Informal settlements

Land speculation of a different order

Most of the land in Ghana, including urban land, is owned by tribal Chiefs under the traditional system. It means that while Ghana has a formal land-use planning and land administration system – instituted under the British and continued under independence as part of the democratic state of Ghana – this is largely meaningless when all of the power in land use and land exchange rests with Chiefs.

Land development takes place, then, in a very unique way in Ghanaian cities, particularly Accra and its peri-urban fringe such as in Kasao. To purchase and build on a piece of land, a purchaser must go and visit the Chief. Money is exchanged and the contract is sealed by giving bottles of Schnapps to the Chief (Schnapps is used widely in Ghana as the seal of all manner of contracts, from marriage, to land deals).  No-one seems to drink it, but it is the formal way a deal is closed. Once the Schnapps has been accepted and money paid, the purchaser can then go and build on the land. Sometimes title is formally registered, sometimes not. In wealthy areas, the result is an ‘informal settlement’ of mansions.


But in areas where the pressure for urban growth is significant – and therefore the land values are high – this gives rise to a very particular form of land speculation: multiple sales. A Chief can grant ownership of a plot of land to a purchaser… but perhaps someone else will come along afterwards and offer more money. The Chief takes their money too (and their Schnapps) and allocates the same land to the second person. Meanwhile the first buyer is attempting to protect their property from encroachment by other purchasers, and to do this they hire ‘land guards’. These guys are basically thugs, employed by land-owners to do what it says on the tin – guard their land while they build. Once the building is complete, ownership of the land is secure, until then anything might happen. Land guards are also used to threaten planning officials. I spoke with one planner in the district of Kasao who talked about his two experiences of land guards visiting his home in the night, armed, and breaking in, threatening his life if he did not grant permission to a particular development. In early June in Accra there was a police shoot-out with land guards on a plot of land near the airport.

Chiefs are utterly vested in this land administration system as they hold ultimate and absolute power over both the exchange and use of land. They determine land allocations, sales and use. There is little regard for anything such as common uses – schools, parks, roads, infrastructure – as none of these are particularly profitable for the Chief. The Chiefs grow extremely wealthy off land profits and resist all attempts to regularize the system to at least prevent multiple sales of the same land.

Interestingly, under the military rule in Ghana between 1981 and 2000 of J.J. Rawlings, the military government expropriated some lands from Chiefs. Once democracy was restored in 2000, the Chiefs took the Government to court and the court generally found in favour of the Chiefs who had been wrongly expropriated of their lands, usually by force and without compensation. Most lands have been returned to the Chiefs.

This sheds some very interesting light on questions about property rights, ownership of land and vested interests in rapidly growing cities. This is a traditional system of land ownership that at least on the surface appears to be thoroughly corrupt, and unable to provide even the most basic of public services as none of these turn a profit. If land can be sold to the highest bidder, regardless if a hospital is about to be built there, or the road widened and paved, it will be sold and built on – precluding the hospital, or the school, or the road. Public officials are variously coerced or threatened into submission to the will of the Chief who is the ultimate power with regard to urban development.


Tema New Town

There is a place on the outskirts of Accra, in Ghana, they call ‘Tema New Town’.  Tema itself was planned and built in the 1950s-60s on Ebenezer Howard’s garden city principles. From the air, you can see the clear pattern of ‘garden city’ layout. Its planning and construction remains governed by the Tema Development Corporation (TDC) set up as a quasi-government organization. Tema has quite an industrial base and is the main port.

But Tema was built on the lands of the Ga people, who were displaced almost wholly overnight, to build the town. Displacement, as I discovered yesterday from some of Accra’s senior planning officials, does not occur through re-housing in Ghana. There is provision of some government-built housing in Accra, but it is never built to rehouse people in slums and often ends up housing middle-class people rather than providing low-income housing options. So, the displaced Ga people formed ‘Tema New Town’, a huge informal settlement on the eastern fringe of Tema, housing 20-25,000 people and more (the number changes daily, probably hourly). Most people are fishmongers and informal traders.


One of the main problems in Tema is the huge drain that runs into the sea just near the settlement. This is the main drain from Accra, carrying all of the polluted waste of Accra. It regularly floods because it is so silted up and full of rubbish. The flood lines are clear on the sides of buildings that exist next to the drain. There are people living right next to this enormous drain, having built their tiny shacks on its banks for lack of space anywhere else. Every flood washes their shacks away, only for them to return and rebuild once things have dried out. Cholera and other water-borne diseases take their toll – raw sewage is floating in the drain.


City officials of course refer to this as urban ‘illegality’ and it is not tolerated. But nor does it feature in any of the urban plans or policies for the city. There is a sense that for city officials especially, slums need to be cleared up and removed. Same for the informal street traders that line every street and intersection in Accra. All create ‘mess’ in a country that is trying to implement a British-style planning system to create order, legality and a regulated environment. But there is no system, nor much will it seems, to provide improved housing after the clearance of slums.


One response to “Informal settlements

  1. Pingback: Informal settlements | Housing Solidarity·

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