Public Inquiry into Location of Accra Mall Warranted

Fri, 30 Oct 2009 Source: Tsuo, Cedric

Location of the Accra Shopping Mall right on the shoulder of the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout has aroused public anger and bewilderment since its construction two years ago. It is difficult to see why the NPP government, having spent huge public funds to construct the Roundabout, would turn round later to grant permission for the construction of the Mall there. It simply makes no sense. This raises a legitimate question as to whether the Ghanaian partners, whoever they are, had connections with influential political figures in the Kufour government and, therefore, managed to steer the project away from proper vetting.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is the following: (a) to explain why there is so much seething public anger over the location of the Mall; and (b) to appeal to president Mills seriously to consider appointing a judicial commission to investigate the NPP government’s decision to grant construction permission for that location. The remit of the commission might include: (i) establishing whether there was any improper influence or interference at any stage with the vetting and decision-making processes; and (ii) making such recommendations, including guidelines for legislation, as it might deem necessary, to ensure that in future the design and location of such big projects, whether governmental or private, were subject to prior public hearing, so as to ensure that the welfare of Ghanaians and protection of our environment were given due consideration. With respect to the latter, I shall highlight some of the environmental and economic harmful aspects of the Volta River Dam at Akosombo to illustrate my concern.

But, first, the prologue. The consequences of our African presidents’ unique talent to under develop their countries provide an instructive background against which to examine the issues raised in this article. African presidents epitomize conventional wisdom that politics is too important to leave to politicians. We can see the truth of that all around us: underdevelopment, abject poverty, corruption, disdain for rule of law, rigging elections, lack of good governance, lack of accountability, misplaced priorities, poor judgements and decisions, greed, self-aggrandizement, ostentatious life style, power worship, arrogance. The list is endless.

Whilst the rest of the developing or underdeveloped world, Asia and Latin America in particular, is making rapid progress in improving the standard of living of their peoples through accountable government, notably judicious and disciplined management of resources, in real terms Africa is moving backwards. Otherwise, what rational explanation is there for the endemic poverty, hunger, squalor, and run-down social and educational infrastructures to which the vast majority of our peoples are subjected whilst our politicians wallow in obscene opulence? Some people may disagree with me but I strongly believe that African countries have over the decades received generous enough foreign aid to lift their peoples out of poverty. But what do we have to show for all that aid? In my opinion, pretty very little. Our presidents and other politicians squander our aid with total abandon: some on prestigious or pet projects of no benefit whatsoever to our peoples; some to undo the consequences of our bad decisions (the Government of Ghana will probably have to divert resources from pressing social needs-schools or hospitals-to try to rectify the problem of traffic congestion caused by the Mall). The rest of foreign aid is siphoned off into private banks accounts ironically in those same donor countries. African rulers, some of whose brains are resting peacefully in a state of comatose, have yet to demonstrate on the ground that they are capable of harnessing and managing their abundant God-given human and natural resources for the benefit of all their peoples, not just for themselves, families and cronies.

There are several reasons for Africa’s lamentable and disgraceful performance. However, those reasons are not the focus of this article except one, which has some relevance here, namely, African presidents’ contempt for rule of law in a broad sense of the term. I may be wrong but I think Africa’s constitutions are part of the problem. Very unwisely, they concentrate a lot of power (too much power) in the hands of presidents, without adequate corresponding checks and balances. (If a sitting president can unilaterally change a constitution to enable him to extend his term in office, some indefinitely, what chances do other institutions, such as parliaments and the courts, have to subject executive action to scrutiny?) So, African presidents are quick to turn their extensive powers into a formidable instrument of patronage to cajole and to intimidate and, in most cases, to suppress and repress those who dare to criticise them. This in part explains why African presidents’ decisions and actions are neither regulated nor subjected to scrutiny. It also explains why Africa’s parliamentarians sit in parliament with their tails between their legs for fear of losing out on ministerial or other juicy appointments or being unceremoniously dispatched into political oblivion.

