The haunted and the haunting: reproducing Ghana’s historical injustices during the Covid-19 pandemic

Written By: Festival Godwin Boateng, Samuel Ametepey, & Savior Kusi

Date: 2022-02-25   
Views: 1821

Much has been written about how inequalities in access to decent and secure jobs, and adequate serviced housing undermined Ghana’s attempt to leverage lockdowns to contain the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Much less attention, however, has focused on the historical-institutional roots of the inequalities. This omission is significant because re-building the country to deal with similar future crises better will require a deeper understanding of the historical processes and factors that created the conditions that made or have made containing the current crisis more difficult than it should have been.

This post, redacted from our recent publication in AREF, explores the historical-institutional roots of Ghana’s COVID-19 containment troubles. We unravel how unresolved historical injustices, deepened in new forms today, undermined effective containment of the pandemic. Consider, for instance, the case of some head porters, popularly called ‘Kayayes’, in the country. These working class people, mainly young female migrants from the poorer parts of northern Ghana, make a living by carting the goods of customers and traders in Ghana’s busiest Southern cities–mainly Accra, Tema and Kumasi.

Research has shown that Kayayes face severe hardships in the country including malnutrition, inadequate access to healthcare, education, sanitation and accommodation. Fearing that their already precarious living conditions could be compounded by the lockdown restrictions, several of them tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to smuggle themselves from Accra to their hometowns. When the police arrested them in the middle of their journey, one of them explained to the media that:

We came to Accra to look for something to eat. We don't have anyone in Accra to give us shelter, we have been sleeping on the streets. We decided to go back to our hometown, when we were told there is an outbreak of a disease in Ghana and only return when the whole situation is resolved.


By seeking to flee Accra to their hometowns in the northern parts of Ghana, the Kayayes risked spreading the disease from a key transmission hotspot to some of the most impoverished parts of the country where the healthcare facilities are also poorly resourced.

The Kayayes’ suffering illustrates the impact of deeper historical injustices

The northern part of Ghana, the hometown of the majority of Kayayes, has long remained the most impoverished part of the country. This has roots in colonial development models which denied the place development resources because they did not have the raw materials the colonial government valued.

Unfortunately, not only have successive post-colonial governments failed to dismantle these discriminatory structures for delivering socio-economic development, they have actually replicated them. This has created path dependency reproduced by development interventions favouring the southern parts of the country. For instance, Accra-Tema alone accounted for 49% and 50% of the total number of people employed and value added in the manufacturing sector, respectively. According to the 1969 industrial enterprises directory, about 59.5% of all industrial establishments in the country were concentrated in Accra-Tema alone.

That of Kumasi and Sekondi-Takoradi stood at some 16.5% and 10.2%, respectively. These three cities combined hosted over 86% of all registered industries in the country. Essentially, post-colonial socio-economic developments in Ghana have remained postcolonial – i.e. they have retained all the trappings of the socio-spatial discriminations and exclusions of the colonial era.

The IMF/World Bank-funded structural adjustment reforms implemented in the country in the 1980s could not do much to change the dynamics; it actually deepened it. While the reforms attracted substantial private capital–especially foreign direct investments to Ghana, the incentives related to economies of scale and profitability directed at investments to the southern industrial enclaves–where poverty is least endemic. For instance, for close to a decade (2001 to 2009), only one investment project was located in the Upper West region–one of the poorest regions in Ghana.

 In effect, the reforms deepened the ‘Southern bias’ spatial organization of the Ghanaian economy set in motion by the colonial and post-colonial governments’ policies. The success of the few targeted interventions such as the Savanna Accelerated Development Program meant to bridge the development gap between the North and the South has been undermined by corruption and mismanagement.

The result of these is the continuing widening of socio-economic and spatial inequalities in the country with the attendant repercussions of pushing and pulling more and more young people from the North to migrate to the Southern cities for opportunities. The Kayayes (head porters) who featured heavily in the violation of the lockdown restrictions are the poster children of this pattern of migration in Ghana.

They support the economic development of their host cities through addressing market transportation gaps and assisting in market exchange. City authorities used to impose market tolls on them until the central government abolished it in 2017. Thus, Kayayes play important roles in the socio-economic life of Ghana’s Southern cities–Accra, Tema and Kumasi in particular.

However, the focus of both private and public formal housing interventions on high income and middle class people, and Ghanaian landlords’ exploitative practice of demanding many years of advance lump-sum rental payments in the informal private rental housing market have meant that Kayayes (low-income working class people generally), are impeded from accessing decent housing in the cities.

Accommodation and skills training promises made to them by politicians have gone unfulfilled, with the result that they continue to make a living by carting the goods of customers and traders in the day, and sleeping on the streets, in front of shops and other such places in the night. Some of them access accommodation in the rapidly expanding low-income slum neighborhoods or communities in the cities.

Housing tenure in these parts of the cities are, however, very insecure because the city authorities frequently use slum clearance’, ‘decongestion exercises’, ‘demolition of illegal structures’ and other excuses to destroy them. For instance, at the same time the Government was enforcing the ‘stay at home’ restrictions, one of its local agencies, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, rendered over 1,000 people including Kayayes homeless by demolishing their houses because they were deemed ‘illegal’.

It is within the context of this precarious existence that close to 80 of the Kayayes decided to evade the lockdown restrictions and the obvious further hardships the restrictions were going to foist on them by smuggling themselves in a cargo truck to their hometowns.

Lessons for building back better

The initial media and policy narratives on the mass-defiance of the lockdown attributed it to indiscipline. This narrative echoed the rather deep-seated view that the intractable social problems in the country are primarily due to bad attitudes–Ghanaians penchant for breaking laws and disregarding cherished values.

As our analysis shows, however, the indiscipline narrative grossly ignores the deeper historical determinants that placed Kayayes and other similarly situated groups of people at the heart of the violation of the restrictions. Inspired by the indiscipline narrative, the government deployed the violent power of the state to compel the so-called ‘undisciplined’ violators of the restrictions to lockdown. The strategy, as we have shown elsewhere, did not work.

We argue that a more sustainable way to contain the next crisis better lies with measures that enhance the chances of the majority of Ghanaians to have a shot at decent life or address the persisting conditions undermining such chances. Such measures could include:

(1) Stymieing elite thievery and mismanagement to free more public resources for the creation of more secure decent jobs and the expansion of adequate serviced housing for all;

(2) Moratoriums on evictions and the extension of public services to poor neighbourhoods (including more slum upgrading);

(3) Consciously directing private capital and public investments to poverty-stricken parts of the country; and

(4) Building robust infrastructure and systems for delivering welfare/social support on a large-scale.

Hopefully, these interventions and others aimed at dismantling the persisting regressive socio-political-economic systems and strictures of structures generating progressive employment, housing and other service outcomes for a minority few will do more to position the Ghanaian public to be more cooperative in containing the next crisis to come.

Festival Godwin Boateng is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development of Columbia Climate School/Earth Institute, Columbia University-New York – USA. Samuel Ametepey is an Agricultural Economist. He holds a Master Science (MSc) degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Agriculture (Agricultural Economics major) from the University of Ghana, Legon. Savior Kusi is a development management economist. He holds a Master of Arts (MA) degree in Development Management from the University of Agder, Norway and a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree in Economics from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi – Ghana

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