Rexford Dodoo – Lecture given on 9th April 2011 at GaDangme Nikasemo Asafo

The transformation of property rights in the Ga state.

As Firman Sellers states in her book the transformation of property rights in the Gold coast, she defines property rights as “the power to limit the ability of other persons to enjoy the benefits to be secured from the use and enjoyment of material good”. The enforcement of those rights gives one actor, the rights-holder, the economic profit from a given source. It also gives that actor the power to exclude all others from using that resource in any capacity. As we can all see this is in conflict with the theory of rights that has been described above that there is no hierarchy in the rights to land.

She further states that the transformation of property right redistributes both wealth and power. The process is inherently prone to conflict.  Individuals and groups in society likely will mobilize to articulate a new, definition of property rights that are favourable from a distributional point of view (and so claim a privileged place in society), or defined against a change in the already favourable status quo. These people may lobby state actors directly to capture the state’s coercive power and enforce their preferred property rights system. Or, they may seek to create an alternative source of authority, enforcing property rights privately or at a local level. In either case, the subjects’ actions are a crucial determinant of which property rights system is enforced, and whether that system is secure. The state alone does not dictate the outcome.

The transformation of property rights is a product of the interaction between state and society. State rulers create or manipulate political institutions to pursue their own goals. Individuals in society compete within the shadow of those institutions to secure a privileged share of society’s resources. Combined, the two groups’ actions determine both the structure of property rights and the degree to which those rights are enforced.

The transformation of property rights to land in the Gold coast, nowGhana, vividly illustrates these theoretical propositions. Throughout the Gold Coast, the imposition of colonial rule coincided with a rapid appreciation in land values. Officials of the colonial state announced that they would uphold customary land tenure and delegated enforcement powers to the chiefs of the Colony’s many traditional states. These mandates established the framework within which indigenous actors battled one another to claim the now valuable resource by redefining property rights to land.

Under colonial rule, indigenous actors fought to “re-invent tradition”. They struggled to articulate a distributionally favourable version of customary land tenure and enforce it within the traditional state. Their efforts in conjunction with and in response pronouncements, determined whether-and which –property rights were enforced. Now to understand how these rights existed with in the Ga state we need to examine the origins of the Ga state.

The Origins of the Ga State

It is extraordinarily difficult to construct an image of the Ga state prior to colonial rule, both because the Ga have been in contact with the Europeans since the 17th century and because the traditional state structures have been profoundly changed by the institutions of indirect rule. Anthropologists believe that the Ga state was originally little more than a loose federation of independent republics, all united in military alliance. Most of these republics lie in the area now known asAccra. Each republic possessed a stool; but, in contrast to that of the neighbouring Akan states, the Ga stool was a symbol of military power, rather than a symbol of government. The stool’s occupant, the Ga Mantse, served as an honorary military leader and did not exercise any real political power.

Ga land tenure likewise differed from the Akan model. The Ga are generally believed to practice patrilineal inheritance, whereas for the Akan the system is matrilineal. Moreover, all Ga Land was vested in the lineages who first occupied the land, rather than in the stools.

According to Ga customary law, each member of the lineage can claim rights of usufruct over some portion of lineage land. If that person dies or cannot use the land productively, then the land that he or she had held, along with any improvements made upon it, ordinarily reverts to the lineage. Under some conditions, however, the family member might be allowed to claim the family land as personal property that he or she can sell or deed to others.

The management and allocation of lineage land are undertaken by that lineage’s principal members who are elected by all family members; and by a family head, elected by the principal members. The family head oversees the use of family lands. He or she decides who may use which tract of land, how the proceeds from the land will be distributed amongst family members, and how the land can be developed. The family head also decides when family member can claim private rights to family land, and when family land can be sold to non-members.

The imposition of colonial rule altered the institutions of the traditional state. In so doing, colonialism shaped the strategies that indigenous actors would adopt in their battle to claim economic and political resources. The passage of the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance in 1878 transformed the loose federation of Ga republics into a rigid hierarchy. The NJO divided the independent republics into 10 divisions; two divisions were further divided into a number of quarters, the divisions in Accra was known as Ga Mashie and outside Accra were known as leeward Ga.

