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12.10.2002 Feature Article

Theses On Land Reform

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Part1: "Riddles" of the past and present. Only the most ignorant among us will deny that land tenure reform has become imperative if Ghana is to expand her agricultural base, feed itself and provide raw materials for industrial development. The different land tenure systems among our peoples militate against the alienation of land for widespread commercial agriculture, the successful application of science and technology, best practices for land usage and soil fertility, and safe environmental management. Insecurity of tenure, lengthy and costly litigation and recently, the appearance of `land guards` - lethal enforcers of ownership over disputed land - meting out vigilante justice, have become barriers to agricultural and commercial progress. Added to this, the large tracts of fallow and undeveloped that stretch across the country, that once made a Korean delegation wonder if the Accra Plains were 'exh! ibition' grounds, diminish our potential as a country to surmount our problems of underdevelopment. It is not surprising then, that even though about sixty-five percent of our population is engaged in agriculture, we are still labelled as an 'agricultural country that cannot feed itself', a description that strikes at the heart of our poverty and collective ineptitude. Yet, apart from creating significant barriers to agricultural development, the present land tenure system in the country is the underpin of what I have referred to as the 'debilitating duality of power', that presides over the underdevelopment of the country. On the one hand there is the highly centralized neo-colonial State power, headquartered in Accra, with its centralized bureaucracy, forces and means of coercion, and operating with a sheer veil of political decentralization. On the other hand is the highly decentralized traditional authority - chiefs, skins and kings - so called custodians ! of culture and tradition, armed with spiritual and often times moral a uthority, custodians of land, which they hold in 'trust' for all, as the only palpable symbol of their power. Over time both powers have acquired an ossified legitimacy among Ghanaians. The State power at its most developed form is voted into power by the people, and the traditional authority, by virtue of holding the land in 'trust', provides a semblance of responsibility to his subjects. The centralized State power supervises the neo-colonial economy. Cocoa cultivation for export, the award of concessions and regulations for mining gold, bauxite and manganese, and the exportation of timber are all the sole prerogative of the State power. Her existence is intricately and irrevocably bound to this export of raw or semi-processed goods and any attempt at dismantling this economy becomes an attempt to dismantle the State power itself. It is no wonder that every single government in the country, from Nkrumah to the Kuffour regime has, as soon as it acquired the power, co! mmitted itself to the increased production of cocoa and the other export commodities. Even when the State power seemed to be taking initiatives, as in the exhortation by the Rawlings and Kuffour governments to increase non-traditional exports, they have amounted to mere quantitative accretions to the same neo-colonial economy. Pineapples, cashew nuts and cassava exports do not fundamentally alter the neo-colonial basis of the economy. By virtue of its custodianship of the land, the traditional authority supervises an economy that was founded first on subsistence agriculture and ossified over four centuries in the boiling cauldron of slavery as a mode of production, slave trading and war. Often times subject to the patronage of the state power, and as a result of this patronage, the traditional system acts in tandem with the State power to keep the country underdeveloped. She provides the small landholdings that have become the unique attribute of Ghanaian cocoa culti! vation: she provides the cheap concessions that allow foreign firms to mine our gold, bauxite and manganese for next to nothing, whiles making huge profits: she provides the army of modern day slaves, those house boys, maids, garden boys and porters that slave away in the homes of the well-to-do who, quite frequently, have acquired their wealth through the patronage of the state power. Ultimately, her most important function is to provide a social safety net through its extensive kinship ties, to the victims of the iniquities of the neo-colonial economy. It is not uncommon to find a lowly worker in the civil service in Accra who has a couple of acres under cultivation in his home town in Kibi, to help make ends meet for his family. This function as social safety net has averted many a potential catastrophic social revolution in the country. For example in 1983 when the country was undergoing its worst drought and approximately three million Ghanaians were returned from their economic sojourn in Nigeria, it was this traditional system wi! th its kinship ties, that safely absorbed these returnees back onto the land and into society thereby avoiding a situation where a dissatisfied mass of lumpen proletariat would have been dumped onto the streets of Accra. Another offspring of this debilitating duality of power is the destruction of initiative within the masses of people. The state power or the 'aban', because of its centralized nature, has, over the years, grown distant from the people, who expect all initiative to come from the centre and the people merely to 'obey'. Today, the traditional system continues to play this role by fuelling the escape route for those who seek to abandon the state in search