In an effort to 'beautify' Accra, the mayor has declared street vendors illegal and.....

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Ghana mayors beautify their
cities while urban poor suffer

By Franklin Obeng-Odoom*

2 July 2009: With 70 per cent of Ghana’s urban population living in slums, 20 per cent in poverty and 13 per cent officially classified as unemployed, the ‘urban question’ is of the utmost difficulty for the government and people to resolve. But the question threatens to be even more demanding because in 2010, just one year away, Ghana will undergo an ‘urban explosion’ – where for the first time more people will live in cities than in the country. As such, we should examine the ‘vision’ of the new mayors who have just been lined up by the Atta-Mills government, as the team to bring change to the cities of Ghana. To do this, it is important to assess the policies of the mayors and examine their distributional effects.

| Beautification for business | Winners and losers | Accountability of mayors | Conclusion |

Beautification for business
It is not possible, in this short piece, to assess all the mayors in Ghana. So I shall instead focus on the mayors of Accra and Kumasi, the two most populous cities. The Mayor of Accra, Dr Alfred Vanderpujie, is an educationist. The Mayor of Kumasi, Samuel Sarpong, is a businessman. Both have similar priorities: ‘beautifying’ their cities and attracting business to them.

Beautifying cities has become the stock-in-trade of the mayors in Ghana. The Mayor of Kumasi has promised to enforce strictly the sanitation by-laws and to decongest the city. The Route Operational Permit (ROP) has already been announced to take effect in July 2009. ROP will be a one-year renewable ‘contract’ between the city authorities and urban commercial drivers, who will be compelled to ply only particular routes that they have paid for.

For his part, the Mayor of Accra has perhaps struck a more militant pose in his attempts at beautifying Accra. At a press conference there he gave notice to hawkers and people dwelling in ‘illegal’ structures to leave before 15 June 2009. He also intends to regard as ‘criminals’ those people in the city who sleep in lorry parks because of the housing shortage. They were given until 15 June 2009 to leave their ‘homes’, having no other place to go. A clean city, in the perceived wisdom of these two mayors, would attract many businesses.

As it turned out, the demolition took place, but on a slightly later date, Monday, 29 June (note that the demolition delayed, not because of consultation with hawkers, but because the mayor reportedly travelled to the USA to attend a graduation ceremony of one of his children). The 29 June demolition exercise has been described variously as  ‘shocking’ and a day of  ‘grief and mourning’. But, what is really shocking is the insensitivity of the mayor of Accra, who has justified the exercise as 'merely enforcing the by-laws of Accra'. Though, the informal sector, pejoratively called  'illegal sector', drives the city economy of both Accra and Kumasi, the mayors of Accra and Kumasi (on 30 June, the mayor of Kumasi also warned that 'illegal structures' would soon be demolished in Kumasi) have declared war on the 'goose that lays the golden egg' and, instead embarked on a campaign to attract bourgeois businesses.

The attraction of new business is therefore high on their scales of preference. In this way, the new mayors have tried to talk up ‘investor confidence’ in their cities. In public speeches they have promised to make Accra and Kumasi business-friendly and secure. But because private capital abhors highly regulated markets, privatisation in Accra and Kumasi has been high on their agendas. Indeed, ROP in Kumasi may be seen as the attempt to fence off the ‘commons’ and bring into market transactions public goods. However, privatisation in Accra and Kumasi did not start with these two. Past mayors and central government have privatised almost everything in the city – from housing and water to toilets and waste collection. Thus, in his recent book, Globalising Cities: Urban Economic Transformation of Accra, Richard Grant notes that the circulation of capital, new foreign companies and the international transfer of funds have all become ever more visible in Accra.

So the main policy thrust of these two mayors has been the beautification of their cities, and attracting business. It would be useful to analyse how these policies have affected urbanites. A thorough distributional analysis of these policies is not possible at this stage because it is likely to take a considerable time for the full effect of public policy to be felt, but we could attempt a preliminary analysis with a view to preparing the ground for more thorough studies in the future.

