Who really governs urban Ghana?

As in many African cities, slums are difficult to avoid in Accra, given that they mostly occupy prime land close to the central business district, writes Angela Cobbinah. Like ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, the nickname of one of the oldest informal settlements, Old Fadama, they are often dismissed as dens of iniquity and frequently threatened with government demolition. However, as home to hundreds of thousands of people who play an increasing role in the informal economy, they wield considerable political clout, which politicians ignore at their peril.

This is the thrust of a paper by Mohammed Awal and Jeffrey W Paller recently delivered at the Africa Research Institute in London. Titled Who Really Governs Urban Ghana? it points out that 5.5 million people, or 39 per cent of the country’s population, live in slums, an astonishing figure that goes some way to explaining why slums today play an increasing role in Ghanaian politics. ‘Yet the way that urban neighbourhoods are really governed, how ‘hidden informal’ informal networks interact with formal politics, and how citizens hold their leaders to account are too often overlooked,’ say Awal and Paller.

View of central Accra
View of central Accra

Ghana is often hailed as a model of multi-party democracy in Africa, yet limited civic engagement, weak formal institutions and corruption within the ruling elites have encouraged the pursuit of short term strategies to win elections at the expense of those seeking to mitigate pervasive inequality in the long term: ‘Slums are the products of failed policies, bad governance, corruption, inappropriate regulations, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems and a fundamental lack of political will,’ the authors continue. ‘Each of these failures adds to the toll on people already deeply burdened by poverty and constrains the enormous potential for human development that urban life offers.’ For example, in Accra neither the state nor private developers have historically been able to meet housing need, while in Ghana as a whole up to 90 per cent of homes are built outside of local authority control.

During the colonial era through to independence and beyond, Accra’s city planners ignored the emergence of slums and left them unregulated. But contrary to popular perceptions, they are not necessarily havens for criminals and vagrants cut off from the state. Awal, of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development, and Paller, a research fellow at Columbia University, quote a 2013 survey of 16 Accra slum communities that found that the majority of respondents – 94 per cent – had voter identification cards, almost a quarter – 24 per cent – owned a passport – and just shy of half – 48 per cent – possessed a bank account.

So it is no surprise that slum dwellers are a well organised force that has already exerted considerable pressure on the government to provide infrastructure and public services, in particular housing and security of tenure: ‘Citizens interact and engage with elected officials, but not always in conventional ways. Slum politics is messy, complex and misunderstood.’

The authorities may refuse to accept the legality of slum settlements as a matter of course, but the political class cannot ignore them: ‘Informal networks pervade formal political institutions and shape political strategy.’ Awal and Paller cite the case of Edwin Nii Lante Vanderpuye and his contentious campaign to become MP for a constituency that included Ga Mashie and Old Fadama slums on behalf of the National Democratic Congress in the 2012 general election. Knowing that victory depended on the support of well-cultivated personal networks, Vanderpuye handed out rice, clothes and other small gifts at rallies. He paved the alleyway in front of his family home and claimed that he would do the same for the entire community if he was voted in. He managed to win with 63 per cent of the vote, mirroring hard fought battles in other parts of Accra comprising sizeable numbers of slum dwellers, including Avenor, Abuja, Alajo and Kotobabi.

‘Politicians in urban constituencies make strategic calculations to gain the support of slum dwellers… They visit slums to show solidarity with victims of fires and floods, distribute food and clothing to vulnerable populations attending outdoorings, funerals and weddings of local leaders, and pray with pastors and imams at local churches and mosques.’ To drive home their point, the authors reiterate how everyday interactions are a crucial but misunderstood component of how accountability is generated between leaders and citizens in the absence of formal mechanics: ‘Accountability is much more than just voting leaders out of office.’

They add: ‘Slum neighbourhoods… are increasingly important providers of opportunity for many different types of people and organisations. Complex, shifting interactions enable citizens, community leaders, municipal workers alike to demand their “democratic dividend”.’

Awal and Paller consider the widely-held notion that Ghana’s cities are in crisis due to rapid urbanisation and the spread of slums to be both ‘simplistic and over-dramatic’. Urban neighbourhoods may be under-resourced and dominated by informal economic and political activities but they also offer significant scope for change, they insist. The trick is to incorporate the grassroots in achieving sustainable and inclusive urban development.

Who Really Governs Urban Ghana? by Mohammed Awal and Jeffrey Paller is published by the Africa Research Institute as part of its Counterpoints series

Main pic: A section of the Ga Mashie settlement in the Jamestown area of Accra. Photo by Angela Cobbinah

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