In the following section, the multiple arguments and agendas brought forward to justify the demolition by local and central state bodies, civil society actors and media are presented and analysed, with a focus on the spatial rationalities at play. The explanatory power of speculative urbanism and urban revanchism is also elaborated upon.
Hygiene and Immoral Behaviour
The decision to evict the people of Mensah Guinea was taken by the Mayor of Accra with support from several departmental heads in the local government, including the Director of Accra Town and Country Planning Office. The official motivation for the eviction was that cholera was spreading from this perceived ‘unhygienic’ neighbourhood, and therefore the government had to level the settlement to the ground. One of the physical planners in the city describes her experience of the community in these words:
I personally went there. We walked through before the demolition took place. I wanted to have a look at what was going on /…/ and it was horrible! Horrible! I’m telling you. /…/ No places of convenience so people were doing it anywhere, they don’t have access to any water, nothing. So you could just imagine, the population there at that time if I’m not exaggerating could be more than 20 000. I am not too sure, but the people we saw there were so many. /…/ We found that many of the people who hawk on the streets, that is where they are sleeping and staying and the conditions were terrible. So the city said no, we cannot allow this to continue, so notices were served and then they were cleared. So that was it.
Also, the Director of Accra Works, the department responsible for the implementation of urban plans, development control and maintenance of public spaces and buildings, emphasises that the lack of hygiene in the area justified the demolition:
There were a lot of health issues that were happening in this particular area. We had an outbreak of cholera, and cholera is a disease that is linked to unhygienic conditions. When you have people who despite all that is going on [the cholera outbreak] and despite all the education that we give them, still go back and prepare food in commercial quantities for sale to other people who are not aware of the conditions under which the food was prepared, then as a local government you have to sit up and make a decision … there is no option.
These statements demonstrate how civil servants justify this demolition exercise by pointing to what they perceive to be unacceptable living conditions in the area, emphasising the health hazards for the city at large. However, neither alternative housing nor other compensation was offered to the former population and while the negative aspects of this living environment are highlighted, no attempts are made to provide healthier environments for the affected population. The Director of Works continues his description of Mensah Guinea by stating that the community ‘has become a den for criminals, it has become an area where a whole lot of things, I mean bad things, go on. It’s a no-go area at night; you cannot go there if you don’t live there’. Similar words are used by the Director of Accra Town and Country Planning Office who describes Mensah Guinea as ‘dirty, unhygienic, and the home of thieves and prostitutes’. These statements point to how the authorities in addition to the discourse on hygiene assign immoral behaviour—theft, prostitution and ignorance—to the inhabitants of this place in order to justify the demolition. The media also reproduces these discursive representations of Mensah Guinea as an unhygienic and immoral place. Ghana’s two leading daily newspapers, the state-owned Daily Graphic and independent Daily Guide, together published 11 articles related to the demolition during August 2014. According to cultural anthropologist Jennifer Hasty (2005), the Daily Graphic functions as the state’s extended arm:
Through a public rhetoric of state journalism grounded in the discourse of national development, journalists for the state press are rhetorically summoned into the hegemonic project of the state and positioned to reproduce its daily ceremonies of legitimacy and consensus. (p. 33)
In contrast, she continues, Ghana’s independent press, including the Daily Guide, ‘have been mobilized against the discursive regime of state news’ (Ibid: 86). However, in the case of Mensah Guinea, these newspapers present similar stories. In both newspapers, Mensah Guinea is consistently referred to as a ‘slum’ built up of ‘illegal structures’ and the inhabitants are simply referred to as ‘squatters’. The day the demolition exercise started, the Daily Guide reported that Mensah Guinea is ‘labelled as one of the areas surrounded with filth’ and noted that ‘the area is being blamed for the recent cholera outbreak’ (2014a). The following articles reproduce the hygiene discourse of the local authorities, and much effort is put into describing the perceived unsanitary conditions of the area:
Their bodies have built resistance over the years to the common diseases as they nightly lay their heads in a place where hygiene is a stranger; with rats and mice scampering for pieces of leftover food. That is not to say that they are totally immune to the ailments associated with the absence of basic hygiene. (Daily Guide 2014b)
These newspapers thus adhere to the understanding that the demolition of Mensah Guinea was necessary, based on the perceived negative impact that this physical environment has on the inhabitants’ health and morals. Yet, the independent Daily Guide (2014a) also asked for a more ‘human face’ in future demolition exercises:
We appreciate the importance of taking drastic measures to hold at bay the mounting incidence of cholera, but these should be undertaken with a human face and a large dose of reasonableness.
