Nkrumah’s flagship and the dilemma of Ghana’s urban and housing future

The 10th of October is symbolic in Ghana for something that happened outside Ghana. On that day in 1957 Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Minister of Finance in the newly independent Ghana, first African country south of the Sahara to achieve that status, was denied a place at a Howard Johnson café in Delaware, USA, because  he and his African American secretary were (obviously) black in a racially segregated establishment. The embarrassment that ensued culminated in resuscitation of a dam development and electrification project that has aided the country in its quest for modernisation.

That said, it is without doubt that Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the country was a big dreamer. Although he was not the initiator, his enthusiastic embrace of the Volta River Project and its subsequent revisions culminating in the establishment of aluminium smelter plant in Tema and the construction of the Tema Township is well catalogued. Indeed so much has been written about these projects, through a variety of perspectives – Ghana’s post-colonial economic development, energy sector development, state-led import-substitution industrialisation, and town planning. Clearly these projects were flagship projects, much beloved by all Ghanaians and for a long time, indicator of Ghana’s arrival at the world stage.

But all is not well with virtually all of these emblematic projects and especially the Tema Township. In this post, I want to look at low-income housing through the lenses of what is happening at Kaiser and Segeco Flats in Community 4. These flats were a symbolic attempt at developing a new architectural and planning vernacular differing from the indigenous approach to housing and neighbourhood development. This type of residential development presented a new opportunity to house workers at a scale that would hold more households but limit the accommodation and interaction of the networked relations underpinning the extended family system practiced in the country.

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Kaiser Flats in 1970, via troutsfarm.com
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Kaiser flats in 2003, via troutsfarm.com

For quite some time now, the Tema Development Corporation (TDC), the government agency tasked with the responsibility of managing the spatial development of the Tema Township, has been seeking to demolish the Kaiser and Segeco flats in Community 4 because it is said to be experiencing decline in the structural integrity and is becoming dangerous to the occupants. There is little doubt that the structural integrity of the buildings is becoming compromised due to the corrosion of the steel members.

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Soffit of staircase at Kaiser Flats showing exposed steel reinforcements. Photo courtesy the authors. August, 2014.
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Soffit of corridors of Kaiser Flats showing exposed steel reinforcements. Photo courtesy the authors. August, 2014.

Since 2009, plans were elaborated about the impending demolition of the Kaiser flats partly in order to save lives of the occupants endangered by the worsening structural integrity of the buildings and partly as a component of a wider plan towards the renewal of the Tema Commercial Area and the residential areas closest to the city center.

Besides the architectural and planning implications, the significance of this decision to demolish lies in the political importance of the buildings in the immediate pre-independence to early post-independence era (circa 1951 to 1961) when Nkrumah’s plans for the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of the country (pivoted around the Port and Industrial area in Tema) compelled a variation of his socialist inclinations to accommodate the capitalist of the west. Although Nkrumah espoused a non-aligned posture in an era of the Cold War, his personal convictions and preferences for a turn to the east in the throat and dagger geopolitics of the 1950s and 60s was barely masked.

These buildings were thus constructed at a time when President Nkrumah’s approach to development benefitted from its non-alignment posture in the growing East-West geopolitical divide. It was intended to accommodate the expected low to middle income populations who would be working the industries. This was a development enterprise that oscillated between the re-assertion of neo-colonial power through experimentation of development planning and the non-aligned path-breaking international “expertise”. Constantinous Doxiadis, renowned Greek architect, planner and pioneer of Ekistics, was very dominant in the process of planning virtually the entire township. The development of Tema also benefitted from international funding with American firm, Kaiser Aluminium Company supporting the construction of the smelter plant culminating in their memorialisation through the branding of an entire estate after the firm. According to Viviana d’Auria, Doxiadis’ approach was deemed “scientific neutrality” and therefore accommodating to all the protagonists.

The Kaiser and Segeco Flats as part of the larger Tema Township development were thus at once points of geopolitical neutrality and at the same time a planning and architectural bridge-header. In terms of architecture and planning, Viviana d’Auria posits that the development of Tema (including the Kaiser and Segeco Flats) occurred at an episodic juncture between modernism and tradition. She further argues that designing the city and the housing typologies was caught between maintaining the imperial approach of town planning by the colonial masters and the independence movement’s quest for experimentation in development. Doxiadis was a thus safe choice.

Another point of note about the demolition is the stated rationales for the demolition and the long tortuous process which shows the dynamic nature of the issues. As far back as 2003, the tenants were being asked to move because the buildings were deteriorating with the dire prospects of disaster put forward to legitimise the displacement. Indeed four of the buildings had been designated as “Condemned buildings” as far back as 1993.

