Rambo-style urban management

Evictions in Accra have rendered a vulnerable population homeless and without a source of income. What has happened to the possibility of reconciling development with human rights?

Dagna Rams
7 August 2015
Old Fadama, Accra. SDI:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Old Fadama, Accra. Flickr/SDI. Some rights reserved.20 June 2015, Accra. At 4:30 in the morning, in the midst of heavy rain, the police and military descended on Old Fadama – one of the biggest slums in Ghana – and began a forced eviction along the nearby Odaw River. There was no prior notice as to what parts of the slum, housing 90,000 to 100,000 squatters, would be affected. Since then, the mayor of Accra Alfred Vanderpujie has stated with puzzling honesty that the eviction area was determined during the middle of the eviction. Some 10,000 residents were caught by surprise. No sufficient time was reserved for them to pack their belongings, let alone find alternative accommodation.

Worse still, almost no national or international organisations have been speaking out against the eviction or gathering testimonials of abuses. But once in the slum these circulate in abundance. I talked to children, who report being choked by teargas. Some dwellers have rubber bullets as evidence of being shot at. Finally, others say they were beaten up by the police when rushing to gather belongings from their homes.

This was by no means a singular event. In the last month, three more communities have been evicted. All in all, a bleak month in the lives of the urban poor in Accra that culminated with the president of Ghana John Mahama ordering a nationwide demolition of illegal structures. The mayor of Accra, in turn, said that the partial eviction of Old Fadama, which he prefers to call ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, was the “greatest decision since Independence”.

Polluted Korle lagoon, Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana. SDI:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Polluted Korle lagoon, Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana. Flickr/SDI. Some rights reserved.The slum became settled during the mid-1990s, when an MP requested land from the mayor of Accra at the time, for the refugees of ethnic conflicts in the north. The mayor volunteered the banks of the Korle Lagoon, which at that point served as an urban land-fill. The idea was that the people would stay in Accra until the situation at home improved, but this has not happened. Until now, the municipality has been following the policy of exclusion, denying the community basic services such as water, electricity or waste disposal in order to prevent people from settling in the area. Such thinking, however, did not take into account the fact that the slum in Accra still offered more opportunities for under-educated young men and women than other places in Ghana. 

The evictions are the government’s response to a recent flooding in Accra, now referred to as the 3 June disaster, one that took the lives of some 157 residents. With only two weeks between the flooding and the first eviction, the government decided on the course that has now rendered many people homeless and without source of income. All the evicted areas are located next to Accra’s rivers. The authorities have blamed the urban poor in the slums for polluting the rivers and unlawfully taking land that is necessary for dredging. 

Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana. SDI:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Old Fadama, Accra, Ghana. Flickr/SDI. Some rights reserved.The squatter settlements are perfect distractions from the failures of urban management. The media and politicians fuel their bad image with exaggerated stories of crime and prostitution. They exist as black holes in the public imagination and constitute a convenient villain. Almost no one reminds the mayor that there was already a limited eviction of Old Fadama in 2012 that was meant to pave the way for a dredging exercise, but the dredging machines never arrived. Last year, in September 2014, the Mayor evicted the community of Mensah Guinea, giving the residents what now seems a humanitarian notice of two days, under the pretext that the community of some 4,000 dwellers was responsible for the cholera outbreak in the city. With Mensah Guinea now gone, Accra continues to record cases of the disease. 

What some of my informants in the slum find upsetting is that the government is using resources to destroy resources. Many of the dwellers carve out for themselves social networks and niches in informal and semi-formal economies that allow them to support themselves and their families in other parts of Ghana. The decision of the authorities is a blow to these individual achievements. A sense of injustice is further solidified as the machines that are seen to be finally dredging the river, some three years later, all carry the emblem of Engineers and Planners Company Ltd., the company of the wealthiest man in Ghana, Ibrahim Mahama, who happens to be the President’s brother. .

Debris after houses were demolished in Old Fadama. SDI:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Debris after houses were demolished in Old Fadama. Flickr/SDI. Some rights reserved.Rushed solutions are preferred to long-term thinking. Just after the eviction of Old Fadama, the government organised buses to take some of the affected people, mostly migrants from the north, back to their places of origin. Some 20 to 30 buses transported around 1500 people out of Accra. Now, a lot of the people are trickling back to Accra, this time with less resources. 

The government’s often repeated mantra with regards to squatter settlements is that 'these people should not be here'. But no suggestion is given as to where else they should be. Many of them are migrants from the poorer parts of Ghana, where unemployment is high. And they arrive in Accra to an unwelcoming housing market, with no social housing directed at those without employment in the public sector. 

Sewage river Old Fadama. Gwyneth Dunsford:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Sewage river Old Fadama. Flickr/Gwyneth Dunsford. Some rights reserved.Landlords in Accra charge between one and two years of rent in advance. This is a hurdle over which many cannot jump: the money in the informal sector comes in small chunks and circulates with great speed (slum toilets, baths, water, schools, and housing all require daily expenditures). Moreover, the only central parts of Accra that are currently not congested are the elite districts of Airport Residential, Cantonments and Labone. But no one in the position of privilege likes to admit that to build a sustainable city not only the poor, but also the rich have to make sacrifices, when it comes to the land. 

Still, it is all too easy to only blame mayor of Accra for what is happening. The office does not come with a public mandate. The mayor is appointed by the president, and has to straddle a political post where funding is scarce and comes with delays. In the wake of events such as the flooding, the mayor is under the pressure to take steps that will be politically visible and gain popularity for the government. Slowly covering the now gaping drains in Accra, where one sees heaps of rubbish flowing in the direction of rivers, is less spectacular and requires more steady funding than a single eviction.

This is not to argue that there should be no evictions. Sometimes evictions are necessary to pave the way for development, but one doubts whether a decision taken within two weeks that renders a vulnerable population homeless and without a source of income holds any good prospects for development. If anything, there is not enough discussion in the media and among politicians and non-governmental organisations that reflects on what is best in the long-term, and how to reconcile development with human rights. 

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