Demolition exercise, forced evictions, fire outbreak and rainfall

By Axel Monin Nylund

20-21 June 2015.

Yesterday, an alarming wake-up call.

I woke up at 9.30am with two missed calls timed at 6am from our store manager. Something was not quite right. I immediately called him to receive the news: forced evictions had begun at 4am in the morning and were still under way.

Though I’d had a long night out (even in Ghana, as a Swede, I had to celebrate midsummer), I rushed out of bed, grabbed a large bottle of water and my camera, then jumped onto an okada (motorcycle taxi) to get to the slum by 10.00am. Crossing the bridge onto Agbogbloshie main road, I saw a large police van with about 5 officers stationed next to it.

This is when things started getting weird.

Wanting to get a photo of the van and officers as a way of documenting the presence of heavily armed police and military in the area, I pointed the lens in their direction and clicked. As I clicked, my cap obstructed the flash and prevented the photo being taken. It was at that point one of the officers noticed what I was doing and called me over. He proceeded to question me on who I was, what I was doing and why I was taking a picture. Explaining that I was just passing by and wanted to take a picture of Ghanaian police, he kept telling me to hand over my camera, which I first refused. Other officers crowded around us and he started to say I had illegally taken a picture of him. Blessing my inadvertently obstructive cap, I showed him that there was no photo of him nor any of the other officers. But he saw the photos I had taken a couple of days before, from inside the slum and of the burning inferno that is the electronic waste site at night.

He grabbed my hand and proceeded to shout a line of questions at me. Had I gotten permission to go into the area; who did I know there; what was my purpose? I told him I was just passing by, that I worked with an international social enterprise and that there was no reason for him to be questioning me nor the pictures I had taken. That’s when he asked one of the officers around me to bring handcuffs.

Pictures of the electronic waste site I supposedly wasn’t allow to take.

I’ll interject here with some background. Apart from my work with TASC in the area, I also work with Legal Aid Ghana to organize internships for students from Queen Mary University of London. Over the past week, I have visited the local police chief, the district commander, the head of the domestic violence unit and a lawyer at the police headquarters to have these students volunteer at the Domestic Violence and Victims Unit (DOVVSU). Earlier that morning, I was called by the police chief to tell him about the progress on this, which is where I was headed at that moment.

Switch on name-dropping.

I told him I was on my way to the Old Fadama police chief (which was true), that I work with legal aid (also true), and that I knew the district commander of Jamestown (true as well). At that moment he could tell I was not just some typical obroni, though he asked for proof. As I pulled my phone out of my pocket to call the chief, he let go of my hand and told me to go. I learnt my lesson — always ask for permission before attempting to photograph any police or military in Ghana.

I went on to see the police chief. When I told him I almost got arrested he laughed and told me to go back and ask for permission from the Operational Commander, i.e. the person in charge of the evictions and demolition process. Thanking him for his help with the internship at DOVVSU, I ran back to the bridge where I had been quasi-arrested, apologized for my lack of understanding with regards to permissions, and asked to see the Operational Commander. He was not in the area at the moment but would be coming back soon.

Lucky me and my bright green cap, I was recognized by Motala, one of Alhassan Abdallah’s friends (remember the guy who built the youth centre we were going to electrify?) He told me Alhassan was just around the corner, so we went to see him and I explained what had just happened along the way. After discreetly transferring a video of the demolitions via Bluetooth to my phone, they told me the full story of the evictions that had begun earlier that day. It was apparent from the outset that they were in deep, bitter shock.

Alhassan, a devout Muslim, had woken up at 4.30am to pray. There was a light drizzle of rain. He was not surprised to see police and military surrounding the community. They were coming to clear a path to the Korle Lagoon, in order to dredge it and remove all the waste. Or so they were told by local community organizations working with the government. When Alhassan saw people being dragged out of their homes and the bulldozers coming in, he knew they’d all been terribly wrong. One man, attempting to gather his belongings before being evicted, was forcibly pulled out by police until Alhassan convinced them to let him collect his things. But others were not so lucky.

Some people would not leave their homes and the police would beat them with their batons. They take off their belts and beat them with them. They treat us like animals.

