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Opinions of Saturday, 23 March 2013

Columnist: Asare, Abena Ampofoa

Facing Old Fadama

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By Abena Ampofoa Asare

In January 2013, Accra’s mayor, Alfred Vanderpuye, publicly renewed his
resolve to clear Ghana’s largest slum, Old Fadama, in order to make way for
a 600 million dollar project revitalizing the city’s Korle-Goonor
Lagoon.[1]

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.

Since independence, there have been myriad state 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 twenty-first 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 mechanized 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 health care 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 molded 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 organizations 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.[2]
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
expectations.

Again, the lesson for Old Fadama is that resettlement without poverty
reduction is a recipe for disaster. Shuffling poor people around in the
interests 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.