elite group of Kokomo archers who accompanied the Dimoŋ Naa. This is how the battle lines were drawn on that Friday morning which also happened to be a special Yendi market day, Alizumma-koofe-dali .


The battle of Adibo was the time of the Europeans scramble for Africa and so the Germans were in a competition with the English in this part of west Africa. Only by the establishing of a permanent station in an area could one power demonstrate control, so the Germans were in a hurry to establish as many stations as possible and Yendi was a prize they had their eyes on, which will prove not to be an easy task


The Germans had earlier spied on Dagbon to prepare for what they called the Togo hinterland expedition and had warned the German government of the powerful Dagomba kingdom in the north. In May 1896, Dr Gruner had tried to enter Yendi under the pretext of passing through to Sansane-Mongu, but the Naa (King of Yendi) refused to let him pass through Dagomba territory, so this time around gov. Kohler asked lieutenant Valentin von Massow to join Dr. Gruner in the expedition which included 4 Germans (lieutenant Massow as supreme commander, Dr. Gruner, lieutenant Thierry and sergeant Heinemann), 91 trained mercenaries, 46 carriers (armed with modern rifles) and 231 other carriers. This group was considered  “the most powerful expedition in the region”. To make their move to occupy Dagbon, the Germans waited for the beginning of the harmattan and the dry season, because- traditionally the grass will be burnt, “the soldiers badly needed the open space and they were afraid of being attacked in the bush. 


About 15 kilometers south of Yendi at Adibo the Dagomba army blocked the road the village of Adibo was built on, a little hill, sloping towards NAPKACHIE to the south. The Dagomba army took a favorable military position on the hill. For the Germans, it was difficult to develop their combat order on the battle field because first on the ground they had to pass a small passage man by man in a single file. In this very important moment  the expedition was defenseless but the Dagomba war chief missed this chance to give the signal to attack the expedition because for moral and strategic reasons he preferred being attacked by the Germans first. Without being disturbed down at the beginning of the slope, lieutenant Massow arranged his band of mercenaries in three platoons and behind them followed those who carried supplies. Dr. Gruner followed in the rear with a forth platoon of the other carriers  armed with rifle ready to fight to the right and to the left. In this military formation the expedition move forward towards the Dagbamba army. Approximately 300 meters in front of the Dagomba army the German expedition stopped. The Dagomba army remained in their position on top of the hill in a line of nearly one kilometers long. 


In Bimbilla the Germans proved an attack when they started burning the town but the Dagombas had met them for an open combat well outside Yendi. Therefore at Adibo the Germans had to take an initiative so Von Massow started to provoke a counter attack at the Dagomba army. At high noon Massow commanded a VOLLEY-FIRE from each of the three platoons. Kambon Nakpem Waɣu responded by ordering his men to surge forward and so they did encircling the German expeditions. This was just what the Germans had wanted, to get the Dagombas closer within the range of their modern rifles. But for the Dagombas something was amiss, at the distance they stood they did not expect to be hit by bullets. They knew only the traditional rifles, the so called muzzle loaders after shooting once it took nearly two minutes until one could shoot again and even then the effective distance has to be at 20 to 30 meters, but the German bullets were coming too far and too fast, the Dagomba warriors had not seen a breach loader gun before and therefore many of them were shot or wounded before reaching effective distances to use their weapons. 


It was after some amount of fighting that the Kanbon Nakpem realized that the Germans side could shoot repeatedly with their guns without having to reload. What sort of guns are these Germans using?, they wondered. Realizing how fast his men were being depleted, Kanbon Nakpem waɣu then gave another order and the Dagomba warriors at once changed their method of attack. They attacked in small groups and came close to 30 meters, but still according to Dr. Sebald, the “Dagombas could not come close enough to start a direct fight ‘man to man’.” The horse men could have covered the distance faster but by Dagomba traditional warfare they were situated behind the warriors. The horse men had the role only to pursue the enemy when they are beaten and are fleeing which was their understanding of winning a war- you have to overthrow the enemy and see them flee. Not able to decipher the fire power they were facing, the command went round in Dagbani “LIMSI MI YA, LIMSI MI YA” meaning that the warriors should take cover because the guns facing them were not loaded like theirs. For the first time the Dagomba army broke and retreated, confused at the new type of weapons and warfare they were encountering. The situation was similar to the other colonial wars with the Asante kingdom. Although the Asante performed well, superior weapons allowed the British to win. In 1826 the British used Congreve rocket to frighten Asante warriors on the Accra plains, the Asante believing that the enemy was using thunder and lightning  against them, they panicked and fled to Kumasi. The losses of the Dagomba were terrible; 430 dead on the battle field including war chiefs (sapashinnema) who, on the hill had tied themselves to chairs with cords to demonstrate to their warriors that they would not run away; some died along with their horses. Tragically, Kanbon Nakpem Ziblim was shot with a pistol at a point blank range when he tried to apprehend a white man with his bare hands. Also killed were the CHIRIFO and chiefs of Dimoŋ, Kunkoŋ and many other elder warriors, the Sapashinnema. 


