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Who Owns Ghana Lands: The People or the Chiefs?

Feature Article Who Owns Ghana Lands: The People or the Chiefs?
FEB 3, 2022 LISTEN

Many serious disputes have arisen and even wars fought over land ownership around the world, and for several centuries. Every human being born on earth, unless born away from their nativity, has a natural endowment of a small portion of land they can call home or homeland. It is a gift of nature. It is irreplaceable because land is immovable, non-extendable and a fixed asset that is either inherited, bequeathed, or transferred to others through sales or usurpation. Bringing it closer home, during the time of inter-tribal wars, kingdoms and vassals fought for territorial acquisitions. In those primitive times, when humanity had not intentionally enacted rational laws to govern peaceful co-existence, anybody who felt stronger than their neighbor, could just get up and decide to invade and subjugate their neighbor with impunity. As neighbors conquered neighbors, so did foreign powers participate in this lucrative and fun business of invasions and conquests on the African landscape. Any conquered territories became the bona fide domain of the conqueror. Such behaviors replicated life in the jungle. The strong preyed on the weak and “dog ate dog”

Foreign invaders such as the British were vehemently resisted and several wars were fought to protect and preserve the natural endowments of people, clans and tribes. Many chiefs or ancestors sacrificed their lives in attempts to defend the land they inhabited in order to bequeath to their descendants and generations unborn. The protective resistance and agitation gave rise to the many independence movements and freedom fights. Independence was fought to reclaim and consolidate lands belonging to the present people and their descendants. Long after independence, when Ghana land was reclaimed from foreign invaders and restored to the people, the question of land ownership is still unresolved. Who owns Ghana land post independence? Does the land belong to the government, the chiefs, or the people?

A point worthy of notice is that, whereas the population has exploded and multiplied tenfold since independence, land boundaries remain static and the same. It means, ten times more people since independence are scrambling for the same land parcels. The phenomenon gives rise to the bullies, rich, well-connected, educated, famous and powerful to prey on the weak, illiterate, poor and vulnerable ones. Wars and conflicts are still raging among the tribes and peoples of Ghana over land ownership and distribution. When the vulnerable muster courage to resist and protect their obviously only legacy and property, clashes and even wars are started. Tribes have bloodily fought tribes, and families bloodily fought families. In some cases, land guards are hired to protect people’s lands. It is a very touchy but potentially explosive and dangerous issue dangling in the air. The question of land tenure is still begging for answers.

The Ghana constitution of Ghana is not definitive about ownership of land in Ghana either. The constitution vaguely puts chiefs as custodians of the land, meaning they hold lands in trust for the people. A simple dictionary definition of custodian states, “A person who has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something.” By this definition, a custodian is not an owner but a caretaker. For example, “a custodian of the crown jewels” holds keys to the strong room where the crown jewels are kept. Banks act as custodians of people’s investment and accounts but the money therein does not belong to the banks. Custodians merely take care or guard someone’s property to ensure its safety. Unless these vague and exploitative designations of land tenure such as stool lands, vested lands and state lands etc are clearly defined, we stand the risk of being plagued with wars, skirmishes and deadly disputes. The average Ghanaian does not know what these terms mean in reality. All we know is that, the chiefs have adopted predatory practices to seize people’s lands and scuttled their livelihoods claiming ownership of the entire land within their territories. To the chiefs, this investiture means they are the material and rightful owners of all lands within their territories. This reversal of ownership makes chiefs owners, and the people custodians of the land (holding land in trust for chiefs). And so, which is which? Who actually owns Ghana land?

A case in point is the land tenure system in the Techiman Tradition Council area in the Bono East region. The chiefs of the towns and villages have enacted their own land laws and pushed down the throats of the people. These days, chiefs do not protect and guard any lands for posterity. They are actively and hurriedly engaged in selling lands within their territories. The standard practice of land sale by the chiefs in the Techiman traditional council area gives, for an acre of land containing four building plots, 3 plots to the chiefs and one building plot to family owners of the land. And, it does not matter how long, or how many generations of family members may have possessed and farmed the land, or how many people are in the families presently. In the distribution of land booty, the Omanhene is entitled to one plot of land sold anywhere in the traditional area. Also, any vacant plot of land anywhere in the city is claimed by the chief as his property. Consequently, they have confiscated people's idle lands especially if they make any attempts to build structures on them. For his booty allocation, the Omanhene is alleged to put pressure on the subchiefs to sell more lands so he can get his allocation. In this booty distribution system, the subchief in whose territory the land for sale is located takes two plots. The chief of Oforikrom in the traditional council area claimed, “one plot is for my personal development and the other for the development of the village.” Ironically, the portion for the village is also wholly taken by the chief and never accounted for or turned over for any kind of development projects in the village. And this is the standard practice in the entire traditional domain. This means, the entire family or clan whose ancestors bequeathed the land as legacy and have resided on, and farmed the lands for centuries, is given one building plot out of four, for their development. Is this the distribution or land tenure system instituted by the Constitution of the republic?

