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Opinions of Monday, 27 March 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Million Dollar Properties Fronted By Kelewele & Chacoal Stands


I was riding with my host in Ghana when we cruised past a remarkably big and pricey house, I reckoned. The house in question is in the Kaneshie/Dansoman suburban area. As I continued to zero in on the house, I noticed a few things that triggered all kinds of questions in my racing and restive mind. First, I asked to myself, how much will this house fetch in the USA? It could easily cost half a million in Montgomery County where I live in Maryland, I said. The same house in Harlem may cost a little less or more but will still command some serious dough. Then, I asked myself, why will the owner allow anyone to sell charcoal, kelewele, cigarettes, cola, hacks and palm oil in front of such a nice house? Does the owner have a say if the charcoal peddler happens to be his niece, nephew or even a good tenant?

Of course, also present was a kiosk tucked right in the corner of the adjoining walls that clothe the house. Obviously, these kinds of commercial cum residential mixed use arrangements are prevalent in Ghana and they shriek loudly to the balancing acts of survival. In a country where one or one?s income does not cut it, no opportunities are missed to rake in a few untaxed cedis. Not even if it denigrates the neighborhood. Now, more than ever, in the midst of untold economic hardships, these multiple use arrangements seem to be here to stay. Perhaps, by Ghanaian standards there is nothing remarkably wrong with these kinds of multiple mixed use of property, especially given the convenience that it brings. If you are lucky you may even get fufu and Guinness next door. Heck, you can jump over the wall and purchase a few sticks of cigarettes and a glob of cola (bisi) in the middle of the night. Can you top that? Maybe a 7-11 can do the same over here! Saayooo! Saaayooo!! Here is the rub though, if we want to do this stock market and wealth-building thing, this multiple mixed use issue must tingle our scalp because it goes to the heart of property value and maintenance. Some areas in Accra and elsewhere are beginning to address these issues. Overall though, the onerous challenge remains potent, if not ominous.

So, with all sorts of thoughts coursing through my agitated mind, at least the little of what is left of it, I started firing a staccato of questions beelined to my host. This time around, I had the right person next to me. Yes, I happen to be riding with someone who is an architect and a planner with a lot of experience in Ghana. So here is what I said, why do we tolerate such activities in Ghana? I can?t put this kind of ramshackle kiosk in my neighborhood in Maryland. I can?t even paint my house what color I want without the approval of our homeowners association. The management of our residential area conducts visual inspections unrepentantly, and will issue citations for the least infractions. If you fail to comply, the rules will be enforced swiftly. He fired back chortling, and rhetorically asked this, who will enforce the law? I said, ?What law?? Is there really a law that prohibits the selling of charcoal or hot spicy kelewele in front of a fine house? What about the dingy kiosk that sits stoically over there, I continued? AMA, he said, can barely survive, let alone lurch into such politically explosive situations. So I said, is it politically wrong to tear down all these illegal kiosks that dummy and dwarf property values? What about the eyesore and disease that it provokes? He said, well, there is an economic and social dimension to this problem. Take your pick son! I said, but you are a planner, why must you defend this aberration. He said, I am not defending it; instead, I am painfully explaining it to you. The social side, it turns out, was too grim, so I respectfully asked that we go the rational economic route.

Almost every neighborhood you go to in Ghana has stores/dingy kiosks and all kinds of contraptions attached to expensive and non-expensive houses alike. Some even raise poultry in residential areas! Hopefully, the bird flu never makes it to Ghana!! To accentuate and fatten the point that my host was cleverly trying to make, he drew my attention to the top story of the week at that time. Inexorably, this was the same week that the squatters at the notoriously filthy kantamanto market refused to hurry off government property. This is property that they?ve illegally hijacked and continue to use without any fees. Instead of vacating as demanded, the squatting traders donned fighting clothes, polished their marching tools, greased their throats and marched through the streets of Accra amidst war songs and ridiculously tall demands that were cleverly etched on ill-made placards. My host also alerted me about a place called Sodom and Gomorrah. That place, I later visited, is a fine representation of lawlessness and nauseating filth in our country. To see people literally live like pigs can only provoke a bout of sympathy for the lawlessness that they represent.

Consistent with some Ghanaian attitudes, the squatters at Kantamanto wanted the government to back off until it has found a convenient place for them to relocate. So, my host reminded me about the march and how it speaks volumes about the Ghanaian mentality. From leadership to the average Joe Blow, Ghana is inextricably trapped in a chokehold of indiscipline, corruption and lack of long term planning. We have built ad hoc communities without any sewer systems. How did Dansoman, a suburb of the capital city, mushroom without a sewer system? Is it true that Busia endured insults in his attempt to provide a sewer system in Dansoman and Accra in general? Is it not true that people still carry night soil on their heads for pay because we don?t have sewer systems? Is it not true that some buildings do not meet design or structural codes all over Ghana? Some houses are painted others are not? Some of our residential communities lack serious curb appeal? Crucify me if I am making this up!!