Many too on the German side were killed, including Sargent Heitman and a quarter of the mercenary force army were wounded. The Germans had won this battle but not the war. The bulk of the Dagomba warriors escaped and Dr. Gunner’s men could not take any prisoners. In the afternoon of the same day, 4th December, the remainder of the expedition continued towards Yendi. When the Dagomba’s effort to stop the white man collapsed, word quickly spread on the road from Adibo through Choo, Gbungbaliga to Zugu and to Yendi that the engagement with the white man at Adibo was disastrous. People then started to abandon their villages and to take cover in the bush, the Germans burnt every village they passed by and when they got to Yendi at sun down the market had been abandoned; and they met a ghost town. The Yaa Naa as informed the Kanbon Nakpem waɣu had fallen in the battle and that he was to be taken out of his palace to safety. 
He refused to leave and it was very difficult persuading the Yaa Na to go to a safe place until one of his sons, the chief of Sang arrived and persuaded him that if he had to die then he should be killed where his father Na Yakubu’s grave was. In present day Yendi this grave is marked by a big baobab about 400 meters behind the palace towards Kuga, and so the Yaa Na was taken to his father’s grave where he remained till the next day. Lieutenant Von Massow and his men then destroyed and burnt Yendi. They also looted, taking with them some valuables from the Gbjwaa Palace, but they were still afraid of counter attacks given the number of Dagomba warriors who escaped from Adibo. They were also short of ammunition and could not stay too long in Yendi, so they continued their journey that evening along the road and camped for the night at Sakpeigu. The following morning they hurried towards Sunsoŋ on their way to Sansane-Mongu (a town in present day Togo). 


An incident occurred in Yendi the day after the battle in which the Achiri kpema of Yendi is said to have killed himself. He went to the Yaa Na palace the day after and was questioned why he survived when the Kanbon -Nakpem waɣu and many of his colleagues died back in the battle? Did he like food more than fame?, when he got back to his house he was further attacked by his wife as a good for nothing warrior, that he could have done better in the battle. The Achiri kpema is said to have gone to his room, loaded his gun and shot himself through the mouth. 


The day of Adibo fell on Friday, a Yendi market day; and market days that fall on Fridays are special and attended in a grand style even up to this day, these market days are called Alizumma -koofe in the local parlance, because in the olden days young women decorated themselves beautifully in ‘koofe’ (a kind of beads) around their waist to show to the young men at the market. 


‘The Day of Adibo’ is remembered  in Dagbon as a solemn occasion, the Yaa Na stays indoors and must not appear in public on any market day that falls on a Friday (Alizumma-koofe). It is remembered in so many other ways- in drum history and on special occasions like the fire festival (Bugum Chugu) or Damba festival. Dagban Kanbonsi  also have a special brisk-dance in remembrance of those who fell in that battle. The song for the dance goes like this. 


“tinim zhin zo, tinim zhin zo ka Adibo dal’la? nagla din ko?” 


The song simply means “we’ve never run away from battle, never” …. then someone will tea asking  “what about The Battle of Adibo … and they will respond saying… “oh we run only on that day”. 


They also chant during the dance “Adibo dal’la Mba n daa nye doo yiee” meaning “on the day of Adibo my fathers were the bravest”. 


Kanbon Nakpem Ziblim has a special dirge composed by Dagbon praise singers in his honor. For the next three years the white man was still trying to occupy Dagbon but faced the combined forces of Mole-Dagombas and Konkombas. In all the German colonialist (known in Dagbani as German do ziegu) were engaged in about 45 battles and skirmishes before they gained control of eastern Dagbon and only after the death of Naa Andani Naanigoo, did the white man then exploit local animosities which led to another  important date in Dagbon history ‘The Day of Sang’(Saŋ Dal’la) after which they raided Yendi again and burnt the palace for the second time.


Hope you enjoyed reading this piece of Ghana/African History! Read an abridged history of Dagbon here -> http://www.dagbon.net/history.php 

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  1. This is great content… Please how do get more info to read?
    Is there any library I can get my hands on information about histories of the northern regions ??

  2. Abdulai Natogmah Tooka

    This is absolutely fantastic stuff. This should have been taught in Dagbon schools. well done for this rich history, pls put more knowledge up.

  3. Wow, a very nice piece,

  4. Wooow Adibo dal’la 💝💝

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