Before I start, it’s important to define the term Zongo for the benefit of non-Ghanaian readers. These are inner city or suburbia communities, mostly not well planned in terms of amenities, with higher-level sanitation and many other challenges, and occupied overwhelmingly by Muslims and migrants from northern regions of Ghana and third and fourth generations from northern regions of other West African states. These communities started as temporal outskirts trader communities from the pre-colonial era. It is important to also state that the inner cities of coastal communities in the south and in the rain forest areas of Ghana’s though overwhelmingly Christian, have similar dynamics too.
ACCRA—It could be a blessing that Ghana has, for the first time ever in Africa, an Inner City and Zongo Development ministerial appointment sitting right at the highest level of executive decision-making privileges of politics in the country.
As much as it could be a blessing, this idea could also end up a curse. But how could this laudable decision end up a curse? This ministry will perhaps be the first to have a more direct contact with the grassroots level of inner city communities than any other ministerial appointment ever made in the entire African context. Forget the local governance ministries. They are usually appointed to work to disenfranchise such grassroots because of their roots in stratifying certain neo-colonial myths within the context of neoliberal global utopia.
The usual local governance systems are textbook theories, usually not tried anywhere before. Sometimes concocted far away from the realities on the ground by the so-called policy experts. As the microcosm of neoliberalism, they protect hierarchies of the top and its prescriptions and diktats to communities, none of which the experts have interacted with before.
To bring it down to the Ghanaian context, Ghana as a nation, embanked on local governance restructuring since the 1980s. This was anchored later in the 1992 to be approached cautiously. Ever since, ministerial appointments have had terms of references that reflect these restructuring mandates and objectives with little of no implementation focus. Many decisions, experiences and expertise have been invested in the restructuring of the system. A certain level of neglect was starting to emerge on the effect on living standards aspect of Ghanaian local governance.
Just like all other educational institutions in the country, the local government training Centres are caught up in situations of teaching stuff that either out-dated or are copy cut of what the government has seen elsewhere without asking relevant questions pertaining to the differences between Ghanaian contexts and contexts of where these ideas were taken from. In 2013, Kemet Consulting headed by myself and the Local Government Training Centre has initial talks to agree on a deal to revamp curriculum for the Gender and Accountability in Local Governance Process training. I met with Miss Magdalene Kannae, a committed, hardworking and intelligent woman who was frustrated by the lack of action in the system and ready to give it her all to see change, headed the Gender Department. But she could not do much as others above her did not have her type of zeal.
This ministry sounds somewhat unique. It will be working along the lines of dynamics laid down by the communities themselves. So unless unforeseen circumstances beyond the government’s control come up, the successes and failures of such a grassroots-penetrating idea rest solely the minister and his intentions, experience at grassroots level, ability to connect with diverse groups at that level and most importantly, how grassroots dynamics fit into overall government plans.
To paint clearer picture, it’s important to outline some of these dynamics and then relate them to the above analysis of the potentials of the newly created ministry.
In the inner-city communities of Ghana, sustained deprivations of all kinds from successive governments have led to different survival mechanisms fairly detached from government decisions for decades. Community resilience has prevailed for a long time and people have learnt to survive with less. Considering the fact that some of Ghana’s famous sports personalities and artistic talents come from these places, there are no excuses in not engaging these communities. The neglect of these grassroots have reflected in Ghana’s medal winning in various sports as well as the country’s ability to produce creative people. The likes of Bukom are known for producing the best boxers of Africa.
The neglect has created a trend of important community front-runners using their skills to campaign for political parties, something that is often a source of tension and conflict in Ghana. A recent turn that this neglect has taken is with respect to abundance of technology and lack of engagement for youth. Many creative youth who lack avenue engage in Internet fraud.
In this respect, the Zongo gave the world a new negative word, “Sakawa”, which in Hausa language means plugging something into small hole. Sakawa is now known beyond Zongos as a synonym for fraud. If this is implemented well, grassroots actors may no longer feel the need to jump to politics because they will have the means to effect change in their communities. But for that to happen, the implementation has to take effect from the grassroots.
Another reason why local governance as it is right now will not help is the fact that the dynamics in these inner cities are also loaded with age-old traditions. From a financial point of view, the members of these communities are still important for their primordial extended family types. In places like Ashaiman, Jamestown and Nima, a whole extended family network could depend on the income of a single successful person. In northern communities where most people in the Zongo communities come from, the depleted subsistence agricultural practices means that those who live in these urban Zongo are dependent upon from their hometowns in the north for remittances.
