In January 2013, Accra’s mayor, Alfred Vanderpuije, publicly renewed his resolve to clear Ghana’s largest slum, Old Fadama, in order to make way for a $600 million project to revitalise the city’s Korle-Gonno Lagoon.
Firmly fixed in the cross-hairs of Accra’s leading politicians for a decade, Old Fadama, popularly known as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” is regularly denounced as an obstacle in Accra’s journey towards modernity and development.
While there is no lack of incendiary rhetoric about the menace of Old Fadama, this bluster serves as a substitute for a much-needed public discussion about the logistics of “clearing” the slum – namely how to resettle the 80,000 Ghanaian citizens who have come to live atop a trash heap.
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Since independence, there have been myriad of resettlement initiatives in Ghana, many of which have had mixed results for the displaced communities. These earlier resettlements offer critical insights when considering the problems of Old Fadama.
One important example is the Kwame Nkrumah government’s resettlement of the communities located in the flood plains created by the Volta River Hydroelectric Project in the 1960s. Even today, the famous Akosombo Dam created in this initiative is still the major source of Ghana’s electricity.
Unfortunately, as recently as the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), some of the individuals displaced by the Volta River Project described their displacement and resettlement as a devastating act of state injustice.
Despite the Nkrumah government’s rhetorical determination to use resettlement as an opportunity to raise the standard of living for these rural communities, the government’s vision of progress did not always align with that of the affected communities. The early 21st century reconciliation process (NRC) served as a forum for Ghanaians to report on the state initiatives and events that undermined their human rights; some of the petitioners, forty years after the fact, focused on the experience of resettlement.
The new housing was ill-suited to the climate and shoddily made, they reported. In the desire to introduce mechanised cash crop agriculture, the government chose resettlement sites unable to support the traditional growing patterns of the communities, and the displaced communities found themselves battling poverty. Their sites were far away from clean water and distant from healthcare facilities and necessary infrastructure, they claimed.
These citizen complaints describe a resettlement that faltered partially because the Ghanaian government perceived the displaced as “rural villagers” to be moulded and improved, instead of equal partners with opinions and preferences that must be taken into account.
There is a clear lesson for Old Fadama. “Fixing” the problems of the slum begins with seeing and knowing its residents, the scores of human beings densely packed on the banks of the flood-prone Korle-Gonnor.
Survey initiatives by organisations, including the Ghana Federation for the Urban Poor (GhaFUP) and Shackdwellers International, describe Old Fadama as a site where waves of economic migrants from throughout Ghana, the majority of them youth, settle as they seek to make a living unavailable to them in their home towns and villages. Although many of Accra residents have never set foot in Old Fadama, this community is part of the fabric of the city. Old Fadama’s residents are the traders, load carriers, and human power that help make Accra’s Agbogbloshie market function.
The popular nickname of “Sodom and Gomorrah” obscures the humanity of the slum’s residents. The shadow of sinful Biblical cities fit only to be destroyed, looms over the public discussion about the community’s future. In reality, the only abomination residing in the slum is poverty.
Plagued by fire and flood, the inhabitants lack formal education, are occupied with sending money back to their home communities, and exist without adequate health care, sanitation, or basic resources. A nickname suggesting that the slum is the abode of wickedness rather than of human beings obstructs initiatives to view the slum dwellers as citizens of Accra, let alone partners in development.
The other clear warning offered by the history of the Volta River Project resettlement is that without addressing poverty, resettlement is bound to be experienced as a failure. In the NRC, resettled communities pointed to their lack of electricity, inadequate access to health care, and inability to pay school fees as the clearest evidence that the state’s resettlement had not been successful. Although these conditions can still be found in many places throughout Ghana, the state’s intervention raised citizen’s expectations.
Again, the lesson for Old Fadama is that resettlement without poverty reduction is a recipe for disaster. Shuffling poor people around in the interest of aesthetics is not a solution to the problems of urban slums in Accra. Without concretely discussing how to expand affordable housing in the vicinity of Accra Central Market and creating a plan to deliver sanitation and infrastructure to all of Accra’s residents, the debate about “clearing” Old Fadama remains at the level of braggadocio and bulldozers.
With this, Ghana misses the opportunity to claim an expanded vision of national development; a vision that emerges from the missteps of the past and counts the lives and voices of urban slum dwellers and rural villagers as critical parts of the effort to build a better country.
Article by Abena Ampofoa Asare