Equally important, the NJO elevated the office of mantse, giving its occupant full authority over all other traditional offices. Each division was thus governed by a mantse, and the state as a whole was governed by the Ga Mantse, the paramount chief. With later ordinances, the individual mantsemei were empowered to forge state councils and native tribunals through which they issued statements of customary law and arbitrated local disputes.

These political changes were paralleled by extensive economic change. The Ga state encompassedAccra, a thriving urban centre. In conjunction with the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance, the British designatedAccrathe administrative capital of the Gold coast colony. The British decision caused the value of Ga land to increase. Ga land had long been valued as a site for commercial trade and some farming; but now, the land acquired additional value as the site for government buildings, residential construction and increased levels of commercial (and later industrial) enterprise.

The commercialisation of Ga lands provoked an intense battle among indigenous actors to claim more exclusive rights to the land. Whoever secured such rights would garner considerable economic wealth: the rights-holder would receive the compensation payments made by colonial officials when the colonial government appropriated Ga land; and the rights holder would receive the profits from the private investment he or she made on surrounding land.

Colonial institutions propelled the battle to appropriate this new wealth into the traditional state. Ga residents – both elite and non elite sought to secure a favourable share of that wealth by re-inventing customary land tenure. Throughout the period of colonial rule, different groups would argue simultaneously that customary law invested ownership of all Ga lands in private individuals, extended families, divisional stools and paramount stool.

Ga residents sought to enforce their claims by reinventing the institutions of the traditional state. The Native Jurisdiction Ordinance transformed traditional institutions into repositories of political power. Whoever gained control over those institutions would be in a position to enforce his preferred version of customary land tenure.

The changes wrought by colonial rule ignited a prolonged battle to control the definition of tradition in the Ga state. The fluid situation we have over Ga lands inAccranow is as a direct result of these changes.

The Ga elite’s effort to enforce a family cantered definition of customary land tenure disinherited both the Ga chiefs and a substantial portion of the Ga citizenry. In 1921, representatives of this disadvantaged group (called Manbii) mobilized to articulate a different, more distributionally favourable definition of customary law. They failed in their efforts.

The descendants of the Reindorf family were prominent members of the Gold Coast elite. Family members aggressively pursued new economic opportunities and embraced the external trappings of western society; yet they maintained close and active ties to the traditional state from which they descended.

The Reindorf family’s response to the commercialization of land in the Ga state reflects the incentive structure created by the institutions of indirect rule. Given the British determination to uphold traditional institutions, and given the Africans’ fear that Europeans would purchase all land were it offered for sale, the Ga elites could not demand the privatization of land. Instead, the Ga elites sought to strengthen their rights over land (and thus further their economic pursuits) by reinventing tradition.

First, the members of the Reindorf family defended a version of customary law that vested all land in the extended family, rather than in the divisional or paramount stools. Second, the family members manipulated the family history so as to narrow the boundaries of the extended family and reduce the number of claimants to family land. Third, the Reindorfs struggled to enforce their preferred version of custom by re-inventing the institutions of the traditional state. They sought to gain control of over the Ga mantse, or paramount chief, because the Mantse had the authority to arbitrate all land disputes brought before the Ga Native Tribunal.

It is estimated that millions of hectares representing a substantial part of Ga lands were expropriated in freeholds by the Ga elite through their political power and wealth during the colonial period. In consequence men women and children of the Ga mashie area of the Ga state were at independence technically landless.

The collapse of indirect rule and the transition to independent government altered the framework within which property rights were enforced.

In recent times land acquisition is governed by State lands act and according to the state lands act 1962 (act 125), any land – stool, family, private may be compulsorily acquired where the government considers it in the public interest. An executive instrument must be published specifying the site, land dimensions, and time of acquisition. The act is specifically aimed at extinguishing all prior interests and encumbrances on the land. Once applied, the only right remaining to previous holders is lump sum compensation currently determined and processed by the land valuation board. Conflicts over claims of interest or disagreements over the level of compensation are to be taken to the state lands tribunal, whose decisions are appealable to the Court of Appeal.

