In a recent confrontation, the NDC government attempted to repossess parcels of lands classified as state lands, lands which were acquired from traditional authorities for development projects. Just like the Ager Publicus discussed in part I of this series, these lands ended up in the hands of the political elite, people who were expected to jealously protect these properties in the supreme interest of the state. These lands were (mis) appropriated to political elites at knockdown prices. You may be tempted to pose the question: would they have treated their personal properties as such? In an attempt to justify this daylight robbery, Hackman Owusu Agyemang, a former Minister under the NPP, who perhaps was a legatee, too, claimed their predecessors, the NDC also benefitted from a similar booty when they were in office. To the extent that we now rationalize the misappropriation of state properties through dubious means, as custodians of these properties without the slightest inkling of conflict of interest, does not only smack of insensitivity to the original owners from whom these lands were acquired by the state. It speaks volumes of the failure of state institutions to jealously safeguard the collective interest and the degeneration of the morals of individuals who occupy our public offices. It is even fascinating to hear these so-called honorable men mudsling each other in an attempt to find non-existent justifications for their ill-gotten wealth. The names that came up as individuals who either showed interest or were beneficiaries of similar ill-gotten lands at one point or the other makes one’s jaw-drop wide open in astonishment - the Chief Justice of the land, the sitting vice-president (NDC), and a host of top functionaries of both parties. The problem of course is simply this: if the Chief Justice, the ultimate defender of the interest of the state, can scandalously participate in the raping of the state, then virtue must have fled the earth since men started to congregate around coercive state power to force their will on their fellow men. Or, this is the way of the thing called democracy. I thought democracy has made ways for the balance of power within or among the arms of government – the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature – through separation of powers and checks and balances, so these anomalies could be prevented.
I implore you to imagine one morning, at the tail end of his presidency, Bush calls the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the Secretary to the Treasury, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, and a host of other top functionaries of his government and allocate plots of land around the Washington, D.C. area to them for 10% of the market value of those lands. In an attempt to find justification, his spokesperson points out that even Joe Biden or Al Gore were all beneficiaries of similar munificence from the Clinton administration.
Interestingly, the Chief Justice, after shamefully giving up her share of the booty, still had no sense of shame or remorse to realize that high standards are required for the function of her office and she is supposed to act without reproach. I shudder to say that in more developed and functional democracies, resignation would be consequential. My fear does not stem from being accused of soiling the star image of Ghana’s democracy, rather it stems from the lack of deep appreciation on the part of those in position of public trust who are supposed to be the standard bearers of society and are supposed to lead by example but lack the integrity. They have failed to hold themselves to the standards they require their fellow men to live up to. In more developed functional democracies, resignation would have followed immediately she gave up the property. But, because their tenures are hedged either by outmoded laws or by their political parties, and not by the merit of the individual, they, without modicum of shame, continue in their offices, forgetting that their moral high grounds have been flooded by impropriety.
Whilst not holding brief for the NPP, if indeed NDC functionaries benefited from similar arrangements in the past or even showed interest in the recent transactions of the NPP, as the affected individuals of the “property owning democratic persuasion” have indicated, then who is the NDC trying to please with their holier than thou attitude, when both parties have capitalized on very, very, weak state institutions within our democracy to embark on a fleecing spree with the people’s mandate?
Let me allow my fantasies to roam a bit. If even the President, John Evans Atta-Mills, as a professor of law had to wait on the institution he once lectured at, University of Ghana, to ballot for him to be given a land to purchase, (perhaps, in another fleecing of land intended for public use), does that not send a signal to the society that something is definitely wrong with land administration? If he could not afford to purchase a parcel of land on the open market for whatever reason, then what happens to the ordinary citizen of low standing?
The status of those whose names came up in this reprehensible plunder should tell the Ghanaian something. On both sides of the political aisle, we have individuals whose interests supersede the interest of the state. The question of conflict of interest is way out of the way for these individuals.
No wonder, there were efforts by the NPP administration to set up a college where chiefs and other traditional rulers may receive some form of training; perhaps, to educate our chiefs on their roles and duties in our economic, political and social life as a country. While this is laudable, I suggest we can also have a college for the training of politicians on the issue of conflict of interest. This way, both the traditional institutions and the political institutions will appreciate issues of accountability, transparency, integrity as they concern both institutions.