Importantly however, the demolition itself is neither questioned nor problematised in these articles and none of the articles engage with the underlying political issues of the future direction of urban development in terms of urban land use, poverty, housing shortage or wealth redistribution. The quote above demonstrates that the media accept the official reason for the demolition—to counteract a cholera outbreak—as a reasonable justification for this type of intervention. This acceptance is anchored in the strong medico-biological generative rationality that the decision to demolish Mensah Guinea officially builds upon, which at least rhetorically links the status of physical environments with the health condition and morality of the people using that space. While medico-biological generative rationalities may be used to evoke upgrading of marginalised areas, for instance by improving water and sanitation facilities, the opposite happened in Mensah Guinea where the community was evicted without compensation or assistance. Hence, it is evident that the decision was underpinned by an aspiration not to assist but to remove unwanted, i.e. poor, environments (and people) from this centrally located part of the city, in resemblance to urban revanchism. However, this revanchist intervention was not only a replica of New York urban revanchism going global, as foreseen by Smith (2001), but a planning strategy drawing on anti-poor perceptions that have historical roots stretching back to colonial times. It is also important to emphasise that Ghana’s national urban policy is not revanchist per se, in contrast to revanchist policy documents in other parts of the world.
Urban Renewal—Dreams of Becoming a Tourism Magnet
While the local government claims that the sanitary conditions were the reason behind the demolition of Mensah Guinea, the central government presents a different story. A senior official at the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts states that the parliament recently approved plans to transform Mensah Guinea and its surroundings into a high-class waterfront development for tourists:
That is what we have indicated here; theme parks, hotels, night clubs, restaurants, a clinic, a football park, service apartments, children’s amusement park. So that this area becomes a tourism enclave! (Interview 2015)
According to this new plan, Mensah Guinea and its surroundings will be transformed into a modern tourism destination consisting of luxury high-rises. The senior official states that the renewal of this area ‘will make Accra’, and he believes that this (re)development project will increase the city’s attractiveness in a global perspective (Ibid.). Furthermore, he declares that the plan for a tourism enclave is incompatible with the now demolished settlement and acknowledges that the progress of the project partly explains the demolition exercise. Yet, he emphasises that the tourism enclave is a ‘sustainable project’ where consensus seeking is important:
So it is a question of bridging the gap, or bringing all these ideas of the people, and see how you can harmonize it and make sure that at the end of the day you are satisfying the interest of all stakeholders. What is the public interest? What is private sector interest? What is the tourist interest? What is the civil society interest? And what is the community interest? Because if you are not able to satisfy the interest of all these groups, and make them play a role, then the project will not be sustainable.
However, not surprisingly, the former inhabitants of Mensah Guinea have not been asked to participate in the preparation of the new plan, and participation seems to be restricted to groups that support the project.