Maintenance is a word that refuses to stay in our vocabulary. All of these mindless and haphazard building occurred at a time when our police force was not on vacation en masse, military dictators promised discipline, building inspectors showed up for work in well starched uniforms and our planners drew full salaries with end of year benefits to boot. Haba! Ghana, with all its challenges, still has a honey sweet side to it that only the scofflaws know best. Often, poor poverty is blamed for such indiscipline and wanton mismanagement. Some even inveigh that we don?t have food to eat so why worry about buildings and their like. Yet, I am one who believes sternly that poverty is a rather poor excuse for being undisciplined. Why not do the right thing the first time if you are poor? Indeed, poverty and scarcity, if you may, are reasons why we should strive to do things right the first time and stay disciplined because we don?t have the luxury of getting it right the umpteenth time. We are not spoiled for choice and we have to keep that rudely in mind. Am I making pure unadulterated sense?

As it stands, we don?t have a viable property registration, maintenance and transfer system. There are folks sitting on serious properties with immense value but cannot take full advantage of it. Frankly speaking, how many people in Ghana as we parley, can use their property as collateral for a bank loan? Some may even not have any legal titles on properties that they legally own. Yeah, I know all too well how our oral tradition cravings impede our knack to develop full-blown taste for recording important things. Even when outsiders see the need and provide loans to help us computerize, the funds evaporate like powder puff only to settle in Swiss banks. We are in the 21st century and we still cannot seem to understand the importance of having a strident property registration and maintenance system to help shore up value. How did we get into this ditch and when are we going to pull ourselves out of it? Are we menacingly oblivious to the fact that these initiatives will create jobs?

It appears to me that, we have evolved slowly and steadily in a stream of lawlessness, ably nourished by a blatant lack of law enforcement. So here we are, stuck with lily livered leaders who cannot break with the neo-colonial status quo and usher in the long overdue civil revolution that we need. Why can?t a few leaders attempt to do what is right even if it cost them their political careers? Where is that spirit of doing right even if it means your life? Are we so spineless? These so called successful countries that we tirelessly beg from have sacrificed so many politicians along the way and it is time that we nourish the tree of wealth building with the careers of a few well-meaning politicians who must stand up and do the right thing. This attempt at being politically correct or popular all the time is just not going to cut it at this stage. These are not normal times and to act as if it is, amounts to deception. Where are the selfless leaders? We have to tell the people the truth and move on to do things that might not be popular but right.

I have a funny feeling that to get at this property registration and maintenance challenge, we have to reach back to Land reform. The solution to our problem lies in land reform. Land reform need not be the complex everlasting charade that we continue to witness. It has taken so long that even our slow to act president is complaining. Wow! My approach to land reform is totally different from what we see unfolding in Ghana. Maybe in the end, something novel or seminal may sprout out of the dog and pony show that we witness but I am not holding my breath and my patience has just emptied out. I am not sure if our craven leaders really want to do the heavy lifting that comes with fundamental land reform. Personally, I will like to see us proceed in a much different trudge. The question is whether our leaders will lead and not follow blindly. Below are some ideas for kind and as always, careful consideration.

Working in a non-partisan stride, parliament must craft legislation that will require that every individual, organization, group or tribe that owns land within the borders of Ghana must legally register their property within 3-5years. Those that are already registered must be reaffirmed. All of these registrations and reaffirmations must be done electronically. To make these possible, specially trained land dispute mediators must be made available to help those who want to knock out their land disputes outside our constipated courts so as to be able to register their properties legally. A special land appeal courts should be set up throughout the country to hear final appeals on any disagreements or decision that may come out of mediation and the lower courts. Short of purging the lands department, a special unit with close supervision and oversight by parliament, should be charged with making sure that all the new and affirmation of old land registrations are done without any hassles. Those that want to go to the Supreme Court are free to do so but they must bear in mind that after five years, all unregistered lands will be legally returned to the government. I think this is the fairest way to land reform without all the rigmarole about land banks and the chieftaincy games that comes with it. With this design, no one is denied ownership but owners will be required to conform to land use laws that will be planted on the books. If you are worried about funding for this initiative stop the presidential mansion and use the money for this. This is more worthwhile than the mansion.

I personally think that messing around with land ownership may just amount to a casual walk in a field of landmines. We must not be tricked into miring ourselves into intractable conflicts that could harm our nation. Let the owners keep their land but get at them through land use that reflect the collective will of the people. Owners of large tracts of land for example, perhaps 50 acres and above, must be required to inform local authorities of current use and availability. The local authorities will then have the duty of journaling this information for public consumptions. One should be able to know, based on what land needs they have, where available land lie if they need any. If a project is of national interest, the government can impose its weight on land acquisition. The government should be able to use eminent domain to acquire land for public use if need be. Even private initiatives that have national benefits can and must benefit from eminent domain. Surely, legitimate owners must be compensated at fair market value or negotiated rates which ever is higher.

