Opinions Wed, 26 Nov 2003

When Land Sales Get Manipulated

Pity Jerry John Rawlings! For nearly twenty years, he was the monarch of all that he surveyed in Ghana. Now, the man cannot even have legal purchases that he has made respected. The octogenarian American comedian named Rodney Dangerfield who has made a career out of the phrase “I get no respect”, will have enough material for his comedy routine, simply by following the travails of Ghana’s ex-president, and man-always-in-the-news, Jerry Rawlings. A local Chief is bent on showing Jerry, where power lies; albeit illegally and unfair!
One could be excused for shouting, poetic justice; and rejoicing at the misfortune of the ex-president. After all, as president, Rawlings unilaterally seized other people’s assets without compensation. And in one typical brazen behaviour, he had Ghanaian soldiers bulldoze, and totally demolish a $5 million hotel in Accra, including the televisions; beds and mattresses, and all the fixtures in the building. This dastardly act, was supervised by Rawlings himself, as a show of power against a former political ally, turned political enemy.
But the current travail of the ex-president is not funny, at all, certainly it shouldn’t be to Mr. Rawlings. Nor should it be funny to Ghanaians, either. Ghanaians should not let themselves be sidetracked by the spectacle of a former president being treated unfairly, and illegally, irrespective of our political leanings and attitude towards Rawlings. The case raises some profound concerns regarding landlord-tenant relationship, that must transcend political leanings, and other considerations.
The matter relates to a newspaper report regarding a piece of property that Rawlings purchased, from a Chief, which the Chief has now unilaterally decided to abrogate. According to the report, Rawlings bought and paid for six plots of land at a total cost of 36 million cedis from the ‘Kronti Adonten family of Akwamufie, Akosombo in the Eastern Region’, in March 2002. Nearly two years after the contract was done, the Kronti Adontehene, Akwamufie and chief of Kyease Akosombo, Nana Ansah Prem III, has had seconded thoughts. He unilaterally confiscated the land, and returned the 36 million cedis payment to the Rawlings (through the latter’s bank), sans interest!
The Chief may have had his reasons, and he does provide some of that in an attempt to justify, belatedly nullifying a contract already entered into. One of his reasons is that as president of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings did nothing for the Akwamu area. Further, according to Nana Ansah Prem III, his decision pertains to, ‘rumours that the initial purpose for which the land was acquired had been changed’. According to the Chief, Rawlings, “previously told us that he was going to use the plots for a residential purpose, but later we heard that he would be using the land for a park and the type of park is not known to us”.
The newspaper report cited an aide to Mr. Rawlings as being outraged by the Chief’s decision, and pledging to continue with plans aimed at developing the land. Ghanaians who have been swindled out of land purchases by double-cross Chiefs would applaud any legal action he decides to take against the Chief’s unilateral and illegal action.
One area that Rawlings ignored, and which the present government has not addressed is landlord-tenant relationship. Thus in Ghana, tenants whether they rent rooms, or purchase land, are at the mercy of capricious landowners. In the case of land purchases the nefarious activity is done mainly by some of our Chiefs who ought to know better. The building boom fueled largely by the Rawlings-era corruption, and the desire by Ghanaians in the diaspora to own houses in Ghana, have sky-rocketed the price and value of lands.
A concomitant feature of this phenomenon has been the rise of land disputes involving various Chiefs centered on who owns what land. There are disputes among family members (especially in Accra), as to which family member has the proper lineage, and therefore ownership of the land. These problems have in turn contributed to a rise in disputes involving sellers and buyers. There is hardly a method or policy regulating the sale of lands in Ghana. And if there are, they are hardly ever enforced.
The entire process has therefore taken on a bizarre life of its own, complete with its own corruptive lexicon. Hence, the rise of ‘land guards’ in Ghana. These are private citizens hired by people who have actually purchased land legally, and yet find the need to employ security to guard the property, in order to prevent ‘encroachment’ on the land by the seller, and others.
