On Saturday 20 June 2015, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly bulldozed Old Fadama, the largest informal settlement in Accra. Roughly 50,000 people, mostly migrants from Ghana’s northern regions, as well as others from the West Africa sub region, are said to have lost their properties during the demolition exercise, and many became homeless overnight. This is the not the first time that slum clearances and forced evictions have taken place in Ghana and Old Fadama residents have faced numerous eviction threats since 2002.
Many slum clearances are done in the name of the greater public good. This most recent destruction of Old Fadama was ostensibly to improve storm water drainage and prevent floods in the city. The need to do this was highlighted by the 3rd of June floods and fire in the city which claimed over 150 lives. The argument was that unauthorised construction, partly due to the activities of the residents at Old Fadama, was hindering the flow of water and in particular had stalled the execution of the Korle Lagoon Restoration Project, which aims to improve the ecological functioning of the Korle lagoon and so to improve Accra’s drainage, flooding and sanitation problems. City authorities felt that the demolition was necessary to help prevent future flooding and destruction around the Odaw river. The authorities are planning to construct drains that will allow water to flow into the Odawna drains and Korle Lagoon and then finally into the sea.
However it is not clear whether any scientific studies were conducted to establish the causality between activities at Old Fadama and flooding in Accra, and doubts have been expressed in the press about the effectiveness of slum clearance in addressing the root cause of flooding. Critics have called for a demolition “with a human face”.
Those who favour the evictions have an unwavering conviction that their approach is correct. Such approaches are embedded in the overall negative policy stance related to the migration of the poor. According to the 2013 World Population Policies Report, 84% of less developed country governments want to reduce rural to urban migration, up from 73% in the previous round. Africa and Asia have some of the highest percentages of governments with policies designed to reduce the flow of rural-urban migration: 85% in Africa and 84% in Asia. There has been a hardening of negative attitudes in many parts of the world and it is not clear what the empirical basis for this is.
There are a number of concerns about poor migrants and informal settlements - most inadequately supported by evidence - including the overburdening of urban services, the spread of disease, worsening crime and exacerbating vulnerability of cities to environmental disasters. There is little recognition of the economic contribution of the residents of informal settlements to the city in the form of cheap labour, specialised services and products.
A 2014 study on rural-urban migration to urban informal settlements or slums in Accra conducted by the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana under the Migrating Out of Poverty research programme showed that most of the residents in Old Fadama are young migrants who are economically very active. More than 80% find work within a few days of arrival, mainly in the informal sector, doing jobs such as recycling electronic waste; food vending, street hawking, head load portering (kayeyei), petty trading, and hairdressing. All the respondents in that study reported a wider range and better paid employment options compared to their places of origin. More than 77% remitted money home and this money went directly to poor and disadvantaged rural households. For some, these remittances are the only source of income. When asked how their lives had changed as a result of migration to the informal settlement, nearly half said their overall situation had “improved a lot”, 38% said it had “somewhat improved” and the rest said that it had deteriorated or remained the same.
According to Amnesty International, Ghana’s laws and constitution do not provide the residents of informal settlements with adequate protection against forced evictions. They are, for all intents and purposes, illegal settlers and the metropolitan authorities can file a case against them in court as was seen in 2002 when the Accra Metropolitan Authority filed an eviction notice against the residents of Old Fadama.
It is well known that forced evictions do not provide long term solutions; in fact the only long term impact they seem to have is to worsen the risks of already poor and vulnerable people. Very often there are inadequate resettlement plans for residents, as happened in this case, and even when offered, the alternatives do not replace what has been lost because the sites are located at a distance from civic amenities and established business and social networks.
Old Fadama residents have faced a constant threat of eviction and have tried to unite against it. In 2006 and then again in 2009, two organisations, the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP) and People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements organised a community enumeration of the residents to Old Fadama with Shack Dwellers International. This was seen as an important first step to show the civic authorities how many people lived here and what they do. It was hoped that such information would transform the attitudes of government towards informal settlements and prevent evictions. But unfortunately this has not happened.
By razing Old Fadama to the ground, countless poor, rural families will have lost an important source of support. It is therefore important that informal settlements are recognised not only as a places of despair and misery, requiring social protection, but also as hives of economic activity providing services to urban areas and remittances to rural households dependent on them.
There is thus an urgent need to shape policy attitudes towards informal settlements away from forced evictions towards participatory relocations or rehabilitation.
Mariama Awumbila leads the Migrating out of Poverty West Africa team at the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana. Priya Deshingkar is the Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.