Holding a City Ransom

Abu Smith overlooks the valley at Agyemankata near Accra, Ghana, where a World Bank-funded landfill project is threatening his home.

Daniel Addo Adjare says the community will resist any attempts to build a landfill site at Agyemankata.

The villagers don’t want to talk to Ghanaian journalists. “Africans, Ghanaians, no!” said Abu Smith, shaking his head in disgust and setting off again across the side of a long, lush valley.

“They don’t care, they don’t do anything,” I hear him saying, the words drifting back as he races down the road that leads to his school as if he had springs in his skinny ankles that stick out from his too-short trousers.

“I knew you were a white lady, that’s why I said you could come.”

Smith is angry. He’s not happy I showed up at the wrong junction at the wrong time in Kwabenya, a community on the northern edge of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. He’s not happy I showed up with a Ghanaian colleague, who—evidently with good reason—had insisted I call to set up this meeting with the village firebrand.

But most of all, he is angry the government wants to build a garbage dump on his house.

The proposed landfill site at Agyemankata, a suburb of Kwabenya, has been in the works since the late 1980s. Its gestation period has grown ever-longer as the project hit snag after snag, with technical issues, funding issues, and a long war of attrition between the local community and the government.

The site covers 365 acres in a valley surrounded by green hills that roll out from the city, echoing with the ringing of hammers in the quarries that dot the area, where the stone crackers crack stones under the watchful eyes of foremen who sleep under thatch lean-tos. Stone-cracking is about the only job to be had in Agyemankata.

The hillsides echo, too, with the sound of drills and saws and cement mixers, and bricks sit piled by roadsides across the valley.

People are building houses.

The government took over the land in January 2007, using its powers of “executive instrument” that allow property to be seized for public interest. It was about that same time that the project sponsor, the World Bank, ordered Ghana to get things underway or risk losing the millions offered up for the landfill.

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) says 89 landowners filed claims for compensation in 2007 during the window of time applications were being accepted, as per the law.

Community activists, however, argue that many residents didn’t know their land was being seized and never filed for compensation. Even those who saw the scattered signs posted around the valley and in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest daily, couldn’t necessarily read them.

Anyone who missed that window of opportunity in 2007 is out of luck, according to the AMA.

AMA program officer Daniel Aidoo, who oversees the Kwabenya project, says there were no structures in the valley when the government took over the land. There may have been several that lacked building permits, he relents, and for those, the owners would be compensated. Three years later, no one has received any compensation.

And yet, in 2007, buildings across the valley were slapped with red paint ordering the occupants to remove the structures within 10 days, signed off by the National Security Authority. Most residents wouldn’t—or, without compensation money, couldn’t—leave.

The fierce agitation from the community over the years has resulted in violence numerous times. Most government departments won’t go there anymore, out of fear.

But regardless, Aidoo says the project is going ahead.

“Landfill has to be done,” says Aidoo. “The AMA is of the view that a few people cannot hold to ransom the entire city… It’s about the public interest.”

Currently, the garbage from more than three million people in Accra is dumped at various sites on the edges of the city, forming fields of waste that stretch out for kilometres.

If the community resists when the time comes to start work on the landfill, Aidoo says flatly, “State security will handle it.”

Meanwhile in Kwabenya, more people keep moving in, building grand homes with vaulted ceilings and wraparound balconies overlooking the valley. And many, like Smith, say they’ll never move.

Daniel Addo Adjare is a 65-year-old retired aircraft engineer who supports a family of 15 in two buildings on a hillside overlooking the proposed landfill. He says he saved for a decade to buy his land here.

“You can’t take it from me, I’ve paid for it,” says Adjare. “I used all my money, I bought this land. I can’t go anywhere.”

A military man for decades, Adjare prefers to stand in the shade under a tree in his yard where a long row of white underwear sways on a clothesline.

If they come, the community will resist, he says, as several elderly men around him nod in agreement.

“There will be trouble, a lot of trouble, because we will have to resist it.”

Smith, a banker turned pineapple farmer who now runs a school for about 200 students in Agyemankata, emerges from his house carrying a stack of papers that he has to peer around to see where he’s walking. It is every piece of correspondence between the community and local government, national government and international governing bodies.

There are newspaper clippings, too, but Smith says he’s given up on all of them—the politicians, the bureaucrats, the journalists. None of them really care, he says.

But he gets a spark of delight in his eye when he tells stories of the villagers going through the valley at night, removing all the pilings and surveyors’ lines put in place during the day. He’s taken trips to the police station a handful of times over the years, suspected of mischief and troublemaking.

“Look, look, would you put garbage there?” he asks, gesturing across the valley. “It’s just like they are coming to put an atomic bomb here, bang! Does the government want civil war?”

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