On a hot afternoon in Accra, a group of road workers drive tractors, stirring up red earth that settles on the windscreens of passing cars and trucks on the other side of the George W. Bush motorway. The six-lane highway, named after the former US president who granted Ghana $547 million for infrastructure improvements, will be completed early next year, decongesting the choked routes between Accra and its surrounding suburbs.
Two half-built interchanges frame moving cars and the only sound is the hum and grind of motors and machinery. The street hawkers and vendors who used to sell goods on this stretch were moved on by the city, and have settled further down the road.
For many Ghanaians the motorway, like Accra’s numerous gated housing communities, luxurious apartment compounds and new shopping mall, are symbols of their nation’s increasing prosperity, especially since oil was discovered off its shores in 2007. But for community organisers and human rights activists, the city’s rapid urban development is coming at a great cost to the urban poor.
While the construction of the motorway caused some uproar among street vendors, a $6 billion plan to rehabilitate and expand the nation’s railway system is proving to be one of Ghana’s most controversial infrastructure projects. The first phase of the project will see the rehabilitation of out-of-use railway lines between Accra and the city of Kumasi, and through the Western region that is home to many of the nation’s mining towns. It was planned to commence earlier this year, however the Ghana Railway Development Authority is still waiting for $3 billion in financing from the Chinese government and the China Eximbank.
But groups such as Amnesty International Ghana and People’s Dialogue on Human Settlement have hit out at the city government and the Ghana Railway Development Authority who have threatened to forcibly remove tens of thousands of slum dwellers and vendors who live and work along the railway lines.
“If the government went and took out a loan from China for the railways, they should have conducted a social impact assessment,” says Braimah R. Farouk , the head of People’s Dialogue on Human Settlement, an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International. “You need to look at the social costs off the projects, not simply the physical infrastructure itself,” he adds.
At the old dilapidated Kantamanto railway station, near the city’s centre, women and children sleep on straw mats surrounded by puddles of water made by the previous night’s heavy rains.
After stepping around sleeping bodies I meet Peter Mends, a thin 48-year-old man who works for a security company and has slept at the station every night for the past three years. This was the third time Mends had been homeless in Accra, and while he earns a reasonable wage by Ghanaian standards, 150 Ghana cedis per month ($100), he cannot afford to put down an advance on a room or apartment, where it is common for landlords to demand one to two years rent up front. Due to rising rental prices in the city and an accommodation shortage, Mends says he has no other option but to live on the street.
Unlike many of those who surround him, Mends speaks perfect English, is well educated and once held a school teacher position in Nigeria before returning to Accra. But he insists he is not an anomaly and that there are many educated professionals in the same situation.
“It is horrible, especially during the rainy season, when it rains like last night,” says Mends. “We had to fold up our mats and when the rain subsided we had to mop up this area before we slept,” he says while pointing at the grubby patch of concrete. “This place is not fit for a human being to sleep, but we are here due to certain circumstances. We are here because of accommodation problems.”
A 37-year-old woman named Priscilla speaks in the Twi language, as Mends translates. She came from her village in the Central Region in search of employment in Accra 20 years ago and has lived at the railway ever since. She is unemployed, but her eldest son wipes car windshields for loose change. Priscilla says she could return back to her village if necessary, as did others, as if it were a matter of pride. But from their straw mats, ragged clothes and the buckets of wilted food for sale, it is hard to imagine what could be keeping them here.
Like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana’s urban centres are growing rapidly. According to the United Nations Human Settlement Program, UN Habitat, Sub-Saharan Africa is urbanising faster than any other region, and will have become predominantly urban by 2030.
While Ghana has not yet released the results of its 2010 census, during the 15-year period of 1985 to 2000 the Ghana Statistical Service reported a near 12% increase in the urban population, bringing the total up to 43.8%. With increasing migrations to the cities, many organisations working with the urban poor across the continent have reported growth in slum populations. They anticipate increasing conflicts between the homeless and urban poor.
Across the other side of the rusty tracks, behind the concrete walls that have been marked in red for demolition, was the Kantamanto market, one of the largest secondhand markets in West Africa. Unlike the railway dwellers whom have no legal claim over the land, the market vendors and the Kantamanto Traders Association has a 50-year lease with the Ghana Railway Company, now the Railway Development Authority that was signed in December 2008; however, the lease can be terminated by either party with six months notice.
Samuel Amoah, head of the traders' association, organised a press conference earlier this year when Mayor Alfred Vanderpuije had given the traders ten days to vacate the area, saying that he would come in unannounced with bulldozers and police if the traders did not leave, but he did not follow through. Vanderpuije says they had been given warning months earlier.
Amoah claims that over 30,000 traders operate in the market and that they would be happy to leave so long as they were given another location in which to sell their goods.
“We are not fighting them,” says Amoah. “We are not against modernisation, we are saying you must help us; you must consider us refugees and help us,” he adds, referring to the assistance the Ghanaian government had offered to Liberian refugees who fled during the civil war.
But Mayor Vanderpuije is of a different opinion and sees the problem as having a straightforward solution.
“Accra has over 40 markets and they are not full,” says Vanderpuije. “They can do business there.”
Vanderpuije has caused a stir in recent months when he cleared the pavements of Accra’s large ceremonial streets of hawkers.
The mayor is still waiting for cabinet approval for the contracts and financing for the railway project, but is confident they will be delivered soon.
Amnesty International Ghana has also criticised Vanderpuije and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly for threatening to forcefully evict the railway dwellers without relocating them, claiming that it would constitute a violation of human rights.
But the mayor had a different take.
“This is not a violation of human rights,” Vanderpuije says. “What about the rights of people who are doing things the right way? Human rights come with responsibilities and these people should stay in places where they can do legitimate work and the right things to allow for national development to take place.”
Vanderpuije envisions Accra becoming the new hub of West Africa, and speaks of building schools, hospitals and infrastructure that will attract foreign investment, such as the construction of more office spaces, a monorail to be funded by a company in Virginia, and a new Bus Rapid Transport System.
In Ghana, where land is most often state or customary land (owned by communities and administered by chiefs and traditional leaders), squatters who settle on land are almost always unable to make claims on land based on tenure, giving the state the legal force to evict the squatters.
Farouk argues that Ghana needs to move beyond its traditional understandings of land ownership to better accommodate the needs of marginalised groups such as slum dwellers.
While Vanderpuije attempts to create a modern city that will attract increasing tourism and investment, Braimah says he is already seeing signs that Accra’s slums are growing.
Former mayor of Accra and lecturer in architecture at New York University-Ghana, Nat Nunoo Amartefio says that gated communities, high-rise buildings and shopping malls are the city’s future, but that outside these gated communities urban slums will continue to grow.
“I don’t know what the city will look like in ten years time,” says Amartefio. “But I fear the worst is yet to come.”