It begs the question, for instance, for a chief co-opted from “somewhere” to be installed chief of a village he may never, in his entire life, have lived in, or even set foot in until his poaching and installation as chief to confiscate and apportion land to himself against the will of the people. He may have no friends, classmates, playmates, affinities and acquainted relatives in his new chiefdom. He may have become chief only on the grounds of an ancient tradition that stipulates that when there is a vacuum for a chief, the kingmakers cast their net wide to find which royal family is next in line of succession to produce a chief. In this search, they may go to a so-called family who may have moved to another town and lived all their lives there a century ago. So, they bring such a person to be chief of a place he may have no affinities, familial and social ties. For the last seventeen years or so that the Oforikromhene has been chief, he has never once slept in the village. To make the situation even more bizarre, he bought land in another village and built his house there while still the chief of village he has been installed chief. The village folks are livid and claim they have no chief. They resent the disrespect they get from the chief of their village who does not see them human enough to sleep amongst them. The chief works at a coastal town and therefore does not see the day-to-day issues affecting the village folks. He rules through caretaker stooges, or proxy looters (chief-appointed and land sales gang) instead of the other clan, family heads and sub-chiefs.

So as it stands, the chief takes their farm lands and apportions for sale claiming the town has extended to those farm lands. And when land is demarcated, the village folks cannot afford the price put on their own plots confiscated without compensation. It means the villagers’ lands are stripped from them and sold to strangers. In the long run, when their birthright and only worthwhile possession in the world, and the only source of livelihood is commandeered from their hands, then where in the world do they go? It is tantamount to depriving the voiceless village folks their birthright. This is daylight robbery and avaricious. It is predatory and it must stop or be stopped. Somebody needs to correct this anomaly and stop chiefs in Ghana from their predatory practices.

It begs the question of legitimacy. Should such chiefs, whose sole interest in chieftaincy is to snatch and sell the peoples’ lands for their personal indulgence, be chiefs at all? It would be different if such chiefs fought wars, as in the past, and conquered lands they could claim and make their own. But that is not the case. These chiefs do nothing meritorious to be installed chiefs. They go through no serious vetting to ascertain their suitability and qualification to be chiefs over people. They just inherit their chiefdoms by some bizarre traditions and customary legacies. We are all aware of how many vacant chief positions are currently beset with litigation and strife in Ghana. So how does all the land in chiefs’ domains become their bona fide properties through the stool, but for their personal gain? This is unsustainable in the 21st Century

Now, chiefs need to answer the questions if that is the accepted standard traditional practice in Akan culture. Has the Regional or National House of Chiefs approved such distribution and land tenure practices? Do the chiefs have any standard principles of rulership or do individual chiefs make their own rules? Culture and customs that they invoke as hegemony to be guarded for posterity’s sake, and the edification of the oracles have been skewed to become tools of suppression and fraud. This scenario is typical and pervasive of many traditional areas in the country. The national and regional house of chiefs have become accomplices in this predatory scheme of daylight oppression. Chiefs throughout the country are caught up in this systematic larceny of their people’s lands. So one is tempted to ask the obvious question: Is chieftaincy, as an institution, relevant in 21st century Ghana? What beneficial role do chiefs play in the national reconstruction? People answer the question by suggesting that chiefs preserve our customs and culture. Great! But what relevant culture are they preserving? The culture of chiefs in Ghana today is predatory and self-aggrandizing. Most only think about themselves and how much they can pillage and plunder from their poor, voiceless and vulnerable people.

