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20.11.2005 Feature Article

Our Land Tenure System Our Development Bane

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Land acquisition and tenure which eventually defines its distribution among a population have been a major bone of contention between individuals, communities, societies and even nations since ancient times. From ancient Greece and Rome to modern day Zimbabwe, land acquisition, tenure and distribution has sparked off some of the most notorious and undying conflicts spanning generations and affecting development, human activities and life.

In ancient Rome, the Agrarian Laws were proposed to remedy the evil trend of public lands or AGER PUBLICUS ending up in the hands of the Patricians, who were favoured by the patrician magistrates in the distribution of land. These lands referred to as AGER OCCUPATUS or possession, which were still the property of the state gradually passed into the hands of sons of the patricians with the passage of time robbing the state of its ownership. To address that dangerous phenomenon, the agrarian laws were proposed by 486 BC to distribute land among the poor plebeians to be used for homes (homestead) as a way of correcting the misdistribution.

In modern day Zimbabwe, land possession has been a major area of dispute between the White minority and the Black majority of that country. Attempts to correct a historic colonial injustice rather compounded the problem with lands redistributed ending up in the hands of the educated Black elites and inaccessible to lower-class Zimbabweans whose population has been growing. This, in fact, has affected agricultural production in that country, bringing the once self-sufficient agricultural country popularly referred to as the 'food basket of Africa' to the point of hunger and starvation. No wonder Mugabe has been branded as one of the most demonic African presidents of our time for the failure of his land redistribution policy hinging on the inequality rants.

Is the case any better in Ghana? A journey through a century of land administration in Ghana by traditional authorities reveals an ugly state of affairs. In the 18th century, John Mensah Sarbah, a leading critic of British colonial rule, especially in connection with land ownership, spoke against the unscrupulous and dubious laws which made it easy for European appropriation and usurpation of the most fertile lands and lands with huge deposits of mineral resources, making the colonial institution to backtrack on its policy regarding land acquisition and ownership. Had the policy been allowed a place in Ghanaian history, the locals would have been left scrambling for the arid and desolate lands, a situation with the potential of creating huge numbers of locals without any land holdings and generating the Zimbabwe-style of tension and confusion. The heroic and patriotic accomplishment of John Mensah Sarbah did not only make lands available to the locals but also fended off that ugly situation in Zimbabwe as a result of government-led land redistribution exercise.

Today Ghana is independent. Colonialism had come and gone. Most of Ghanaian lands are vested in the authority of stools and skins, chiefs and kings, queen mothers and other important traditional institutions for its management, allocation, tenure and distribution. The vigilante land guards are there to provide unlawful security and protection against perceived encroachment. In the process lives have been lost with properties worth millions of cedis destroyed wantonly. The picture clearly depicting the law of the jungle-only the fittest of the fit can survive.

The question, therefore, is has this way of land administration and management been any helpful to us as a nation? The answer clearly drifts away from the affirmative response. We have failed to manage what belongs to us and posterity properly for the benefit of our nation and its development. One would wonder if the traditional belief that the land belongs to the ancestors, and the kings, chiefs and traditional elders who are supposed to be the custodians of these lands for the ancestors, the present generation and even the unborn holds water any longer.

Kings, chiefs, queen mothers and traditional leaders who are supposedly the link between the ancestors, the present and posterity and rightly the custodians of our land holdings are seen as the moral touchstone of our society. They are, therefore, expected to act with the maximum decorum and without reproach, as the younger generation is expected to emulate their enviable characters. Contrary to this belief, some of our chiefs and traditional leaders have descended so low with acts of indiscretion, avarice, questionable and dodgy attitudes in the sales of these lands they are supposed to manage for us. These people have completely failed to live up to expectation and do not even deserve the trust repose in them by their communities any longer. But who has the moral courage to approach this topic without being accused of trying to undermine traditional authority? Even the fear of plunging a whole traditional area into unending chieftaincy and land disputes is a clear warning to people or leaders who mean well for our country and her development course. There are already a plateful of chieftaincy and land disputes to handle nationwide.

Consider the case of Nene Gidigago III, the late overlord of New Ningo Prampram, who was alleged to have sold parcels of land; including cemeteries to highly placed people in government and rich individuals to the disappointment of his subjects. Would the present administration or government, seen as Ashanti-led, not incur the displeasure of the Ningo people for interfering in what they may perceive as their traditional affairs? There is already the feeling among Gas that Ashantis have taken over all their lands in Accra and its environs, legally though. The propensity of this intervention exacerbating an already precarious situation is crystal clear. The other thorny issue is the news alleging the complicity of highly placed government officials in the buying. Would they be able to have the moral courage to intervene without being accused of double standards? No wonder some are advocating for a University for kings, Chiefs, traditional elders to receive some form of training with our limited resources in order for them, maybe, to have a clearer picture of their roles and duties in our economic, political and social life as a country.

The most disappointing thing about this whole thing is when even our elites, for example, the President (SRC or whatever) of our august law school, who is to know better, could also roll-up his own men to a site to defend what he thinks belongs to him legitimately as reported by the chronicle a bout three weeks ago, then we need really serious measures to tackle a serious issue.

