I am compelled by the murder of Mr. Andre Meyer, 49, a Zimbabwean British Investor in Ghana, to release this four-part article prematurely. My condolence to the bereaved family, friends, and well-wishers. My personal circumstances compelled me to protest this situation and presented two petitions to Ghana’s Legislative Assembly of which one was on land administration. As I await a response from the legislative assembly, I wish to emphasize that the issue of land administration can no longer be postponed. Solutions are abound to stop these self-inflicted wounds. Ghanaians need to rise up and demand answers from leadership. God will not come down from heaven to give us solutions.
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 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 favored 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 iniquitous phenomenon, the agrarian laws were proposed by 486 BC to distribute land among the poor plebeians to be used for homes (homestead), a way of correcting the misdistribution.
In modern day Zimbabwe, land possession has been a major area of dispute between the white minority farmers and the black majority landless of that country. Attempts to correct a historic colonial injustice rather compounded the problem with lands redistributed ending up in the hands of the black elite and inaccessible to lower-class Zimbabweans whose population has been growing. Racial injustice, colonial exploitation and, recently, greed on the part of the new African elite, among other pertinent issues, have combined to frustrate the efforts at correcting the problem. This, in fact, has affected agricultural production in that country, bringing the once self-sufficient agricultural based economy, popularly referred to as the “food basket of Africa,” to the point of hunger and starvation. No wonder Robert Mugabe, the country’s only president since independence has become a symbol of that system’s failure.
As a school boy so many years ago, I learned in my agriculture studies lesson that land fragmentation, acquisition, and tenure were some of the problems impeding food production not only in Ghana but across the African continent. While systems of land administration on the continent may vary from country to country, and from culture to culture, it is one area where African governments have not been very proactive in righting the wrongs of the past, either inflicted by colonialism or the chieftaincy institution, in its varied forms across the continent.
In comparing the case of Ghana with that of Zimbabwe, although Ghana’s situation is completely different from that of Zimbabwe, she hasn’t fared any better as a country on that front. 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. This was at the end of the slave trade when Europeans began to move into the hinter-lands to (mis)-appropriate landed properties of huge mineral deposits to themselves. Sarba’s persistent organized opposition - to this new form of exploitation of African resources – which culminated in the formation of the Aborigines Rights Protection Society (ARPS) which sent a delegation to England, eventually led the British colonists to backtrack on their policy regarding land acquisition and ownership. Had the policy been allowed a place in Ghanaian history, the story would not have been too different from the ugly confrontations that have engulfed Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, and earlier the Mao Mao rebellion in Kenya. Most of the rich arable lands would have passed into the hands of the Europeans, leaving the locals to scramble 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 has been independent and managing her own affairs for over half a century. Colonialism had come and gone. Most Ghanaian lands are vested in the authority of stools and skins, as represented by chiefs and kings, queen mothers and other important traditional institutions such as families and clan heads for its management, allocation, and tenure. Closely linked with the traditional institutions for its management and allocation are newly formed vigilante groups known as “land guards” in Ghanaian parlance – macho men who offer unlawful security and protection against perceived encroachment associated with the wrongful sale and/or rampant multiple sale of the same plot to many buyers. Therefore, there are middlemen who conduct the business side of land administration – facilitating the sales of lands between chiefs and traditional leaders and prospective buyers – and land guards who lurk around the palaces of chiefs in wait for prospective buyers to offer unlawful security and protection. In the process, lives have been lost with properties worth millions of dollars destroyed wantonly. The picture clearly depicts the law of the jungle - only the fittest of the fit can survive.
The question, therefore, is whether this way of land administration and management have 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 wonders if the traditional belief that the land belongs to the ancestors, and is only vested in the care of the chiefs and the traditional institutions for the ancestors, the present generation and even the unborn holds water any longer.
Chiefs, queen mothers and traditional leaders who are supposedly the link between the ancestors, the living, and posterity and the custodians of communal 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 notionally enviable characters. Contrary to this belief, some of these chiefs and traditional leaders have descended so low with acts of indiscretion, avarice, questionable and dodgy attitudes in the sales of these lands that they are supposed to manage for society. They have failed to live up to expectation and do not even deserve the trust reposed in them by their communities in many cases. This is not to say all chiefs and the traditional institutions act in such reprehensible manner in disposing off land.
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 their communities and the development course. There are already a plateful of chieftaincy and land disputes to handle nationwide.
To cite but a few instances of the reckless manipulation in the administration of landed resources, the late overlord of New Ningo Prampram, Nene Gidigago III, in an interesting twist was alleged to have sold parcels of land, including cemeteries to some rich individuals including highly placed people in government to the disappointment of his subjects. While the indigenous people believed that the chief’s abhorrent act triggered the deaths of seven close relatives including his messenger who was the middleman in the transaction within a span of one year, the spiritual atonements do not answer critical questions of what consequences befall the procurers of such lands and what institutional mechanism there are to address a canker that has engulfed a nation seeking investors without addressing fundamental problems that confront the investment community. It only makes one to wonder where the canker is leading. Would the NPP administration, under whose leadership this criminal act was committed, not have incurred the displeasure of the Ningo people for interfering in what they might regard as their traditional affairs? Did the NPP have the moral high ground even at the time to confront the issue head-on when they were themselves misappropriating state landed properties to themselves, family members and political cronies? There is already the feeling among Gas that Ashantis and other non-Gas have taken over too much of their lands in Accra and its environs, legally though. The prospects of any state intervention would have exacerbated already distrustful inter-ethnic relations.
Prosper Yao Tsikata