Opinions Fri, 16 Sep 2011

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Why Are We Moving Our Foreign Ministry To Airport Junction?

Following the blaze which burnt out the 11 storey Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in the ministries area, Ghana’s foreign affairs minister, Alhaji Mohammed Mumuni announced that his ministry would construct a new building on the twelve acre plot of land which it “owns”, at Airport Junction, the previous site of the International Students Hostel.

I’m glad that the State saved that tract of land from the grasping and avaricious hands of some politicians, their cronies and associates. Whoever consented to the carving up of that land and approved its sale at knock-down prices for ex-gratia sale to politicians and a smattering of technocrats and bureaucrats must lower their heads in individual and collective shame.

Subsequent to that fire, the President by edict, ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pitch tent temporarily in the visually insipid and ugly new building originally intended to be the seat of government. That building quite appropriately christened Jubilee House was childishly and in typically silly, Ghanaian political tit for tat fashion renamed Flagstaff House; a name synonymous with our subjugation under colonial rule. Level heads in government and our Council of State should have prevailed and insisted that we maintain the Jubilee House name and put to shame this puerile renaming. In any case, and had we concurred on a need to re-christen the building, did we have to bolt giant letters of a tasteless undeterminable font type which shout “Flagstaff House!”, to the top of the gates? Whoever is responsible for managing the building should immediately knock them off. At the White House, 10 Downing St. and Buckingham Palace, there are no large signs proclaiming what they are, but there is no doubt about their identity. The architecturally inspiring, refreshing Dutch Embassy building half a kilometer away with its sculpted landscape and evergreen gardens has only small letters set into its wall, telling us what it is. There’s no doubt its identity. Let’s do things properly, with discernment and tastefully. Won’t small discreet, timeless brass plaques with the name of the building at each official entrance do?

Having wandered, I’ll now raise my objection to government’s recent formal inauguration of the construction of a new building for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the site of the old students’ hostel. My quarrel is with the location. Why there? If the old ministry building has been destroyed by fire, why don’t we just dynamite it and rebuild the new ministry building there? The site of the World Trade Centre buildings, where hundreds died, “Ground Zero” for all the pain and tears it evokes in America is going to see reconstruction. Why should a fire result in a relocation of this ministry? All the ministries are situated in central Accra. Do we have to relocate the foreign ministry to Airport Residential Area? Does the fact that the ministry “owns” the land at Airport Junction mean it can use it as it pleases? Are there any land use regulations for that plot? Have these rules been amended? Can’t we save that land for some more aesthetic ambitious jaw-dropping project in future when we have oil receipts? I do not see what or whose interest is served by relocating the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from its nice site in the Ministries area to Airport Junction. The reason cited is the selfish, self-centred one; that officials and workers of that ministry do not like the former location because it is too close to the Tema Station market and the Novotel Lorry Station and it is in a rather noisy environment.

I can say without equivocation that the decision to rebuild the foreign ministry at Airport Junction was not founded on any public interest or careful rationalization. It was a knee-jerk solution. My plea is for us to stop work on the building for the foreign ministry at Airport Junction, demolish the gutted building and rebuild it there. We should save this prime, strategic, state owned piece of real estate for the future and build the crown jewel of our state owned properties there. Hopefully that will be designed and built by Ghanaians when our oil receipts ensure that we don’t have to borrow to finance everything. But this being Ghana the most likely refrain will be; “work has started already, it doesn’t matter” and “it will be too expensive to stop work and start all over again”. I’m sure the Chinese to whom the project has been contracted can produce at least five architectural drawings which fit the ministry’s old site and suit the ministry’s requirements by next week for us to choose from! It won’t be an issue for them if the government suddenly announces a change in its plans.

In some other jurisdictions such as South Africa or Malaysia, countries whose development agenda and methods we feebly aspire to emulate, with the raising of this red flag, work on the project, will, in the long term public interest and without any negative political implications, generate some discussion among state actors such as the Town Planning Department, AMA and the ministry as to whether the decision to re-build the ministry at Airport Junction was our most prudent. But this is Ghana. It will not. Were we to carry out a cold, objective re-assessment and re-rationalization of whether it makes sense to move the foreign ministry to Airport Junction, there’d be only one conclusion; it doesn’t. Let’s BE BOLD! STOP WORK! and shelf this simplistic quick fix solution.

Too many of our ministries, departments and government agencies dot Accra far and wide. The Free Zones Board office sits uncomfortably on a triangular sliver of land on what should be a nicely manicured open garden at a V-junction in East Cantonments. There is hardly any space for staff and visitors to park within their premises. BOST recently moved its corporate offices from Roman Ridge to Airport Residential Area. From the way its staff’s vehicles line both sides of the road I doubt their move has improved their corporate image or efficiency. Examples of government departments setting up shop in residential areas are aplenty. A few are: NPA in the crowded Centurion House in East Cantonments, GETFund and the Internal Audit Agency in Airport Residential Area and the National Buffer Stock Co. which recently refurbished a government building on a one acre plot at Cantonments. There are several small government agencies housed in small buildings all over Ringway Estates. It doesn’t ensure that business is done efficiently. It’s haphazard dealing with government agencies. That is due in no small measure to the fact that they are not centralized.

Two or three twenty floor modern tower buildings will accommodate most of our ministries, departments and agencies. We should be planning to demolish these antiquated relics which house our ministries and occupy large tracts of land and replace them with space and energy efficient towers. Last week I was at the Ministry of Energy. It was undergoing some refurbishment. Masons were at work and sliding glass windows are replacing the old louvres. Porcelain tiles were being laid over the old terrazzo floors. I muttered to myself; “what a waste, this building should be in the process of being pulled down!” Maybe when “the oil money comes” we’ll see a new energy ministry building at the very least.

A lot of land in the ministries area is used for parking cars. It’s wasteful. Land around the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Environment and the Ghana Highway Authority illustrate this. Multi-storey car parks (five floors at least!) will save us land. We must, (if there is none) have an ambitious blueprint to transform Accra’s drab ministries area into a modern enclave. It can be done. It must be done. Can we bell this cat with our feverishly awaited “oil money?”

Johnny Blukoo-Allotey Accra, Ghana.

Columnist: Blukoo-Allotey, Johnny

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