With the population of Ghana exponentially increasing but with fixed, non-expandable land size, I can only foresee a time coming when people would do everything within their powers to protect their land from usurpation and seizure, sidestepping the laws and constitutional stipulations of Ghana. Danger is looming large as we have already experienced with what we call, “the Fulani menace.” With more migration from the North, including foreigners, in search of arable and grazing land, the phenomenon can only escalate. So, as a country with leaders, do we just sit down, as our custom is, for the worst case scenario to play out and then scramble for quick fixes? As the people’s anger bubble inside them, we may not have the luxury of negotiation when the bubble bursts. It can only create “the Arab Spring” type of situation where the aftermath of chaos and anarchy is very predictable.

The people of Ghana are crying and angry at the same time about their land confiscations by the very people that are supposed to protect and guard their sacred treasures. Is there anybody out there who cares and can save the situation before it escalates into chaos? Chiefs in Ghana have become predators, preying on their voiceless and vulnerable subjects. Chiefs need to know that they cannot rule over trees, or hills, or rivers or animals within their territories, but do only rule over people. It is because of people that they are chiefs. Therefore, as chiefs, they need to care about the safety, security and wellbeing of their subjects. They need to treat their subjects with respect and dignity even if they are poor or destitute folks. Any good chief would make enhancement and development of people’s lives their primary preoccupation. But, this practice of victimizing and preying on the very people who give chiefs their pedigree is unconscionable. Their major preoccupation has become pillaging the oracles and plundering the crown jewels. In addition to confiscating the people’s legacies for chiefs’ personal usage, these chiefs act as if the practice is enshrined in their traditional mandates. It is immoral and perverse. As more and more chiefs demonstrate wanton disregard for their people’s feelings, maybe a time will soon come when chiefs may not be needed in our modern civilization. Chiefs’ behaviors in their communities have got people talking about such a phenomenon. In the era of social media and information overflow, chiefs are digging their own graves of extinction. “Buyer beware!!”

Among others, every government’s foremost obligation is to “provide safety of law and order, protecting citizens from each other and from foreign foes” (Thomas Hobbes). This obligation is sacrosanct! If a government cannot provide these basic human rights, then it is not a proper government aware of its duties. It is ironic that various governments in Ghana look on, year after year, as Chiefs in the country prey on their people. While turning the blind eye to the atrocities perpetrated by chiefs, and deaf ears to the people's cries, they are swift to dispatch police or soldiers to quell protests by the people for inhumane treatment in the hands of their own chiefs. When criminals hold citizens hostage, government functionaries and law enforcement apparatus look the other way and seem to condone criminal activities. It appears law enforcement have become bedfellows with the criminals otherwise one wonders why they do not intervene in criminal holdups, though they know the criminals’ hideouts. Just a few years back, the youth of Techiman Traditional Council got permission to stage a peaceful protest against rampant ritual killings, scamming and defrauding by Mallams, spiritualists etc in the city. The youth and town folks have had enough of the unchecked and unstoppable criminal activities by an overwhelming number of perpetrators. The chiefs and law enforcement in the town should have preemptively checked and run these criminals out. To the contrary, they look the other way and by the omission of duty, become accomplices. Actually, sometimes these miscreants are defended and protected by the chiefs. As soon as the youth decided to help their extenuating circumstances by ridding their town of crime and fraudulent activities, police were dispatched into Techiman, not to arrest the criminals who are well-known, but to arrest the protestors who assume the job of protecting their families and the town folks from criminal gangs. If there are any genuine leaders and not themselves predators, looting and sharing the natural birthrights of Ghanaian citizens, would such leaders rise to the occasion? Somebody must explain why they do not chase and arrest criminals, but turn around to arrest people who are trying to protect and keep their communities safe (Citifmonline.com, March 25, 2018). Why does law enforcement arrest the people who are trying, in their own limited ways, to do the job that the government promised but has failed to do? Did citizens vote the government into power to also suppress people’s birthrights and oppressively silence their voices of protests into subjugation? Is anybody on the people’s side or should communities build their own security forces? Is the government using the law enforcement apparatus to suppress and oppress its citizens into silence? Watch out!!

This land tenure practices in Ghana must be resolved sooner rather than later, because I am afraid of the so many boiling hearts out there that might fight back if nobody fights for them. Remember, life is about survival and in irrational environments (jungle), the fittest and the most resilient survive. Can justice be granted the people of Techiman Traditional area especially, the people of the village of Oforikrom? Does anybody care?

By Yaw Ofori-Amanfo

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