On 20 June 2015 Ghanaian authorities, including military personnel, entered the infamous Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie site in Accra and began violently dispersing the residents of the area. If non-Ghanaians are aware of Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie at all it is probably as the purported largest e-waste dump on Earth. This is a drastically mistaken image. The evictions that began a few days ago are only the most recent event in a longer struggle over land rights in Accra that have nothing to do with where the ‘West’s’ e-waste goes to die.
The contemporary situation of Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie is long in the making. It has tangible roots in clashes between Ghanian elites and colonial administrators over land tenure between 1914-1920. Later, on the eve of independence in 1956, the land at Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie was designated as a mixed industrial site. Much later in the 1990s Old Fadama experienced influxes of settlers pushed and pulled by a variety of struggles elsewhere in the country and within Accra itself. A key event occurred in 1991 when authorities relocated hawkers and a yam market to the area. The transportation logistics required by the relocated hawkers and yam merchants meant, among other things, that automobile, truck, and motorcycle repair services also began to cluster in the area. Soon, though, residents of the area would experience repeated eviction actions. A short history of previous evictions at Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie would include (see Grant, 2006: 2):
- 31 July 1993: people from 400 houses on public land are evicted.
- 28 May 2002: eviction notices are served to the “entire population of Old Fadama” (Grant, 2006: 2) by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA). Old Fadama residents respond with a court challenge, but lose.
- After the court ruling against residents on 24 July 2002, they organize a grassroots effort to resist eviction. They eventually federate themselves with the Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network.
By 2004 — and largely in response to the emergence of this grassroots movement — the government opened dialogue with the community with the hope of finding alternative solutions to eviction. Resettlement was one of the options on the table. In preparation for the possibility of resettlement and with the help of SDI, the community conducted their own census (11MB) of the settlement. In the same year, Old Fadama was selected as one of the beneficiaries of UN-HABITAT’s Slum Upgrading Facility (SUF). The UN’s slum upgrading was bound to face challenges as the government’s policy has and still remains forced eviction or resettlement. While plans for resettlement have been on the table since 2004, the government renews the threat of eviction whenever an incident (e.g., fire outbreak, ethnic and political clashes, flooding) occurs in the community. While residents continue to live under the constant threat of eviction, they also continue to negotiate their right to stay by conducting enumeration exercises (2006-2007, 2009), mapping economic activities in the area and in 2011 leading a community demolition of all structures with 50 meters of the Lagoon (the AMA had planned 100 meters range demolition) following that year’s annual floods where 14 people died in Accra. Clearly, residents of Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie have long been agents of their own destinies.
The impetus for most recent eviction cannot be boiled down to any simple cause-effect relations between identity factors such as tribe, language, religion, or class — all and more are in play. Nor is it merely a simple case of rapacious urban capital usurping land from the marginalized and helpless urban poor — though potential profits from real estate are at stake. Notwithstanding its longer roots, the most immediate proximate cause of the current eviction is traceable to events 12 years ago, in 2003. In that year, the Government of Ghana secured $48 million in loans from the Government of Belgium and Standard and Chartered Bank of London to renew stalled urban renewal and ecological restoration projects at the site. 2003 is an auspicious year relative to the evictions that began 20 June 2015: it marks 12 years of occupation on the most disputed portions of land of Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie. Two powerful families, J. E. Mettle and Ablorh Mills, claim 80 per cent ownership of the site (Grant, 2006: 20, Footnote 14). Under Ghanaian law, settlers can claim a title to land, rights, and compensation after 12 years of occupation (Grant, 2006: 11). Here, then, is some explanation for the swiftness and violence of the current eviction.
For the most part, US and European media portrayals of Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie have obsessively curated an image of the place as a graveyard for the West’s electronics (e.g., Der Spiegel, Frontline, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post). These blithe media portrayals, indifferent to the geohistory of Old Fadama and Agbogbloshie, recapitulate and amplify privileged histories of, and interests in, the land at the site at the expense of marginalized settlers.
The lack of fact checking and the credulity with which these highly partial representations of the place are accepted without question suggests that the Biblical tones of these stories have much more to do with ‘the West’ self-fashioning an image for and of itself, than they do about telling stories relevant to the daily life chances of Ghanaians at Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie. More disturbing is that without seeming to recognize it, these portrayals not only gloss complex struggles over access to land, they offer those with vested interests in removing residents at Old Fadama/Agbogbloshie with a graphic storyline justifying their actions and legitimating the violence of the current eviction.
Grant, Richard. 2006. “Out of Place? Global Citizens in Local Spaces: A Study of the Informal Settlements in the Korle Lagoon Environs in Accra, Ghana.” Urban Forum 17 (1): 1–24.
The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). 2004. “A Precarious Future | The Informal Settlement of Agbogbloshie Accra, Ghana.” www.mypsup.org/content/libraryfiles/60.pdf.