With that said, the financial requirements to acquire a plot of land in Accra, cities and towns around the country is such that it will take the average civil servant and other low income earners-who are in the majority-a lifetime savings to acquire a parcel of land to even consider a two-bedroom house to shelter him/her after serving mother Ghana in all truthfulness. There is no gainsaying that this unbeatable desire can only be achieved by most Ghanaians at the very sunset of their lives. Many are those who will not be able to achieve it at all. Those who even dare take the onerous step of acquiring lands for housing and other development purpose dread the notorious land guards who will fall short of nothing to even take lives unlawfully to protect what is supposed to be protected by law and traditional customs. Chiefs and traditional leaders cannot disassociate themselves from these horrendous and disgraceful acts of these bravados for it is the multiple sales of lands, sale of non-existing parcels of land and the selling of places earmarked for social amenities that call for the outlawed land guards to protect what is already protected by law and custom.

Lifetime savings of innocent and law abiding citizens have been destroyed in this notorious trade. Loans from banks and other financial institutions, with interests payable to lenders, idle in the banks whilst long years of litigation ensue. In the worst cases investments in buildings and structures had been demolished with lives lost and bodies maimed by these notorious land guards creating a huge loss to both local and foreign investors.

The effects of this situation is further translated into shortage of housing and its corollary high rents in Accra and other major towns and cities, as people are afraid to invest their hard earned savings in projects they fear might end up being demolished by land guards. The acute housing problem facing Accra and other major cities in the country will continua until a solution is found to this problem the land acquisition and tenure problem. . A critical look at the infrastructure development of Accra reveals a very sorry state of unplanned execution of buildings in water ways, in places earmarked for the building of social amenities etc. One is sometimes tempted to ask if we really know what is beautiful. Some old neighbourhoods in the capital and other major cities in the country already have overwhelming signs of improper planning and haphazard execution of buildings with consequences that will be there for generations to come. With this development in mind, one would have thought that plans for newly developing suburbs in the capital and elsewhere around the country will follow some plan but a trip to Ablekuma, where Kwaku Ninja, the police officer from the commando Unit and his colleagues were murdered, Kokrobite and other parts of the capital reveals developers are still not heeding the call for order in the execution of buildings as a result of the confusion in land administration in the country.

In 1998, the then Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation could not account for well over 40% of the water it produced as a result of waste and theft of water from various points in and around the city. A couple of months ago, a reputable banking institution in Ghana revealed that it is not able to grant loans to people because they have no traceable addresses to which they can locate them in case they default payment. Only heavens know how much power is tap from the lines of the only provider, Electricity Corporation of Ghana, illegally. In the near future, Ghana and other West African Countries will be benefiting from the West African Gas Pipeline project with 85% of Ghana's share servicing households.

The question is how prepared are we in managing the gas that will be flowing from the Niger Delta straight into our homes? Shall we be able to manage these resources well enough to avoid a situation similar to that of Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation as narrated above not talking about health and safety issues that may result from extending gas to homes across the country?

Clearly, the possibility of people trying to tap gas illegally from the pipes into their homes to avoid billing cannot be underestimated and must be considered at this stage. The probability of fire outbreaks spreading across some neighbourhoods due to their inaccessibility as a result of haphazard buildings cannot be underestimated, too.

By now it should be clear that when we miss the basics of development, we live to pay the price in the long-run and in no small way. Take a look at the attached picture of selected cities in a country supposedly on the same development pedestal with Ghana some 40 years ago and compare to our capital. The answer is clear. We have failed to follow order.

Assuming houses were well planned, the land properly demarcated and houses well numbered and addressed, the huge economic potentials in the postal services could be tapped to create thousands of jobs for huge numbers of our unemployed SSS and university graduates and drop-outs who are roaming the dessert in their quest to enter Europe to make a better life. After all, I have seen many Master's holders and PhD holders do the same jobs or even more lower ones like cleaning and emptying the bin in North America and Europe, so why not at home? The distribution of mails, door-to-door services, is a huge employer in Europe, America and even in Zimbabwe until recently but this opportunity cannot be tapped due to the haphazard nature of our housing system. Critics may talk about the unavailability of the needed investment for such a project, but do we have to wait until the needed investment arrive before we put our house in order? Let us learn to wait for the bus not the bus waiting for us.

Readership can now make their personal analysis of the issue and make their judgement as Ghanaians not a Fante, Ewe, Ga, Ashanti, Dagomba, NDC, NPP, CPP etc, in order to answer the question whether our land tenure system has been any helpful to us or not. We cannot, in this case, point accusing fingers at any external powers for doing unto us things we easily point accusing fingers at others for doing unto us. If we don't get passionate about these issues now and take holistic steps as a nation to correct them now, we may endanger the trust that is supposed to exist between our generations for failing to do what is right.

I have read about fragmentation of land and a problematic land tenure system in Ghana as a major hindrance to agricultural development as a young school boy, but many years on we have still not been able to find solutions to it. It is for this reason that Ghanaians need to embrace the on-going restructuring of the processes involved in land acquisition, tenure and its distribution in order to weed out all the unscrupulous and undesirable people, especially land guards in this process to bring some sanity into the land sector. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Prosper Yao Tsikata
Prosper Yao Tsikata, © 2005

The author has 111 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: ProsperYaoTsikata

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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