The (re)development of this beach location will be fully financed by private investors, and while no agreements with real estate developers have been signed yet, the senior official is convinced that the central location will attract investors; ‘everything is being generated from the land’ (Ibid). To steer urban land use in accordance with market principles is generally accepted also by the planners at local government. With regard to Mensah Guinea, the Director of Works asks ‘Why should we sit and let a prime land like a beach front be used for such a purpose [informal settlement]? You move them’. The traditional authorities also support the central government’s vision of a more competitive Accra. The traditional chief of Osu, where Mensah Guinea is located, forcefully argues that Accra needs a ‘facelift’, which to him implies that poor neighbourhoods have to be removed from the central part of the city and ideally replaced with skyscrapers. The Paramount Chief of Osu explains: ‘these sites [along the beach] are the most expensive areas /…/ so why should we use it for slums? For any meaningful development to come, definitely some people’s lives would be affected’ (Interview 2015). He further argues that the people of Mensah Guinea initially came ‘from somewhere’ and hence when they were ‘removed from there [they] must definitely have somewhere to go’ (Ibid). If the Paramount Chief had a mandate, he would replicate the displacement in the larger Osu area:
The reason why we brought in real estate is that when you look around, the buildings here are very old and Osu is in the centre of the city so we have plans for relocating everybody and putting up high-rise buildings here. (Ibid.)
Yet, the ideas of transforming Mensah Guinea to a place for leisure are not new. Similar plans were prepared during the colonial era and later adopted by the newly independent state in 1958. The underlying rationalities and the target groups however differ fundamentally between these plans. While the newly independent state sought to develop this beach location into a recreational area for the inhabitants of Accra, the present day administration, in contrast, seeks to develop a fenced enclave that will attract international investment and tourism and simultaneously exclude most ordinary citizens. Hence, the old plans resemble vitalist rationalities aiming to create a ‘modern developed city’ that would benefit the ‘social whole’, while the new plan heavily relies on rationalities based on market logics and ideals of orderly urban aesthetics that will benefit only a few inhabitants. The contemporary (re)development plan exemplifies the process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ since the displacement will make room for profit-making real estate and commercial activities on this piece of land. In this respect, it also resembles speculative urbanism since the project is based on speculations on how to make a profit from this piece of land through real estate, with a high degree of government involvement. However, the scale of this project is rather small in comparison to the urban (re)development corridors of India that the concept of speculative urbanism first sought to capture. It is also worth noting that the actors behind speculative practices in Ghana are somewhat different from those of India, while the state is heavily involved in both contexts—there is no equivalent in Accra to the prominent IT sector that heavily informs the development of Bangalore. Hence, while the concept of speculative urbanism does point to important dimensions of speculative capital accumulation processes that are present in urban Ghana, more research is needed to assess the scale and intensity of these speculative practices.
Spatial Order = Development?
While the official reason for the demolition was to stop the cholera outbreak, the section above demonstrates that the (re)development plan for the area also played an important role. Additionally, this case study illustrates that a more general desire to achieve spatial order prevails in Accra, which adds to the rationalities behind the demolition of Mensah Guinea. As explained earlier, the aspiration for an orderly urban environment is clearly expressed in both legislation and Ghana’s national urban policy. Furthermore, a strong discursive coupling is made between ‘development’ and spatial order and/or spatial planning, by politicians, civil servants, local NGOs and the international community (with the World Bank at the forefront). The physical appearance of the city is at the heart of this discourse on spatial order, and the Director of Town and Country Planning in Accra explains that the main priority for the future development of Accra is to raise the skyline of the city since ‘high rises are what makes a city a city’ (Interview 2014). In similar ways of thinking, a top priority of the Mayor is ‘the beautification of the city’ according to a local leader of the ruling party National Democratic Congress. He explains that the Mayor’s beautification agenda involves:
…changing the facial appearance of the city: like putting up buildings that will change the face of the city; designing say parks and other lanes to make it look modern or nicer and building neat schools. (Ibid.)
