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End of the road for 'Sodom and Gomorrah' squatters

Caught between the need for environmental protection and the provision of land to the landless poor, the government of Ghana has evicted squatters from the Korle Lagoon – popularly known as Sodom and Gomorrah – without resettling them.
Amos Safo

The problem of making land available for the landless poor continues to attract headlines all over Africa. In Ghana, the mention of the struggle for land readily brings to mind a parcel of land in the heart of Accra, which has been earmarked for development into a recreational resort.

The land is part of the Korle Lagoon, which runs into the sea and has been polluted by human and industrial waste, thus making it environmentally unfriendly. The main reason for the degradation of the area is that Accra has been unable to cope with the rising tide of urban migration resulting to invasion of the land by these economic migrants from rural Ghana, where the standards of living is worsening by the day.

On arrival in Accra the first point of call is this 'no man's land', which is succour for the disadvantaged in Accra. Soon, and as is common with slums in some parts of the world, the place became a hideout for armed robbers, prostitutes, drug pushers and all kinds of criminals-hence the name 'Sodom and Gomorrah'. The people sleep, eat, and relieve themselves in the open, making it unfit for human habitation

In view of the disorderly nature of life in the area, successive governments have tried to give the lagoon and its surrounding some face-lift. In fact, plans to make the place a resort has been on the drawing board for a long time, but the political will to initiate the project has held it down this far. Doing that means dislodging the hundreds of thousands of squatters from a land that means everything to them and with that, jeopardising their survival

Early this year, the government obtained a Kuwaiti Fund loan to implement the "Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project." Under the project, government is expected to dredge the lagoon and restore its surroundings to a green belt and recreational facility. This is because the Lagoon is near Ghana's premier hospital- the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which has been affected by the lagoon’s current deplorable state. To kick start the project, in April this year, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), the authority running Accra's local government asked the squatters to pack and leave.

But they would not leave without a fight. They threw in their last breadth, resisting every move to strip them of the land. In May this year, the AMA ordered a combined team of military and police to throw the squatters out. In several dawn swoops, the security forces arrested what they described "as criminal elements". A leader of the security personnel Brigadier J.B. Danquah, under pressure from the media, explained that the swoops were part of general campaign to clamp down on armed robbers who were suspected to be sheltering at Sodom and Gomorrah.

The results were bloody. Scores of suspected armed robbers, drug pushers and other wanted criminals were plucked from Sodom and Gomorrah. On one occasion, some of the squatters and the police engaged in a long shootout till the squatters were overpowered. Meanwhile, the security agencies had forcibly broken into the makeshift rooms of the squatters, arresting the men and throwing women and children into the open.

The exchanges reached boiling point in July when an NGO called Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), on behalf of the squatters, dragged the AMA and the Attorney General to court. The Plaintiffs - Issah Iddi Abass and ten others sought a court injunction to restrain them from ejecting the people of Sodom and Gomorrah without resettling them.

According to the plaintiffs, as part of the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project, an environmental and social impact statement spelt out compensation for them.

Council for plaintiffs, Dominic Ayine quoted article 23 of the 1992 Constitution, which enjoins the state to protect their rights to decent accommodation. The squatters therefore went to court to seek a declaration that the intended action of the government and AMA will violate their fundamental human rights under the constitution, to restrain the defendants from carrying out the ejection and and seek an order that the defendants resettle them.

On January 7 this year lawyers of the state led by the Attorney General, Nana Akufo Addo filed an affidavit in opposing the squatters’ demands. The Attorney General argued that most of the plaintiffs invaded the area without authority. He said from the arguments of the plaintiffs, it came out that they were not against their eviction per se but their concern was that it should be done in a humane and dignified manner and not to contradict their fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

He said the reference to Article 23 of the 1992 Constitution does not hold water, since plaintiffs do not have title to the disputed land.’What law therefore does the owner of a land infringe by asking the trespassers to vacate a land within a specified period?” he asked. In his ruling, Justice Yaw Appau explained that where a person has been permitted to occupy any premises, that permission or licence is at the mercy of the owner who is at liberty to recover the premises as and when needed. No law is therefore infringed when the owner of a land gives a trespasser an ultimatum to quit the land.

On the issue of whether or not the government is enjoined to resettle or relocate the squatters or compensate them Appau said, "I must say with frankness that there is nothing that enjoins the defendants to resettle or relocate them."

Referring to a South African case (GROOTBOOM) and the Bristol Corporation versus Ross in Britain cited by counsel for plaintiffs to back demands for compensation, the judge said the two cases happened under different historical experiences and must not be understood as approving the practice of land invasion.

"Land invasion is inimical to the systematic provision of adequate housing on a planned basis", he said. According to the judge compensation is usually paid to make amends for any loss or injury to persons. "But I have never known of a situation where a landowner has been ordered to compensate trespassers before ejecting them from his land."

On the issue of the rights of plaintiffs’ children to education Appau said while all citizens of Ghana are entitled to those rights, it is wrong for them to seek their rights through lawlessness. He said the mere eviction of trespassers from a land does not amount to infringement on their fundamental human rights.

In his view, to grant the plaintiffs compensation for invading a property illegally would send wrong signals that anyone under the pretext of homelessness could invade another person’s house. "The fact that plaintiffs cannot pay rent for accommodation is not a licence for unlawful occupation", he emphasised. And that shut the doors on the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Acting on the ruling of the High Court, the police launched a final onslaught in September to throw out the squatters. This compelled CEPIL, council for the plaintiffs to send a petition to President John Agyekum Kufuor to intervene and soothe the pains of the plaintiffs.

When contacted last month, CEPIL they said they were yet to hear from Kufuor. Meanwhile, the deadline given by the court for them to quit the land has elapsed. Follow-ups to Sodom and Gomorrah showed that the squatters have thrown in the towel and have started relocating to a nearby slum, which is already choked.

Even there too the squatters have already run into difficulties. In interviews with some of them, they complained bitterly about harassment and extortion by landowners. It came to light that because they have nowhere to lay their heads, some owners of kiosks are renting them out at US $1.7 for half a night. According to Sala Mahamadu, 16, she and her colleagues sleep on shifts and have to wake up after a while to make way for others to sleep. She said sometimes they are not lucky to get a girls only kiosk and are forced to sleep in the midst of boys. "We usually wear three shorts and trousers to prevent them from raping us", she explained.

Mahamadu and thousands other youth are economic migrants mostly from the northern part of Ghana, where poverty is very pervasive. Figures from Ghana's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper indicate that though the three regions in the Northern Region, Upper West and East Constitute 18 per cent of the Ghanaian population, they constitute 68 per cent of the overall poor in the country. The area also leads in low enrolment of school children and school drop out rates. That is perhaps the reason why the youth are fleeing the area to the southern sector.

Where to draw the line between the people's right to survival and the preservation of the environment promises to be the biggest headache inherited by government.

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