for greener pastures, whilst at the same time keeping those who remain at home from grinding poverty through the remittances - estimated at about the total annual receipts from the sale of Ghanaian cocoa - from relatives abroad. Many would agree that out of the over 3 million Ghanaians who live o! utside the country, a lot of them got there through the 'connection' o f relatives. A parochial view of this social safety net exists in the minds of many Ghanaians who have hailed the traditional authority and the system it presides over as progressive. It is not too uncommon to hear an educated man proudly refer to himself as a traditionalist, and indeed, the traditional system does every now and then absorb members of the neo-colonial state into its fold as chiefs and vice-versa. In practice the traditional system only acts in a symbiotic relationship with the neo-colonial state power to the detriment of socio-economic development in Ghana. Their relationship to the peoples of the country is much like the AIDS virus and its human host. State power and its traditional counterpart represent the virus, and the society and economy represent the human host. The Ghanaian economy, at independence, was thought to be healthy even though it was a neo-colony, much like the first few years of infection by HIV. As socio-economic malaise set in dur! ing the final years of the Nkrumah era, many programs, from the World bank and IMF - SAP, PAMSCAD, PRP etc - have been injected into the economy to resuscitate it, all to no avail. Like the AZT and other drug cocktails given to the AIDS patient, they have helped to keep the country from catastrophic disintegration and Ghana has plodded on. Eventually, for an AIDS patient, the drug cocktail becomes toxic to his body, and he may die from the poison or from an opportunistic infection due to the ravages of his reduced immune system. For us who are not affected by the tranquilizing effects of partisanship, and who can see behind the cloak of the 'new dawn of democracy' and the 'golden age of business', telltale signs of the toxicity of the 'duality of power' are beginning to show. Ghana's descent into Least Developed Country (LDC) status, the myriads of chieftaincy and land disputes in the country, the overpopulation of Accra as a result of unemployment and displacement o! f farmers by gold companies in the country side, the increasing armed robbery, prostitution and other social vices, the spread of AIDS and other life-style diseases, the mass abandonment of the state by its citizens in search of greener pastures, all these are signs of potential catastrophic upheaval within the body-politic. Surprisingly even slavery has reared its head again, and why not? The traditional system is the perfect social structure for the slave mode of production. Reports indicate a thriving business in child slaves in the markets of Kumasi and Accra. How then could land reform impact this 'debilitating duality of power' and lead to a national system of governance that will preside over the prosperity of the country? To answer this question it is imperative that we understand the genesis of this unique correlation of powers that so undermine our development efforts. Once again it is to the past whose 'riddle' we must unravel to understand the present and build for the future. It would not be necessary to delve into the whol! e history of state formation in pre-colonial Ghana, or the advent of colonial rule in Ghana. We believe these are truths well known enough. But two significant historical events are at the root of this duality of power. They are firstly, the victory of the Aborigines Rights Protection Society's (ARPS) delegation to the British Parliament in 1898, which prevented the colonial government from seizing all the land of our peoples, a victory which left land in Ghana still held in trust by the traditional leaders; the second was the advent of indirect rule in the 1920s under Governor Guggisberg, which effectively destroyed the responsibility of chiefs to their council of elders and ultimately to the people, and made them responsible only to the colonial government. Authoritarianism and flagrant abuse of power became the new attributes of the once democratic institution. Of course, the colonial government, centralized, hierarchical and very militaristic, was able to circumv! ent the victory of the ARPS, and enforce legislation that made all nat urally occurring precious materials beneath and above the soil to be held in 'trust' by the colonial government for the people, even though the lands belonged to the people. Further they enforced legislation that would allow the colonial government to appropriate any land in the interest of the 'public good'. As indirect rule subjected the chiefs more and more to the colonial power, chiefs lost their budgets because the colonial governments abrogated their rights to collect taxes and tributes. Land became the only palpable symbol of their power, and for the first time in the history of many of the peoples that inhabit our nation space, land was held in trust by a government (chiefs) who had lost responsibility to the people. The basis of the today's status quo was set. Today, the situation is not much different. The State power is equally hierarchical, centralized and has access to the instruments of coercion, and circumvents the 'trust' lands in much the same fashion! . The traditional power, on then other hand jealously guards its custodianship of the land, to the point of exclusion of those who seek land to farm, whilst it enriches itself selling of concessions and plots to those with money. And still the state power appropriates land at will sparking off intense clashes with the traditional authority as in the La Youth Movement and the Ga Adangbes