Winners and losers
Urban ‘clean-up’ and ‘decongestion’ in Accra and Kumasi represent a direct attack on the urban poor. This is because those areas and structures depicted as ‘filthy’ and ‘illegal’ are the very places at which most of the poor and underemployed earn a living. In Ghana seven people out of nine work in the informal sector, dominated by migrants (usually from northern Ghana) and children. The failure of the city authorities to provide other sites for such people to make a living (such as well positioned markets of adequate size) and their lack of interest in confronting urban poverty, raises questions on the true reasons for these clean-ups. Who gains when poverty abounds in cities? Who gains when the poor live in fear of ejection?

I suggest that such exercises, together with a deliberately scanty interest in tackling urban poverty, are designed to serve the interests of private business and politicians. For the benefit of private business a large available pool of the desperate, the underemployed and the unemployed is essential. Wage levels can thus be kept low and labour can be disciplined with the threat of dismissal. Such conditions are necessary for capital accumulation. The same conditions could be anathema to effective demand for goods and services produced by these same private businesses.

For the city authorities, the politicians, it is beneficial to deliberately provide inadequate markets to create room for patronage. In his stimulating paper, Corruption in Public Institutions in Ghana, Akwasi Prempeh found that in 2005, while it was possible for city authorities in Kumasi to obtain about 86.2 billion cedis in revenue from rates, the city authorities may have deliberately reported that they only had the potential to collect 9.5 billion cedis. Because of such corrupt tendencies, we cannot rule out the possibility that even ROP would be yet another ‘window of opportunity’ for the city authorities of Kumasi.

But sub-national politicians are not the only beneficiaries of the attack on the poor. Central government also gains. Central government typically allows the city authorities to inflict hardship on the poor and the marginalised prior to elections. But, just when the next elections are in sight, it dramatically announces its opposition to the activities of the city authorities and orders the mayors to stop the ‘beautification of the cities’. By such a Messianic gesture, central government is able to gain some votes from certain unsuspecting voters. But does this distribution of gains and loses matter?

The distribution of gains and losses resulting from mayoral activities in Ghanaian cities is problematic because it creates division. Empirical studies by Frank Stilwell, Augustine Fosu and Nancy Birdsall show that inequality may not be conducive to economic growth, poverty reduction and happiness. Social conflicts such as peaceful uprisings by workers, and also violent demonstrations, may be prevalent in cities bursting with inequality because where opulence is displayed in the full glare of poor people, there is likely to be rebellion. Such protests could reduce the time spent on ‘productive work’ and so decrease the demand and supply for goods and services. Elsewhere, such discontent tends to make mayors unpopular and at risk of being voted out. But mayors in Ghana owe allegiance to every interest group except the common people they claim to serve. It may be useful to analyse why this is the case.

Accountability of mayors
Mayors in Ghana are appointed directly by central government. They are not elected by popular vote of the people. According to the Local Government Act, Act 462, 1993, 70 per cent of local councillors must be elected and only 30 per cent appointed by central government. The spirit of the law is that central government would use its 30 per cent mandate to provide 'technocrats’ in the local governments. (According to Article 243 (1) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, a person nominated by the president as DCE shall only be appointed after the approval of at least two-thirds majority of members of the assembly present and voting) In itself, this law has a noble objective because there are some professionals who could contribute to urban economic development but may not be able to submit to the demands of political campaigns. But what makes this law undesirable is that the appointees of the central government are more powerful than the elected councillors. For example, the most powerful person in the local government set-up, the mayor, is appointed by central government. So mayors in Ghana are accountable to central government, its agents, and private businesses (which may fund the activities of central government). It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that mayors in Ghana are not ‘public servants’, but simply ‘agents’ of private and state capital.

As a method of holding mayors in check, there is a case for introducing direct elections into local governance in Ghana. But as I argued in a recent paper, Transforming Third World Cities Through Good Urban Governance, the mere introduction of direct elections in local governance in Ghana would not guarantee improvement in what Manuel Castells describes as ‘the means of collective consumption’ (such as urban housing, schools and roads). If the urban question is to be answered in any way that makes sense, there must first exist democratic socialism – in short, a new set of ideals with the sound practices of liberalism.

*Franklin Obeng-Odoom
is a doctoral research scholar at the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney, Australia, where he is researching the tensions and contradictions in rapid urbanisation in Ghana. His research interests are in housing, urban economic development, development planning as well as the political economy of land and land rights.

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