ON A HOT AFTERNOON along the George W Bush Motorway in Accra, tractors driven by a group of roadworkers stir up the soft red earth that settles on the windshields of passing cars and trucks across the way. The six-lane road, named after the former US president who granted Ghana $547 million for infrastructure improvements, is scheduled be completed early next year and promises to decongest the choked routes between Accra and its surrounding suburbs.
Two half-built interchanges frame cars moving along the road and the only sound is the hum and grind of motors and machinery; the street hawkers and vendors who used to sell goods on this stretch settled further down the road after the city asked them to leave.
For many Ghanaians, the motorway, like Accra’s numerous gated housing communities, luxurious apartment compounds and its new shopping mall, is a symbol of their nation’s newfound prosperity and development after oil was discovered off its shores in 2007. But for community organisers and human rights activists, the city’s rapid development is coming at a great cost to the urban poor.
While the construction of the motorway caused some uproar among street vendors, a $6 billion plan to rehabilitate and expand the nation’s railway system is proving to be one of Ghana’s most controversial infrastructure projects. The first phase will see the restoration of out-of-use railway lines between Accra and the city of Kumasi, and through the Western Region that is home to many of the nation’s mining towns. The construction was to commence earlier this year, but the Ghana Railway Development Authority (GRDA) is still waiting for $3 billion in financing from the Chinese government and the Export-Import Bank of China.
Groups such as Amnesty International Ghana and People’s Dialogue on Human Settlement (PDHS) have criticised the city government and the GRDA for threatening to forcibly remove tens of thousands of slumdwellers and vendors who live and work along the railway lines.
“If the government went and took out a loan from China for the railways, they should have conducted a social impact assessment,” says Farouk Braimah, the head of PDHS. “You need to look at the social costs off the projects, not simply the physical infrastructure itself.”
At the old, dilapidated Kantamanto railway station, near Accra’s centre, women and children sleep on straw mats surrounded by puddles of water made by the previous night’s heavy rains.
After stepping around sleeping bodies I meet Peter Mends, a thin 48-year-old man who works for a security company and has slept at the station every night for the past three years. This is the third time Mends has been homeless in Accra, and while he earns a reasonable wage by Ghanaian standards (150 Ghanaian cedis, roughly `4,400, per month) he cannot afford to put down an advance on a room or apartment—it is common for landlords to demand one to two years’ rent upfront. Due to rising rentals in the city and an accommodation shortage, Mends says he has no other option but to live on the street.
Unlike many of those who surround him, Mends speaks perfect English, is well-educated and once held a position as a schoolteacher in Nigeria before returning to Accra. But he insists he is not an anomaly and that there are many educated professionals in the same situation.
“It is horrible, especially during the rainy season, when it rains like last night,” says Mends. “We had to fold up our mats and when the rain subsided we had to mop up this area before we slept,” he recalls, pointing at the grubby patch of concrete. “This place is not fit for a human being to sleep, but we are here due to certain circumstances. We are here because of accommodation problems.”
A 37-year-old woman named Priscilla speaks in thick Twi as Mends translates. Twenty years ago she came from her village in the Central Region in search of employment in Accra and has lived along the rail tracks ever since. She is unemployed, but her eldest son wipes car windshields for loose change. Priscilla says she and her son could return to her village if necessary, as if it were a matter of pride. But from their straw mats, ragged clothes and the buckets of wilted food for sale, it is hard to imagine what could be keeping them here.
Like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana’s urban centres are growing rapidly. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, Sub-Saharan Africa is urbanising faster than any other region, and all but nine countries are expected to have more than 50 percent of their populations living in cities by the end of the current decade.
While Ghana has not yet released the results of its 2010 census, the Ghana Statistical Service reported a near-12 percent increase in the urban population during the six-year period from 1984 to 2000, bringing the total up to 43.8 percent. With an upsurge in migration to the cities, many organisations working with the urban poor in Africa have reported growth in slum populations and anticipate increasing conflicts between the homeless and the urban poor.
Across the other side of the rusty tracks, behind the concrete walls that have been marked in red for demolition, is the Kantamanto market, one of the largest secondhand markets in West Africa. Unlike the railway dwellers who have no legal claim over the land, the market vendors and the Kantamanto Traders Association (KTA) have a 50-year lease with the Ghana Railway Company Limited, now known as the GRDA, that was signed in December 2008; the lease, however, can be terminated by either party with six months notice.
Samuel Amoah, chairman of the KTA, organised a press conference earlier this year after Mayor Alfred Vanderpuije gave the traders 10 days to vacate the area with a warning that he would come in unannounced with bulldozers and police if the traders did not leave. He did not follow through. Vanderpuije claims they had been given a warning months earlier.
More than 30,000 traders operate in the market, Amoah surmises, and they would be happy to leave so long as they were given another location in which to sell their goods. “We are not fighting them,” says Amoah. “We are not against modernisation, we are saying you must help us; you must consider us refugees and help us,” he adds, referring to the assistance the Ghanaian government had offered to Liberian refugees who fled during the civil war (1999–2003).
But Mayor Vanderpuije is of a different opinion and sees the problem as having a straightforward solution. “Accra has over 40 markets and they are not full,” he says. “They can do business there.”
Vanderpuije caused a stir in recent months when he cleared the pavements of Accra’s large ceremonial streets of hawkers. The mayor is still waiting for cabinet approval of the contracts and financing for the railway project, but is confident they will be delivered soon.
Amnesty International Ghana has claimed that threatening to forcefully evict the railway dwellers without relocating them would constitute a violation of human rights. But the mayor has a different take. “What about the rights of people who are doing things the right way?” Vanderpuije says. “Human rights come with responsibilities and these people should stay in places they can do legitimate work and the right things to allow for national development to take place.”
Vanderpuije envisions Accra becoming the new hub of West Africa, where building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure will attract foreign investment—the construction of more office spaces, a monorail to be funded by a company in the US and a new bus rapid transport system have all been proposed.
In Ghana, where land is most often owned by communities and administered by chiefs and traditional leaders, squatters are virtually unable to make claims on the land based on tenure, which gives the state the legal force to evict them.
Braimah argues that Ghana needs to move beyond its traditional understandings of land ownership to better accommodate the needs of marginalised groups like slumdwellers.
While Vanderpuije is attempting to create a modern city that will attract both tourism and investment, Braimah is already seeing signs that Accra’s slums are growing.
Former mayor of Accra and lecturer in architecture at the city’s oupost of New York University, Nat Nunoo Amarteifio, says that gated communities, highrise buildings and shopping malls are the city’s future, but that outside of those strictly controlled spaces urban slums will continue to grow.
“I don’t know what the city will look like in 10 years time,” says Amarteifio. “But I fear the worst is yet to come.”
Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist and writer who currently lives in Monrovia, Liberia. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, Newsweek, Time,