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Slum politics in Accra : Understanding Urban Ghana


London Launch

On 28 January, to launch “Who Really Governs Urban Ghana?” we hosted an event  with co-author, and postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Jeffrey Paller; and Charlene Bello, founding member of the Ghana Growth and Development Platform. The discussion focused on the informal politics that dominate Ghana’s urban spaces.


Kwame Nkrumah was elected Prime Minister of the Gold Coast in 1951. With a grassroots support base he sought to secure self-governance as a matter of urgency. After Ghana was granted independence in 1957, Nkrumah introduced a unicameral, highly centralised presidential system. He was overthrown in a peaceful coup in 1966, an event which started a tumultuous period of political instability in Ghana.

Between 1966 and 1979 the country experienced four military coups, culminating in Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings taking power. Although the coups may have altered who was at the top, they did little for those at the bottom. In 1988, under domestic and international pressure, Rawlings announced the creation of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) in a move towards decentralisation. However, Rawlings’s commitment to devolution was questionable.

In the multi-party era – 1992 to present – Ghana’s decentralised institutions have been under-resourced and lacking in real power. Too much authority is vested in the presidency at the expense of local authorities. For example, mayors are appointed by the president and are often political figureheads, not democratic representatives of the people. This has created space for, and made necessary, the rise of informal urban political organisation: if the government does not deliver basic services, someone has to. The importance of grassroots political organisation is growing in Ghana’s cities. It will play a leading role in the elections scheduled for November 2016, often in wholly unexpected ways.


Urban Ghana – 10 things to know

  1. Ghana’s urban population has risen from 4 to 14 million people in the last three decades, of whom 5.5 million live in slums. Population growth has placed significant pressure on cities already lacking resources, jobs and housing.
  2. The way in which slums were settled in Accra shaped community leadership and the way residents from different ethnic groups engage with one another. There are broadly three types of settlements in Accra. In extralegal settlements, local leaders and politicians exploit insecurity connected with illegal land occupation and evictions for personal and political gain. In indigenous settlements, residents claim ancestral rights to the city and utilise this status to develop strong and powerful ethnic nationalism. In purchased settlements, early settlers legitimately bought land from customary authorities. Here, local leaders are expected to provide public goods and other benefits for all.
  3. Neighbourhood politics matter. The interaction of residents, chiefs, pastors, landlords and others shapes access to land, housing and jobs. These different participants form informal networks and connections with political parties and government workers. Hidden networks of power play a leading role in urban management and development.
  4. The New Patriotic Party (NPP) and The National Democratic Congress (NDC) – Ghana’s two largest political parties – establish patron-client relationships with community members and leaders to win elections. Residents are concerned with meals, jobs and rent payments. Such considerations affect who they campaign for and how they vote. Politicians rely on personal relationships as well networks based on religion, parenthood, and tradition.
  5. For urban development to be successful and sustainable, policymakers, planners and development agencies need to take heed of the hidden networks that govern daily life and their intrinsically political character. The spectacle of the residents of Agbogbloshie watching the 2012 Champions League final, for example, provided an insight into the settlement’s power dynamics. Three notable local “big men” – Alhaji, Chief, and Boss – were instrumental in making sure that the game was shown, despite a big storm having affected electricity in the neighbourhood. These leaders were “problem solvers”, a characteristic of leadership in slums, and the way they interacted with other residents demonstrated how informal politics worked in the community worked.
  6. Slums offer opportunities for community leaders to attract a following and engage in formal politics. They offer politicians a potentially sizeable vote bank. However, leaders and politicians do not necessarily serve the public interest; equally, residents are not passive – they too exploit informal political networks for personal and/or community gain.
  7. Ghanaian city dwellers need to have incentives to follow policy prescriptions and play by “official rules”. At present, politicians and local leaders benefit from the status quo.
  8. Informal economic and political networks influence the prospects for sustainable development. When slum upgrading and infrastructure developments are prioritised without considering local conditions they distort existing community governance, causing resentment and inequality.
  9. Urban neighbourhoods with accountable leadership and limited inter-ethnic strife are most likely to succeed. Policymakers should consider ways to utilise what already exists rather than beginning anew. Public forums, land dispute initiatives and legal recognition of neighbourhoods can be a starting point.
  10. Poor planning and a lack of finance are not the foremost problems inhibiting urban development in Ghana: a failure to understand politics is.



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Event Video

Accra Launch

On 21 April to launch “Who Really Governs Urban Ghana?” we co-hosted an event  with with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development in Accra. Co-author’s Jeffrey Paller and Mohammed Awal set out the key arguments put forwarded in the paper and a response was offered by Victoria Okoye, an urban planner and founder of African Urbanism. Listen to the discussion below.



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