While this process of land registration is going on, we have to charge a group of technical experts in the field of land use and planning, aided by competent lawyers, to come up with a comprehensive land use master plan. What this master plan will do is to make sure that all lands in Ghana, regardless of who owns them are properly zoned with an address system to boot. I am not aware of any zoning laws on the books in Ghana when it comes to land use. Even if there are any, I doubt if they are enforced. Zoning will categorize land use into residential, commercial, industrial, mixed use, parks, brown fields and any such zones that might be called for. The public processes that govern such zoning must be transparent and in the best interest of the local folks, as well as the country. What zoning does is to hold in place, stringent laws that govern land use within a zone. With zoning comes a board that governs the zone. These boards will primarily include those who live, work and play in the zone, plus government officials charged with overseeing the zone. All zones will be visibly marked. Additionally, civic associations and interest group will be strongly encouraged within these zones. The idea here is that we must empower citizens to take control of their surroundings. The interest that we seek to shamelessly arouse will peak if people have valued property that could be their meal ticket to other economic activities.

Zoning also forces those that use land within that zone to either comply with the zone laws or face the music. So for example, if an area is zoned for residential property, there is no way that anyone can or ought to be allowed to attach kiosks, make shift structures, charcoal tables, Kelewele stands, barber shops and unauthorized appendages that devalue property within the locality. To meet consumer needs within a zone, we can set up well-placed mini malls or markets. This also allows us to conveniently collect local and national taxes with ease from the all too elusive retailer. Additionally, no one can build a noisy factory or church in the middle of a residential zone. It will be visibly obvious and totally unacceptable. Zoning laws will also make it difficult for either developers or individuals to start buildings without approved plans that meet the requirements of the zone. Building permits will reflect all existing considerations plus zoning laws as well. Even if AMA for example, refuse to do its job, the zoning board, which will be part of the approval process for building, can step in to deny a building permit. Residential areas without sewer, water, waste management systems, parking policies and electricity will not go forward. These basic utilities will be well planned for before any groundbreaking takes place. This way, remittances from the diasporan will not be targeted for fleecing by way of taxes to provide amenities for development. Another consideration will be a special land levy earmarked for providing amenities. Anytime you buy land, to legally register it, you pay this levy. Zones also helps regulate parking and shape transit policies in urban areas.

Zoning is the last refuge for those who want to see disciplined planning. We only kid ourselves if we think we can continue to sanely develop with the level of recklessness that we see. If we can?t manage the current mess, who is to say, we can manage the mess that we tack on? I mean to drive through a place like Abeka Lapaz is to visit with frustration and pure unadulterated hell. Human beings twist and turn precariously between cars while drivers nervously navigate their ways through the indifferent crowd. For how long can we continue to perilously thrive this way? One of these days, a car may just lose its break(s) and I just don?t want to picture what will happen. If you add the racecar mentality of some of these drivers, it becomes a matter of when not if or how. The sad part of this is that we can minimize this risk if we care enough. Call your parliamentarian and give him or her an earful if that is what it takes. We are either going to apply this tourniquet now or continue the mindlessness. Call the radio stations! Call the president if that is what it takes! We have to get on these timid politicians to do the work for which they are very well paid.

One of the benefits of a zoning board and hopefully having civic associations with strong interest in the community is that, citizen awareness may help where law enforcement fails. This does not mean that we should give up on law enforcement or let them off the hook. However, If and when people begin to see the equity in their properties work for them, they just might find creative ways to deal with the scofflaws that spoil it for all of us. It is also a fact that if and when people have interest, especially a pecuniary one, they may just pay attention. Perhaps, the more important lesson here will be the understanding of how properties gain value due to proper planning, maintenance, discipline and a respect for the law. I don?t remember the last time I heard any politician or leader explaining to our folks, how they can uplift their own communities if they become active, obey the laws and plan properly. I am convinced that every Ghanaians will preferably like to live in a decent neighborhood that has properties with billowing values. The fact is that these neighborhoods don?t happen without planning and discipline. They don?t happen without deliberate efforts from the citizens.

Another added benefit of land registration and zoning is that, this might just help put the building blocks of a credit system in place. The latter is possible if you look at it from the point of view that with zoning comes addressing. If a simple requirement for a zone mandates that an address is needed before a house goes up, then that is what AMA, the zoning board, civic associations and other interest groups will demand. If one has a fixed address, a job, and material equity but still cannot access credit, then something is gravely wrong. Ironically, that is the situation for some and we must move to change it immediately. We will not Viagra the private sector if we can?t put in place a robust credit system. Without these basic structures no amount of economic take off promises and announcement will change anything. We must move to activate what De Soto calls dead capital. We must bring some discipline to our slow development process. Traffic snarls at Kasiwa, HPIC junction, Abeka Lapaz, Kaneshie and other places are all crystal clear examples of what we stand to face if we don?t swear by planning and become evangelist for the use of property as a cornerstone to our development.

Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman
Organizational Development Specialist/Consultant

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.