Council present standoff with the Kuffour government over compensation and ownership over land appropriated in the Ga Traditional area. Any progressive land reform program then must strike at the twin 'evils' of extreme centralism and lack of responsible government in the regions and districts. Yet the centuries old principle of 'trust' cannot be taken for granted and wished away. After all it is the social system that has been built on this mode of ownership that has kept the society from totally disintegrating. At the same time any land reform that does not totally alienate land to ! make it a more effective factor of production and improved agriculture is doomed to failure. This, then, is the 'riddle' of the present, the 'Gordion's knot' that present generations must untie to create a future for generations of Ghanaians to come. A typical response to the above dilemma, especially among Ghanaian intellectuals is to advocate the abolition of chieftaincy and, or, the nationalization of land. At best such a reaction is merely an emotional response to a seemingly insurmountable problem. Nationalization of land under the State power will not destroy the extreme centralism of the neo-colonial state. Neither will it alienate land as a factor of production and provide the pride of ownership that so motivates the farmer in his calling. Besides, the experience of nationalization of land in the Soviet Union and other countries has been the underdevelopment and sometimes collapse of agriculture. Similarly, legislating chieftaincy out of existence, apart from accentuating the centralism of the state power, is quite an impossible! task to achieve. One cannot just legislate more than half a millennium into obscurity. Our vision for land reform therefore begins with the re-establishment and reconnection of 'trust' with responsible government. Whoever holds the land in 'trust' for the people must be an authority or government that is completely responsible to the people! Unfortunately the only responsible government, presently, in Ghana is the extremely centralized state power. In order to decentralise the power then, land must be placed in the 'trust' of regionally elected responsible governments, which are not subordinate to the State power. A regional government made up of residents of the region, elected by residents of the region, creating wealth by managing the affairs of the region is a better guarantee of good governance than a distant centralized state power and its representatives. The current decentralization process that is concentrated in the districts suffers from its! subordination to the state power, and also because the district is to o small a unit for autonomous existence. Their programs are limited to building public toilets and school blocks that look like ruins as building starts, acquire a rickety look as they are being built, and become dilapidated by the time construction is completed. Paramount Chiefs must relinquish their custodianship of the land to such a regionally elected executive and legislature, in exchange for real executive authority at the district (paramouncy) level. In other words the paramount chief becomes the de facto District Chief Executive, presiding over an elected District assembly, within a regional legislature and executive that is totally responsible to the people. They must control a budget with spending approved by the district legislatures or assemblies. A viable democracy can therefore be built by bringing responsibility back into the institution of chieftaincy. The role of the chief, except for the period since indirect rule, has always been that of a functiona! l chief executive, and the chiefs prestige will be tested by his ability to bring socio-economic progress to his people. All land that is not individually owned and cannot be willed should be placed under a statutory body responsible to the regional government for redistribution and payment of compensation. Redistribution and the mode of compensation constitute one of the most crucial elements of any land reform program. Generally a case-by-case approach can be taken with regards to established farms like cocoa and palm holdings and clear lines of ownership must be established whether individually or by family. But the thrust of redistribution must be to make available large tracts of land, perhaps in blocks of fifty acres to the hundreds of thousands of landless farmers or those with smallholdings that do not provide much of a surplus. We refer to those hard working farmers who actually work the cocoa farms, who farm other peoples land on an "abusa' basis and whose ! labour is the bulwark of the farming industry in Ghana. Land mu st also be redistributed in large tracts to those who have the means (capital) to invest in and manage agricultural enterprise, if and only if, they present a coherent business plan for their operations. The idea is to discourage absentee farming and mindless speculation in land values. Land distribution must be on an out. Redistributed land must be sold to those who farm the land. Once land values have been determined by the statutory bodies, compensation must be on an on-going basis with new farmers paying for their land through harvests over a stipulated length of time. It is conceivable that with access to blocks of fifty acres, farmers will produce enough of a surplus to meet their financial obligations whilst improving their standards of living. Original owners of the land can then be compensated in instalments from a consolidated fund. Such a mode of redistribution will create the necessary pride of ownership and the economies of scale that are created by acces! s to and ownership of commercial sizes of land. At the same time farming in such relatively large blocks of land, makes it