At around 8.30am, he could not take it anymore and pleaded them to stop. That’s when he got dragged off by four military personnel to a remote location and accused of having slapped an officer. They proceeded to kick him before other police officers stepped in, saying the accusations were untrue. They let him go, but on his way back a police man stepped out of a car and slapped him in the face before the honest officers once again brought it to a stop.

But the worst had yet to come.

He went to his workplace to face an indescribable tragedy. Though he’d been told a week earlier by a government task force that the youth centre he had successfully erected in the area would be spared, he saw it demolished before his own eyes. All the relentless work to raise money for a place where young people and children could study in peace and learn new subjects, was gone in a matter of minutes. As he took out his phone to document what was happening, a police officer quickly came up to him and took it away. Noticing that the officer had taken off his identification badge and number, he realized chances were small that he would ever see the phone again.

Alhassan Abdallah, standing in front of what used to be the youth centre he built.
I told him — ‘if you are taking the phone arrest me as well’. That way, I would follow him around. He tried to push me away but after a while, realizing I wouldn’t go, gave the phone back.

We went on to see the full devastation and it was, to say the least, jaw-dropping. I had been there only a few days before, but the entire landscape was unrecognisable. It had changed from a lively and friendly community with businesses, food markets, goats lying in the streets and music playing out of amplifiers, to a wasteland of rubble and metals. People were standing all around with their belongings, looking at what had been their homes, asking and shouting at me as I passed by where they should go. I could only tell them how sorry I was. Some were still sifting through the broken buildings for possessions left behind or metals to sell.

Motala, who’s had to house three people in his small kiosk, estimated the number of people evicted between 15,000–20,000, which I later confirmed with a military official. There were about 500 military and police personnel present, armed with heavy artillery, bulldozers and cranes. Knowing better than to start snapping pictures with my large camera, I discreetly snapped a few using my phone, always aware of the direction any military official might be looking. We managed to climb onto a building where I took more, using my higher definition camera and carefully hidden behind a wall. As we stood there, the mayor, Alfred Vanderpuije (infamous for arresting a journalist last year and for forced evictions in general), walked past surrounded by at least 7 men in riot gear. Unnecessarily so, considering the extent of people’s reaction was just a loud, prolonged ‘boo’.

I asked Alhassan how this could have happened, and his answer was simple: a failure of leadership. The community is formally represented by different organizations, such as the Old Fadama Development Association (OFADA) and the Slum Dwellers Union (SDU). The spokespeople of these organizations will have meetings with the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) on a regular basis, to discuss the clearing of waterways and evictions. Walking in the area, we encountered one member of these organizations — the public relations officer of OFADA. Alhassan stopped to speak to him and was furious at the fact that this representative had no idea what had happened only a few minutes walk away. The level of shock throughout the community seemed to indicate that there had been no effective communication at one or several steps of this eviction process to the people living in the area, or at least that there had been misrepresentations as to the extent of the demolition exercise. With apologies for the turn of phrase, this doesn’t come as a surprise— according to the Human Rights Advocacy Centre, 47% of people during 2012 evictions were unaware of the date and manner of the evictions, with similar instances of police brutality as those that happened yesterday.

Though they had expected a 5–10 meter area along the bank to be cleared, this was closer to 70–80 meters. Realizing this, and having had difficulty getting through to Fatawu, I began to fear for our store. I made my way to Bimbila station with the help of Alhassan, hurried down Bimbila road and took a left at the same green shop I’d used for the past weeks to find my bearings. For a moment, I thought I was lost. In front of me, another waste land, bulldozers in the process of piling rubbish on a flaming heap. Where our store had been stood a group of people from the area. When I heard them murmur ‘black star solar’, ‘solar products’, ‘white man’ and ‘store’, I realized they knew very well who I was. Then it struck me.

Sh*t, the products.

I messaged Amrik back at the hotel, asking him to send me news and updates, to check in every thirty minutes and to try and locate Fatawu. Soon after, the news came through that our products were fine. Fatawu, together with his brother, had moved them to his brothers house soon before the demolition happened. His brother who had been in the area to pray was apparently ousted using tear gas. In using water to clear his eyes and throat, he had to break his fast in the middle of Ramadan. Next to our shop, I saw a Mosque levelled to the ground in less than thirty seconds.