In addition to the state lands act, section 7 of the administration of lands act, 1962, provides a facility by which the administration and management of stool land may be vested in the state in trust for the stool concerned. Looks good on paper but we all know that is not the practice especially inAccraover Ga lands. While conveyance of freehold title is permitted in the case of private land or freehold, there is some confusion over transfer of family land. The Koforidua lands secretariat presently treats transfers of family lands as stool lands requiring a lease and concurrence as technically, under the existing constitution; private transfer of family land is illegal. The regional lands secretary in Koforidua mused that further court cases are likely to occur as a result of this confusion, with individuals desiring title to family lands suing the government. The body of law of law that governs land rights, land markets, lease terms, rental prices, compulsory land acquisitions for the public domain, and land registration relevant to the Accra peri-urban economy is in its own right impressive, yet not without weaknesses. Ambiguity over whether family lands are or are not to be treated along with stool lands under the general rules governing customary tenure are creating uncertainties regarding which rights are held, and which government provisions apply.

Based on further reconnaissance visits throughout the peri-urban area ofAccrain 1993 and 1994, four contextual situations were observed that reflect varying degrees of tenure security or conflict associated with land access and transfers:

T1     Type I. Land transactions under customary tenure occur expeditiously and generally without serious disputes over land among households within the community. Communities widely disseminate the proceeds of land sales to residents through cash transfers, land allocations, or community improvements.

T2     Type II. Proceeds from land sales are not widely distributed to residents, but rather benefit the chief or other influential families in the community.

T3     Type III. Customary tenure systems exhibit conflict or stress; serious disputes are present or at risk between neighbouring or competing stools or families.

T4     Type IV. The central government through compulsory acquisition acquires stool or family land and allocates land to outsiders at subsidised prices. Rates of compensation negotiated between government and the community, however, are subsequently not paid by government causing resentment and welfare loss in the concerned community. Serious disputes arise between local authorities and central government.

T5     Type V. Community lands are registered, and government plays a positive role in protecting the land rights of its citizens.

Four research sites were selected that exhibit to greater or less degrees one or more characteristic of the above typologies:

1     Gbawe and Amasaman (T1, T3, and T5). Gbawe village, located roughly 9 miles fromAccra, represents the customary land tenure system at its best. Once a small village, it has now been entirely engulfed by the wave of residential settlement moving outward fromAccracity. Village lands have been sold by the chief to outsiders investing in residential improvements. But unlike some chiefs inAccracity, the traditional authority has been using the “earnest” or “drink” money obtained in land transactions to make infrastructural improvements in the area and to help Gbawe residents. Amasaman is a medium sized village located on the Accra-Nsawam road about 14 miles fromAccracity and 7 miles north of Gbawe. Residential developments are emerging in the area, but the village is also a site of commercial pineapple production. Both sites in the Greater Accra region.

2     Ofankor (T2 and T4). ThevillageofOfankoris a site where government has acquired a substantial portion of the village landholdings through administrative edict and allocates land for residential development. Ofankor is located just west of Nsawam/Kumasi road north ofAccra.

3     Ashongman (t1, T4, and T5). In the Atomic Energy residential area, a tacit dispute has arisen between the government and a chief over the right to allocate residential land. These two areas are adjacent to each other in the northern suburbs ofAccra.

Gbawe, in the far western suburbs ofAccra, and Amasaman are located nearest to the urbanAccracentre. Gbawe has already been entirely engulfed by the residential influx. Ashongman and Ofankor, both near Gbawe are suffering duress, the former from a poorly functioning customary land market, and the latter from state intervention in the control of land assets.

54 years on from independence, land sales in the peri-urban area ofAccra; represent an important source of revenue for the community. Many millions of cedis are earned in some years depending on the number of plots sold. While constitutional provisions stipulate that a fixed percentage of ground rent collections are to be returned to the stool, no funds have been paid to the stool for some years now. The stool has asked for the funds on various occasions but has been informed that no money is available. Gbawe’s residents are unhappy with this, but communities generally feel helpless in challenging government.


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