In recent times, the rationale for demolishing these flats has focused more on the need for regeneration of “downtown” Tema into a strong commercial centre than on the need to protect the occupants. Indeed, 20 years has gone by since the first eviction order was given and in spite of the evidence of some structural deterioration, the buildings are still standing, questioning the choice by TDC for the demolition option when other options could have been exercised. The eviction orders 20 and 10 years ago clearly were undertaken without adequate distinction. Consider that if the affected households had moved back then, 20 years of assured residence would have been lost perhaps in more endangering circumstances. The point is that better assessment could have been exercised. It is a reflection of the professional class’s disinclination to do more than the mundane, caught up as they are in routinizing approaches to work and overlooking nuanced differences.

Today, the determination to remove the current residents of the Flats is bolstered by accusations against the occupants of having abused the land compensation package that was provided at alternative sites to construct new homes ostensibly to ease the challenges of their imminent displacement. Yet the plots of land as the only form of compensation given to the residents were clearly inadequate, given the high capital required to develop the new houses. It exposes the discriminatory posture of TDC officials. Clearly, the inadequacy of the compensation is lost on these officials and professional class. It raises the question of what understanding of compensation was and still is in play – as a proportional replacement for loss of shelter and livelihood that must necessarily account for the attendant social, economic, financial and cultural investments made in the house and neighbourhood or some arbitrary assessment of historic economic value that does not cover the replacement costs and discounts the other capital built around the residential development. The blinkered approach to compensation does not take into account the trans-generational transfers the properties have undergone and the intricate web of socio-cultural relations that arises.

Demolishing the Kaiser and Segeco flats makes way for the prescription for a “modern” downtown. Frank Tackie, of The Consortium, consultants hired by TDC to review the master plan, is an ardent supporter of the new down town and speaks effusively of the “opportunities” to be gained. Perhaps his role in planning and managing the development of the Airport City influences his prescriptions for the new Tema Downtown. The effective functionality or otherwise of the Airport City is a subject to be discussed later.

The perspective of modern downtown will obviously be shorn of residential functions to make way for more office and retail spaces.

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Architectural perspective of proposed downtown developments. Adopted from Lyssens, M. (2012) ‘Dwelling Transformations in community 4, Tema, Ghana – Interplays of structure and incremental development.’ Masters’ thesis, University of Leuven, Belgium.

Going by Viviana’s arguments, perhaps the current situation shows we have come full circle and are at the juncture where we have to decide whither our urban and housing future. Today’s dilemma oscillates between the pursuit of western notions, particularly of the American kind, of downtown commercial areas and the reality of addressing the shelter needs of those in the low-income bracket. It is fascinating that at this time where the former colony at the imperial periphery has come full circle in determining the typological fit for housing and urban development, the imperial centre is also facing similar challenges in determining its future. The unbridled mercantilist approach to housing is leading to a severing of society that bodes ill for the future and has necessitated a national conversation on how to address the housing shortage and lack of affordability in the cities.

After a century of its experimental inception, that the Garden City approach is being raised and questioned once again at the highest levels, and is leading to sharp debates, bears good tidings for the housing sector, to the extent that it draws attention to the plight of the poor. Unfortunately at the periphery, nearly 60 years after dissolving the union, there is no effort at owning an internal debate in Ghana on the question of how best to address the housing issue. A few elite conversations are going on in sterile online forums, perhaps to assuage the middle to upper income guilt or to give vent for its sake. Decision makers are still disposed to “neutral” solutions, except they are not neutral. They are status quo and they benefit the rich! To demolish “unapproved developments” without distinction, negotiation or pro-poor housing programme in place is status quo preservation. To assign all buildings in a particular locality as “Condemned” when they still stand 20 years later, is status quo preservation. To give land-only compensation that does not take account of the real cost of displacement – social, cultural, economic and financial – is status quo preservation.

Finally, it is status quo preservation to see the rather frenetic-paced official actions, with military-style precision and rambunctiousness, rooting out the urban poor as quickly as possible. Demolitions have official approval, political, legislative and traditional leadership alike. And, considering one of the four thematic areas prioritised in the short, medium, and long-term plans of the Ministry of Local Government is Social Housing, something the President has directed the chief executives of local authorities to focus on and for which he has provided directions for its enforcement, there is the rub.

 

Joseph Ayitio is researcher and urban planner living in Accra, Ghana, and a fan of the overarching social implications of planning and urban design in African cities. He is particularly interested in expanding dialogues on African urbanism and how the hybrid governance of formality and informality produce city forms and urban economies. tiolabe23@gmail.com

Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the government of Liberia to develop a national housing policy. He also has interest in slum upgrading and prevention, municipal infrastructure and finance, urban revitilisation, local governance and local economic development in Ghana and abroad. oksarfoh@yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Nkrumah’s flagship and the dilemma of Ghana’s urban and housing future”

  1. AKANNAH SAEED JUNIOR

    Interesting discourse , will absorb it and get back to you.

    Reply
  2. Jemima

    Sad, thought-provoking and true. Great piece.

    Reply

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