In other instances a Chief who sold the land, would later announce himself ‘destooled’ to the buyer, implying the Chief no longer has the power to prevent someone from claiming the property, and that the buyer could not develop the property. Quite a few million cedis will change hands to ensure the ‘re-enstoolment’ of the corrupt Chief, before the buyer can develop the land.
Where a Chief is actually destooled, the in-coming Chief would decide to vacate what legal contracts regarding the sale of lands were done by his predecessor. Again, the unfortunate buyer has to cough up additional money to ensure that his property is not taken away. Failing that, the new Chief would employ the services of ‘machomen’ to guard the property to prevent the legal buyer from developing the land. Some buyers have had their houses torn down as a result of actions taken by the new Chief!
The Chiefs and land owners also use an archaic law which states that unless the purchaser develops the land within two years, the Chief has the right to re-take the property. This explains why in Ghana there are several plots of land sealed off by a mere wall, or mounds of cement blocks. This practice is intended to circumvent the law, by indicating that there is ‘development’ going on at the property! Meanwhile, the owner does not pay any taxes on the land.
The upshot is that, if one wanted to purchase tracts of land as a business investment for re-sale in future, it would be impossible. I have always wondered why the law could not be changed; after all, undeveloped land would then be assessed a tax to create revenue for the government.
As someone who follows Akwamu matters closely, I am aware that since the death of Nana Kwafo Akoto the Omanhene of Akwamu traditional area, several years ago, the king-makers have not enstooled a new one. Could some of these king-makers be deliberately stalling the enstoolment of a new Akwamuhene, just so they would have free reign over the lucrative sale of prime Akwamu lands? One day, the citizens of Akwamu are going to ask what developments accrued from all these land sales! Similar questions are being asked all over Ghana!!
I don’t want to impute any mercenary intentions to Nana Ansah Prem III regarding his about-face in the Rawlings land purchase. But the Chief may have belatedly realized that it would be more profitable to sell the land to foreigners for the almighty dollar. To wit, quite a few foreigners, mainly Americans have bought parcels of land in the scenic Akwamu area. There is even a banana plantations set up there, purposely for export.
The main concern here, relates to the respect of contracts, a matter that is hardly recognized in Ghana. As a result, it is not uncommon for a Chief or anyone who sells a piece of land to suddenly decide (after the sale), to vacate the contract. The land is then sold at a higher profit. Similarly, tenants are left at the mercy of house-owners for the same reason, when tenants’ contracts are not respected. One hopes the Byzantine laws regarding lands sales and houseowner-tenant relationships would be overhauled, and enforced as it is done in all civilized countries.
If someone like Rawlings can be treated in this unfair, illegal manner; what are the chances for mere mortals like you and me. After all, Rawlings could have gotten a lot of land for free in his 20-year rule. Here, the man has tried to follow the rules of the land, purchases something legally, and someone is trying to take it back because the person wants to make more profit (according to the newspaper report).
Perhaps, the Chief believes that a little stab at Rawlings would endear him to the NPP government. Ghanaians have a propensity to act in such manner, thinking it scores political points and gains them favours from the reigning government.
The entire process of the sale of lands in Ghana is sunk in corruption. The cautionary tale is that, buyer beware! On the other hand, the government can put a stop to all the madness by simply enforcing the laws on the book. It seems however that, the need to enforce laws regarding land purchases has perhaps not entered the radar screen of the NPP government; just us it escaped the NDC’s. These cases have the potential to develop into a more terrifying spectacle with the security of people at stake, as has happened in several areas in Accra.
The NPP government must do well to ensure that contracts regarding land purchases are fully enforced. After all, protection of the citizenry from such unruly and capricious acts, is a duty of the government. We must understand and respect contracts signed and delivered, or we are doomed to a Hobbesian State where might, not reason, is deemed to be right.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Ellison, Kofi
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