The most disappointing thing about this development is that as a result of the confusion that has engulfed the process of land acquisition and tenure, our elite now seek a safety net to avoid their monies being squandered by crooked chiefs and their accomplices to whom the land trade has become a lucrative business for extorting money from unsuspecting individuals. There have been cases of highly-placed individuals in society authorizing vigilante land guards to demolish properties worth millions of cedis belonging to private individuals on claims that the land on which the properties are, belonged to them. There are other instances where individuals were killed or maimed in the process. Even former president Rawlings was a victim when land reportedly sold to him by an Akwamu chief was resold to an NPP appointee. Investor, beware!
Obviously, for failing to reform land laws in order to inject some sanity into land acquisition and tenure around the country, they are fighting over what is considered the property of the state, as those are deemed to have some aura of security around them especially due to their locations.
With all 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 purposes 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 jobless desperados, 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 supposedly 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.
But just like anything Ghanaian, instead of a concerted effort at the political level to ensure that some level of sanity is injected into the administration of land, the individual is made to pay the price for the system’s failure. In a working democracy, one would have expected reforms in the laws that governed land tenure and administration to ensure that the law is on the side of those who are ripped off in their attempt to invest in landed properties and so on. But, instead, what is observable is that while the laws or bye laws on land tenure are almost nonexistent or outdated, political leadership is quick to punish individuals who are assumed to have flouted building regulations by encroaching on public lands or state lands or even waterways. But a closer look at some of the cases reveals that some of these lands were acquired legitimately through some chiefs and their underlings and building permits endorsed by the land registry and other state mandated instutions.
Instead of bold efforts to confront the problem through institutional reforms, we wait until individuals expend millions and billions of cedis in landed investments only for government to move in to demolish assets worth a lifetime of savings in a country with housing deficits running into millions.
As usual, this has also assumed political colors with affected individuals imputing their political persuasion as the reason for their structures being demolished. If government truly wants to inject some sanity into land administration, I think it is just fair to Ghanaians that government promulgate laws to ensure that all landed properties of stools and skins are first registered and documented by each traditional authority. University students in the area of land economy and geography may be engaged in this endeavor as part of their university projects, under the supervision of their lecturers and officials from the land ministry, to demarcate these lands using modern geographical positioning implements for accuracy and so on. The project will either be cost to government or each traditional institution. In this way, students would be learning something very practical, the cost would be minimal, while at the same time some level of sanity would be injected into the acquisition process, in the sense that the land administration offices would have readily available maps on all used and unused lands that are up for sale for verification purposes at any material moment.
To make this look more practical, anyone who has ever used a map quest or GPS to plot or locate a destination they are travelling to should be familiar with how this simple technology could come in handy to save the Ghanaian situation. When people show interest in lands, they can easily walk to the offices of the stool land administration and do a search that should not last for more than a few minutes. The plotted maps on computers could be pulled up by prospective buyers with or without the help of plotting assistances to verify availability and legitimacy. It is like going to any department store and using the public computers installed within the store to check for the availability of items within the store and the shelves on which they are located.
There are a number of young Ghanaian graduates with degree in geography and its related areas of specialization. Application of GPS technologies is one of them. But would the political will be there to engage an institution – the chieftaincy institution - that hardly understands where we are, in our forward march, within the global scheme of things? Are politicians not so scared of chiefs who may goad their subjects to vote against them, if these overtures do not go down well with them?
I believe sometimes, the lack of understanding makes us to shy away from simple technologies that have the capacity to solve some of the problems that seem to defy all solutions. Google has just unveiled its Google Earth, a GIS and GPS systems that are used in plotting public lands and locations within Google Earth. These are inexpensive technologies, I mean not like buying airplanes and building presidential palaces, but have the potential to free the land and encourage an orderly utilization of the land. The advantages that come with this are many: orderly construction of houses with the potential for an address system, issuing of genuine ownership titles which could serve as collateral for loans from the banks for profitable ventures, easy acquisition of land for both commercial and domestic purposes, easy identification of landed properties for revenue mobilization, etc. I have no doubt in my mind that when the land is freed, it has the potential to generate the needed revenues which could serve as a source of finance for us to continue to build the presidential palaces and buy the most sophisticated jets and not the other way round.
While I believe that government has the mandate to ensure sanity in the land administration and the construction sector, I also believe that government has no right in demolishing peoples’ properties when government has failed explore available solutions including the use of technology, and bye laws in protecting the individual’s lifetime investments.
Prosper Yao Tsikata