In a situation such as we have in Africa where our executive presidents have all the power, the people cannot afford the luxury of leaving politics to politicians. Either as individuals or group, we must be willing and prepared to constitute ourselves into informal institutional checks and balances on executive power. This is why I wholeheartedly applaud and respect those Ghanaians who take the trouble to write and post constructive articles to air social and economic issues of concern to us in the hope, not forlorn hope I hope, that our Ghanaian governmental authorities and politicians do read the Ghanaweb and take notice of what we say. However, I believe there are many more Ghanaians out there who could also write but do not do so for one reason or the other. Some may feel that our politicians are beyond redemption and that there is little point in expending time and energy to write. I appreciate their scepticism. At the same time, I can only encourage them not to lose hope but come forward and write. (One recent writer rightly encouraged Ghanaians to ring directors of departments and put them to task about issues that affect them. This is the kind of active involvement we need from all Ghanaians and of all political persuasions, if we are to make an impact.) Who knows? One day one or two politicians may rise like a phoenix from the ashes and raise the interest of Ghana and Ghanaians to the level of a sacred trust.

End of prologue, and I apologize if it is a bit too long. That brings me back to the specific subject of this article, namely, the incomprehensible decision by the previous government to grant permission for the location of the Accra Mall at the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout. Both in social and economic terms, the consequences of that decision can only be described as catastrophic. I had long been thinking of doing a piece on the subject. Finally, last week I decided to do something about it. I had just finished jotting down a few notes when I read Mr. Ernest Addae-Bosompra’s incisive feature article titled “Accra Shopping Mall: Right Solution: Wrong Location” (Ghanaweb, 15 October 2009).

As we know very well, the Kufour government much to its credit in 2005 constructed the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout in response to the horrendous jam that used to choke traffic from the Motorway, Legon Road and Spintex Road going into and out of Accra city centre. In all fairness to the NPP government, the Roundabout greatly eased traffic around there. Once one managed (with maximum dexterity, but not without trepidation and considerable courage) to manoeuvre one’s way into the loop at the Roundabout, one had relatively clear water down Spintex Road to city centre.

Very regrettably, that is no longer the case. The Accra Mall not only undid the improvement the Roundabout provided. It has also exacerbated the traffic jam there. Driving through the Roundabout has become hell on earth. The Kufour government’s decision condemned motorists to hell through no sin of theirs. Motorists, including those who are driving into or coming out of the shopping complex, sit in their vehicles and wait in the suffocating heat for hours and hours, wasting time and expensive petrol on air conditioners (those who have them) and inhaling toxic carbon monoxide. Snarling traffic at the Roundabout naturally has repercussions elsewhere. Vehicles coming in from Legon Road and the Motorway also come to a stand still. The result is queues several miles long in all directions, and this happens daily, seven days a week. Meanwhile, the owners of the Mall sit comfortably in their air-conditioned offices and rake in their huge profits. For all that they care, motorists can go to blazes, quite literally considering the scotching sun!

Mr. Addae-Bosompra is a planner by profession but presented his analysis, as he disclaimed, as a consumer. He looked at the Mall from developmental, social and economic angles. Although he rightly assessed the economic and developmental benefits of the Mall, he argued also legitimately against its location. He highlighted in two key paragraphs, which I generally agree with, some of the problems caused by its location. In one paragraph he wrote: “Due to its [the Accra Mall] location, unacceptable levels of traffic are growing by the day. This fact is irrefutable, as those who use the roads daily will tell you that a single trip to the city centre will take a whole day. Most families and businesses who use these roads on a daily basis now wake up at 4 am to get ready for work and school in order to ‘beat the traffic’. Indigestion is prevalent as our children are known to [eat] breakfast in their parents’ cars whilst being driven to school.” In the other paragraph he had this to say: “The output in industry fails to increase because workers spend the best part of the morning (times when productivity is at its highest) stuck somewhere in traffic. The city now wakes up just after midnight to start the day because of the need to beat the traffic. The fact is ‘traffic’ is getting worse and the prognosis spells doom for our City. Alarm bells must ring, because we cannot afford to travel on precipitous road; neither can we accept the status quo. This is a menace that will cost us dearly as a nation if we do not tackle the root causes.”

Ah, the root causes! It seems to me that the most natural starting point must be the decision by the NPP government to grant permission to site the Mall so close to the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout. My argument is that even if the land is private property construction of the Mall on it becomes a matter of public interest, and it must be the overriding concern. Several questions spring to mind in this regard. Did the central government and/or Accra municipal authorities exercise due diligence or care required, or expected, of them when they were making the decision to grant permission for construction of the Accra Mall there? Did they scrutinize the project from all possible angles, including its impact on traffic and the social life of road-users? Or was the decision a political one, taken at a high level in the Kufour government dictated by economic interests that influential politicians, their relatives or cronies might have in the project? Should the decision-makers not be called upon to account for, which will cost additional funds to correct? Ordinary Ghanaians are on the receiving end of that decision. We are entitled to answers.