I took out my camera and started taking pictures of what was in effect ground zero (discreetly, having spotted military 70 meters away next to the lagoon). Wanting some answers and feeling confident about the procedure for receiving permission, I walked out with my camera, circled the demolition machines, and waved cheerily at the officers as they saw me come up to them. After quickly explaining who I was, what I was doing there and where our store had been, they asked: ‘Did you not get the notice?’

Referring to my conversation with Alhassan (who by now had left for more prayer), I told them how there had been a complete failure of communication. They were immediately defensive, asking for my ID and verification of where I worked, which I easily produced. I was in no way aggressive or assertive, realizing they were following orders, but discussed with them their views on what had taken place. At this point I was surrounded by 5 military officers, answering each of their arguments with an overhauling point about the community, of which they knew surprisingly little.

These were some of their arguments:

“Do you not see how these people live? You wouldn’t have people living like this in your country.”

“They are illegal settlers — they have no right to be on this land.”

“They are littering the lagoon and causing floods for the rest of Accra.”

and

“The government has provided them with alternate accommodation but they refuse to go.”

While I agree that no one should live in a slum, you cannot force evictions without a plan for the people you evict. Second, though the land is technically an illegal settlement, people still enjoy fundamental human rights that should guarantee access to basic necessities like food, water and shelter. Third, littering happens all across Accra, with piles of burning plastics in the streets and other non-biodegradable materials floating down the waterways. The two first arguments ties into the fourth, that the government has provided alternative accommodation. This is something which the political opposition demanded as the requirement for evicting these people for years. In 2006, in order to complete the Korle Lagoon Environmental Restoration Project (KLERP), the government secured a €10.4 investment from KBC Bank of Belgium to create alternative accommodation near Amasaman, 25km away.

So if there was indeed alternative accommodation, why didn’t people go? One possible answer emerged from a slum dweller behind me as I was arguing this subject with a military official. “We can’t afford that accommodation!”, he yelled out, to which the response of the official was: “Then go back to your village.” Though clashes between tribes led to the displacement of people from the north to Agbogbloshie in the first place, the problems facing rural areas is a lack of jobs and basic infrastructure. Hence the level of urbanization in Accra — over 51 % live in cities. Another argument was that people should move first, and if they fail to pay, the government will adjust their rent to reflect their income. This isn’t exactly the best guarantee when asking someone to abandon the place where they have built their livelihood. Further, now that the alternative accommodation has been filled by those who were willing to move at the time, moving people to this area is likely to result in further slums being built.

Next week I hope to investigate these areas myself and verify the claim that housing exists for these 50,000–100,000 people (the numbers vary), the conditions of those houses, the cost of living and whether public amenities such as schools and mosques are available.

Our store location, beyond the bulldozer where the people are standing
Locals who piped in during my arguments with the military

In 2002, court rulings determined that although it is legal to evict people from illegal settlements, it has to be done humanely. The interpretation of this was not clear, but speaking to speaking to Philip Kumah, creator of the Slum Dweller’s Union, president of the Slum Union of Ghana and one of the representatives of Agbogbloshie in the 2009 eviction, he had this to say over the phone:

The earlier court ruled to say that authorities have right to evict us, but that it should be done in a humane manner. Then they came to evict us with bulldozers, is that humane? Because there was no good answer to that question, we got a lot of sympathy from surrounding organizations, including Amnesty. That made the authority rethink their decision. Now this time they are going ahead with the evictions, they’re doing it under the cover of the flooding that took place a few weeks ago. Anyone on a waterway must be evicted to prevent further flooding they say. And so the mayor thinks that the Korle Lagoon has to be sorted. Before you can sort the Korle, you need the space along it where machines can move around. This has been done before, but less than a third of the space that was cleared on this occasion. I was in the negotiations with the government officials as they announced their plan, but none of what they said led us to believe they would go this far. Plus, we’re situated on the Korle River, not the lagoon — it doesn’t make sense to evict us.