Similar ways of reasoning are ever present when different challenges of rapid urbanisation—such as urban sprawl, lack of housing, unemployment and insufficient basic infrastructure—are discussed in Ghana. Spatial order and a neat environment are considered key factors for modern urban development, and this strong associative relationship between development and order makes it difficult to question planning-led interventions that seek spatial order since this would imply the questioning of development (cf. Ferguson 1994). The World Bank, for instance, emphasises that ‘To meet the challenges of urbanisation today and tomorrow, Ghana will require much stronger spatial and land use planning and management in municipal and metropolitan areas’ (World Bank 2014: 15). This mantra is reproduced during conferences and workshopsFootnote 2 on urban development in Accra where spatial planning is repeatedly presented as an instrument that can achieve ‘international competitiveness’, ‘sustainability’, ‘resilience’, ‘SMART cities’, ‘affordable housing’, ‘reduction of poverty’ and/or ‘inclusivity’.
In a comment on the eviction of Mensah Guinea in the local news, a spokesman from local government assured that ‘any activity that is inimical to the development of our capital city would not be tolerated’ (www.spyghana.com 2014-09-10). This statement suggests that settlements like the one of Mensah Guinea are understood as the antithesis of development, and these settlements must be removed in order for Accra to develop, although no measures are taken to assist the affected population. By pointing to the need for development, this spokesman further explicitly urged the public not to make the demolition a ‘political issue’:
We want to state here that the development agenda of AMA [the local government] should not be trivialized and politicized Again the operations of the AMA require the honest and sincere support of all stakeholders to develop Accra. [sic] (Ibid.)
Perhaps a little surprisingly, also NGOs working with housing rights active in the capital are incorporated in this de-politicised line of thought regarding urban development. Despite the fatal consequences that the eviction of Mensah Guinea had on the community and its inhabitants, civil society remained silent. Amnesty International (2011) has a clear policy against forced evictions of people living in ‘slums’, which declares:
Irrespective of whether people are squatting or have legal title to the homes or land that they occupy, under international law, no evictions may be carried out without due process and basic legal protections. (p. 18)
However, when the Ghanaian office heard of the demolition of Mensah Guinea, they sent an administrator to the site and thereafter decided not to take action. Also, Housing the Masses, a local organisation that aims to ‘cater for low income areas’ and works with ‘slum upgrading and prevention, low income housing, inclusive urban development and citizen’s participation’, in fact supports the demolition. The chairperson states:
I don’t think anybody needs to be squatting there and littering the place and making the place dirty, no I don’t think that is a good thing, it is not a good sign. (Interview 2015)
Yet, another relatively influential association in urban politics in Accra, the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor, which is affiliated to the transnational network Slum Dwellers International, kept a low profile during and after the demolition of Mensah Guinea despite their newly adopted strong policy against evictions. The national leader states that the organisation did not have any members in this particular settlement and even though they went to the place during the eviction, they did not intervene since they thought it was ‘too late’ (Interview 2015). The national secretary adds that the Federation’s non-presence in Mensah Guinea indicates that the community was ‘weak’ and thus lacked the means to protest against the intervention (Interview 2015). The only direct criticism of the demolition was put forward by the Slum Union, a relatively new grassroots movement that works to improve the living conditions in poor settlements across Ghana. The Slum Union claimed in local media that the demolition violated international conventions and stated that ‘the relocation of persons who have stayed in a place for more than 20 years must be made as smooth as possible’ (www.ghanaweb.com 2014). In similarity to the media coverage, this criticism is directed towards the execution of the demolition, while the exercise itself is not questioned.
The lack of resistance to the eviction—or the ‘pre-requisites of acceptance’ in Rose and Miller’s (1992) words—most probably have multiple explanations. However, it partly seems to be linked to the strong dispositional rationality that connects development and an orderly urban aesthetics and further depicts planning as a much needed technical solution to the complex problems related to rapid urbanisation. In addition, anti-poor revanchist attitudes that blame the urban poor for their marginalised position in society are also anchored amongst civil society actors. Few actors in society seem to question these ‘truth claims’ on desirable urban development, which implies that the actual practices of urban planning, including its rationalities, strategies, techniques and goals, are seldom debated. Important political questions about what kind of city is desirable, and who will benefit and not by dominant city visions and planning practices, hence seem to be absent from the public discussion.