Given the magnitude of the problems created by the Mall, I believe it is only right and necessary that president Mills consider appointing a commission to be headed by a high court judge to hold a public inquiry into the Kufour government’s decision to grant permission for the construction. The Commission should, inter alia: (a) determine whether any existing laws and/or regulations had been breached either by the owners or the government decision-makers; (b) establish whether conflict of interest played any part in the decision; (c) make a determination as to whether the owners of the Mall had liability to reimburse to the Government of Ghana the funds it might spend to modify the roads at the Roundabout in order to restore the flow of traffic to its former; and (d) make recommendations, including proposals for appropriate legislation, if necessary, to ensure that in future location of such projects should be subject to prior public hearing.

The idea behind (d) above is that such inquiry can yield valuable lessons leading to establishment of guidelines or enactment of legislation to safeguard the general public, as well as the environment. This point is not trivial. The world stands on the precipice of climate change the cataclysmic effects of which are beginning to emerge only now. The world faces a frightening prospect never before imagined. No continent will have escape chute out of it. Worse for us, experts are generally agreed that the effects will hit Africa harder than any other continent. Hard as we might try, Ghana cannot escape the effects of climate change caused by the activities of other countries. However, as a nation we can at least ensure that our own development projects do not denigrate or harm our immediate environment and quality of life. This is why I believe that holding public hearing prior to implementation of our major development projects would not be a waste of national time and resources.

In this connection, I believe the Volta River Dam at Akosombo provides a useful object lesson for Ghana. That Dam was built about fifty years ago. I was not old enough to know whether there was a prior public, or any form of, hearing to assess its possible adverse effects on our environment. (Somebody mentioned to me years ago that he thought one Sir Robert Jackson? an economic adviser to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah prepared a report, which might have included comments on the environment. I wonder where that report, if it exists, lies archived, no doubt yellowing under a mountain of dust. It would make a fascinating reading today. Any bright student in environmental or developments studies interested in having his name prefixed “Dr.” could do a substantial and useful research for a doctorate degree based on some of these projects!)

The stretch of the Volta River below the Dam, some 100 kilometres long, today looks as sad as it is alarming. That once fearsome body of relentless churning water, hurling itself seawards and crashing spectacularly against giant waves at Anyanui confluence, near Ada, now is a shadow of its former self. That stretch has shrunk almost beyond recognition. It looks tame, placid and, one might say, almost moribund, as if it was terminally asleep. This is a national disaster of first magnitude.

The mouth of the Volta River is rapidly silting up. The VRA are doing their best to arrest the situation, spending their limited resources on periodic “desilting”. But I am afraid their rearguard action is a lost cause. The damage to the eco-system has been done, and it can neither be arrested nor reversed. Another example. Lucrative fishing industry that once thrived along the coast from Ada to Aflao, producing nearly one-half of Ghana’s entire fish consumption, has also been destroyed forever. (When we were kids old fishermen used to tell us that the source of their fish stock was the Volta River. They claimed that fish from the sea seasonally swam up the River all the way to its tributaries to breed and back to sea to replenish stock.) Well, that doesn’t happen any more. The Dam and consequential silting have blocked that. Fish stock is no longer within easy reach. (Decades of over fishing, coupled with the rise both in sea level and temperature may also have played a part in stock depletion.) Fishermen now resort deep-sea fishing but fare poorly against stiff competition from bigger and better equipped foreign fishing trawlers that invade Ghana’s territorial sea with impunity. Starvation is prevalent among the costal people. The rate of mortality seems high. The once teeming population now looks thinning. Visually, one gets the impression that there are more graves than living people around! That’s how bad things are.

I hope I am wrong but I believe that in another fifty years lower Volta River will reduce to one half its present volume, owing to the combined effects of the Akosombo Dam and much more rapid evaporation due to its smaller volume and the effects of global warming. My fear is that the same fate awaits Bui. Fate worse than death!

Cedric Tsuo

Columnist: Tsuo, Cedric