There is something to be said about the fact that although fire outbreaks have affected people living in the slum for years, it was only when tragedy struck in Circle two weeks ago that swift action was taken.

A reasonable reading of ‘humane’ would include things like giving adequate notice so people can find new homes, providing alternative housing or even just proportionate compensation. According to people from Agbogbloshie and Mr Kumah himself, even though evictions had been announced a long time ago, it had been left quiet until last week, when trucks with megaphones appeared and announced that they would be clearing the waterways. There had been such clearings before, but as he says they only extended to clearing a few buildings from particular waterways. Plus, trucks cannot reach through to all the narrow alleyways where 100,000 people live, meaning that could not constitute adequate notice. Internet searches for any government statement on a notice to evict, public broadcast or newspaper article comes up blank.

As we were talking, a rat the size of an average cat scurried up to us. One of the military with a big black baton gave it a whack, and went on: “Do you know the level of crime in this area? People come here to kill, to rob, to rape and to prostitute themselves”. When I told them I was highly aware of this, that people don’t necessarily choose where they live and that that was exactly why our project was so important, one of the officers suggested that maybe I went there just to visit brothels myself. He regretted that comment after I spent the next 5 minutes telling him our project is an alternative source of employment for women working in these establishments, that I had spent a month in Ghana last year working with a local legal advice centre connected to Legal Aid Ghana in order to provide advice and support for those subjected to sexual assault, and further had spent the last week organizing an internship for three volunteers with DOVVSU.

Locals searching the rubble for metal scraps and left-over possessions

As my conversation with these officers came to an end, a few of their faces had changed. They were no longer laughing and talking as they were when I first went up to them and, though this may be a glimmer of naive hope, realized maybe everything wasn’t as the government had made it out to be. I explained to them the nature of our project. It’s not about consolidating the people of Old Fadama’s position within the slum and expecting them to live there for years. Rather, it’s tackling the issue of fire outbreaks that are prevalent in the area, giving people a stable source of electricity, increasing their real income and reducing illegal connections to the electricity grid. A win-win-win-win it would have seemed.

We left on decent terms. They were happy for me to take pictures of the area (though not of their faces) and some even wanted me to add them on Whatsapp (which I politely declined).

By the time we were finished, Fatawu had joined me, together with three of our sales agents who had showed up on their own accord. This was the best thing that had happened all day. Seeing them come together to support Fatawu and myself gave us some sorely needed solace. In addition to this, I was told by Fatawu that one of our customers who had a panel installed managed to pack it up and go before his house was destroyed, testament to the portability of solar. I left thinking that we still have our employees, we still have our products, and we still have Fatawu. All we need is a store to keep on moving our project forward, though this time it may be located outside the slum, still aimed at those who are living there or in other slums in Accra.

Fatawu Fuesini, our store manager, standing in front of what used to be the BLACK STAR SOLAR shop location
I have never seen this kind of demolition before. I never thought they would do this. I am completely shocked.

I made my way back after six exhausting hours, having not yet entirely processed what I saw. Amrik awaited me but I could hardly speak, a mixture of hunger and shock. On our way back to our hotel, we saw a huge, dark cloud, rising above Agbogbloshie. We feared the worst, and the worst was confirmed by Fatawu.

A fire outbreak in the slum, moments after I had left.

Fortunately, the fire was quickly put out and it seems no one was injured, though more property was destroyed. Add this to the 15,000–20,000 people walking the streets of Accra with no place to stay (which excludes the number of people evicted today). Life just got a lot more difficult for the former citizens of Old Fadama. Though Fatawu said the structures will be back within a month, there is talk of a fence to prevent people from entering the area. But the demolitions have continued today, with reports of tear gas being used and some people being arrested for throwing rocks at police.

As things looked like they couldn’t get worse, the sky unleashed a wave of hard, cold rain around 4pm, which continued until about 11pm at night, leaving people bare to the elements.

People asked me where they would live, for which I have no answer. We have, however, invited Fatawu to stay with us in our hotel for the next two weeks while we figure things out.

This is not the end.

Axel