easier for the introduction of new methods, crop varieties and best soil fertility retention practices, that make for a quantum leap in agricultural production while utilising the least amount of people. It is much like the early twentieth century of the Canadian west, when immigrant families with barely anything except for the clothes on their backs, were given 150 acres each of virgin prairie land. Enduring the harsh and desolate environment of the prairies, many of them living through the cold prairie winter in makeshift accommodations, they were able to built better housing and improve their living conditions after just a season's harvest. At this point let us caution against our traditionalists, who live under the toxic grip of the status quo and who are afraid of radical change that history, that great archive of human endeavour, does offer! us a precedent for such social re-engineering. During the Meiji Resto ration from 1868 in Japan, the Restorers, in order to alienate land for efficient agriculture as part of their great modernizing plans, used subtle means ato ppropriate the land from the daimyos (nobles) in exchange for their governorship of the new prefectures (districts and regions) that were being created. Of course the circumstances were different but the social re-engineering that lay behind a modernizing trend to alienate land are similar. Similarly, for those intellectuals who would argue against chiefs being appointed as DCEs instead of an elected person, we ask for some far-sightedness into the principle of succession. Once responsibility has been restored to the institution, it is the Ghanaian people in the regions and districts who will ultimately decide on the question of succession. We are not prophets to foretell the future but it is highly conceivable that over time elections instead of inheritance will come to be the accepted mode of succession for DCE! s. For the larger and more entrenched paramountcies such as the Asantehene, we envisage a situation where his role will become rather like that of the Queen of England, a cultural relic with some moral and spiritual authority. What then will be the role of the central State power, and its relationship to the newly created regional governments in the event of a land reform program such as outlined above? There must be a clear division of powers between the two governments, and in their assigned roles, should not be subordinate to the other. Clearly the regional government will be in charge of agricultural production as it redistributes land, and helps farmers with access to inputs and credit, but the central state power will have an even greater role in the division of powers. Alienating land in such large acreage is going to release a lot of the pressures on the available land and throw a lot of unemployed people onto the streets of the urban areas. Land refor! m cannot be, and has never been, successful without an industrializati on program that employs the surplus of people from the land and countryside. At the same time the huge surpluses in agriculture that will result from such redistribution is going to require a transportation infrastructure, storage facilities and processing plants. It would be the duty of the central government to throw all its resources, and subordinate all its traditional functions to the development of heavy industry in the country. Our iron ore deposits in the Western and Northern regions must be developed into steel for the railway industry in order to open up the country. She must pursue the backward integration of the aluminium industry, processing of our raw materials, heavy engineering, and development of the construction materials and construction industries. In the development of industry special care must be taken to spread industrial development evenly throughout the country depending on the resources of every region. Clearly, in one fell swoop, the neo-co! lonial economy can be usurped and effective decentralization and responsibility be established so as to alienate land for agricultural and industrial development. The choice to pursue such sweeping reforms lies in our political will to bring progress to our people. Alas, to expect that such reforms can be pursued by our current political leaders from the top down is but to have a love affair with futility, for the denizens of the Busia -Danquah and Nkrumaist traditions - the so-called two political traditions are but themselves offspring and guardians of the criminal status quo. Across the parapet of the Ghanaian political landscape radicalism has succumbed to the lowly thoughts of today's men who sing the praises of a globalization that will be the final death of the independence of the continent. Not a Bismarck in sight, wielding together a German nation through 'iron and blood' and within twenty years consolidating a state whose industrial capacity had caught up w! ith England after lagging behind for 300 years. Not a Jamskji Tata, no r Dhirubhai Ambani nor a Prafula Chandra dreaming of, and implementing massive industrial projects that would catapult India from an agricultural and trading nation into an industrial one. Neither a bold Meiji Restorer nor a Japanese MITI planner, singularly dedicated to the 'big idea' of transforming Japan from a divided feudal entity into a modern monolithic industrial power. Instead we have men and women whose grand vision is nothing more than the export of starch, cashew nuts and pineapples, and whose sudden intuitive ingenuity consist of creating a whole Ministry for a bankrupt Airways corporation that boasts of less than a few aircraft.

Kwesi Yeboah
Kwesi Yeboah, © 2002

The author has 34 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwesiYeboah

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