Zongos and inner-city communities like Jamestown and Korle Gono, Darkuman, Odokor, Mamprobi, Nima, Labadi, Bubiashie, New Fadama, Sabon-Zongos and coastal communities of Cape Coast and other parts of Central Region, Zongos of Aflao, Hohoe and other indigenous communities of Volta Region, of Kumasi and other places in the Ashanti Region. Similar communities within the northern Regions themselves, from Wa to Bolgatanga, etc., have grown into unique grassroots dynamics, and the new President must be commended for recognizing their importance in central state planning context. If this project succeeds, its long-term benefits will be unimaginable. It could solve the Land-guard terrors that engulfed Ghana and bring back these otherwise talented youth to the artistic practices and sport avenues.
Zongos became permanent settlement in the colonial era when Europeans started treating carved territories like Ghana as states. Traditional trading movements started to settle within and function states. Fighting colonisation side-by-side locals anchored these communities as permanent in postcolonial Ghana. The dynamics have ever since, changed to include all kinds of people.
Inasmuch as the plan is laudable, there are important factors to be weary of. For example, most properties in these communities are in the hands of second, third and fourth generation inheriting parties. Based on past experiences with NPP governments, their understanding of the neoliberal apparatus is known to free funds into the hands of the populace, including extreme capitalist means with disregard for grassroots communities.
If funds become accessible to all kinds of parties in the system and the minister is not quick to protect local communities, or has no community interest at heart, serious gentrification could engulf these communities. The NPP would, in its efforts to find solutions, rather have presided a generational disenfranchisement.
African communities and their diaspora, often reeling with poverty and Inner-city conundrums, have the tendency to become cultural innovation trendsetters and hubs of artistic practices. Similar dynamics have given us hip-hop, hip-life, Chale Wote Festival, etc. and many prominent creative and sports personalities.
I think this is a positive development and could not come at a better time than this era of creativity spawning, start-up incubation culture times. It’s time for government led initiatives to slow down the restructuring of local governance and mix it up with a certain level of implementation of projects from the grassroots level. The urgent areas to first look at will be to come up with artisanal, artistic and technical ways to defeat the ever-threatening sanitation challenges. Remember that this will also cut down the number of deaths during the rainy season and therefore should be implemented with hindsight thinking.
Then flood the communities with sports facilities, libraries and the necessary books to create interest in reading and revamp creativity. Afters that, the government must identify community “front runners” who command a certain level of multiplier effects in their various communities and train them in ToTs (Trainer of Trainer Activities) in various forms of community leadership skills. Institutions like Nubuke Foundation, No Limit Foundation, Accra Dot Alt, etc. can be contacted as they engage communities. They have the statistical background and a formalised approach to these things.
Countries like Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland where grassroots artistic practices translate directly into industrial capacity have a triple edge award approach in which artistic practices and technical education are connected to industrial hubs and activities at youth centres, especially youth centres in inner city communities. We also witnessed the lack of such approaches in the rioting and rampage disenfranchised youth caused in carved out suburbs in U.K., and France in recent years.
In Austria, such initiatives, implemented in tandem with educational and cultural authorities have birthed a revamp interest in applied art and science university campuses strategically placed within districts. They are popularly known as FH (Fachhochschule or specialized higher learning centres). Germany and Austria for example, have business incubations system that will work perfectly for Zongo communities.
The previous administration under President Mahama, sent delegations to Germany, the result of which has been the elevation of polytechnics to universities. If those initiatives can be coupled with each other, this will be of great benefit for Ghana in creating employment and spawning out creativity. It is important to entrust such ventures into the hands of creative community level players and not the usual mission school graduate intellectual who’s modus operandi is built on winning pride in starving youth of knowledge, hierarchical understanding of social action, deriving joy from punishing youth and stifling competition.
Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that the implementation would only work if the grassroots were given a respectable mandate by the upper level of governance in the implementation process.
This ministry is important to the lives of grassroots communities in many ways but deserving of a concluding perspective on the issue at hand is the security and safety of the people. Between 2014 and 2016, the past administration did a good job of locating and dismantling recruitment efforts of ISIS in Ghana. As such, pre-emptively, this is not only a good decision from community empowerment and artistic practices point of view but also very good preventive measure against groups like Boko Haram and other regional and global threats.