In contemporary Ghana, everyone wants to buy a land in order to build an edifice for their own use, public gain or for commercial purpose. This desire although may seem new to the current generation has remained with Ghanaians for generations. Only that it is at a high level today.
This desire to acquire a landed property irrespective of how great it, is not easy to achieve. The loops that one has to go through to achieve can be easy or herculean depending on the circumstances surrounding the said land or property. The value and access to land in urban centres, especially the national capital of Accra is challenging; due to high demand of land stemming from rural-urban migration. The migration has also been largely due to the centralization of opportunities at the urban centres.
The country has made some huge strides in decentralization, yet about half of the estimated 38 million Ghanaians live in the few urban areas as compared to the greater rural and peri-urban parts of the country. Comparatively, there are more people in the few urban areas as compared to the greater part of the country which is largely rural.
This puts pressure on the urban areas, leading to over population and scrambling for spaces and opportunities which will be readily available in rural areas should there be enough investments there. This cycle of pressure on urban centres may continue to increase if key measures are not put in place to stem the rural urban migration, says Statistica.
The ripple effect of this vicious cycle has increased the value of lands in urban areas like Accra, Kumasi, Takoradi, Sunyani, Koforidua, Cape Coast and Ho. These areas are largely closer to the south, where there is more development.
Lands in Accra
The high value placed on these lands has limited the access to lands, thereby making it a difficult exercise in acquiring one. The huge value of land especially in Accra which ranges between GH¢50,000 at the outskirts to 100s of thousands of Ghana cedis per plot in city centres has increased interest in lands.
Since most lands in Accra are either owned by stools, families, clans and individuals through inheritance, the value a land brings can lead to disagreements between owners. Which in turn leads to multiple sale of the same plot or plots of land and disputes over ownership.
The land tenure system in the past did not encourage many owners to document their land. The boundaries of lands were determined by natural means, like the use of boundary trees, water bodies, farm lands among others. Land boundaries were inherently respected however civilization reduced the quantum of land and increased the value, hence the lack of documentation led to most of the disputes. The sluggish justice system, coupled with other bad encroachment and adverse claim of land gave birth to people employing private security to protect their lands.
Today, this measure, which began as simple solution to protecting lands evolved into what is now known as the ‘Land Guard’ syndrome. While land owners were waiting to have a good land administration system, the unregulated land security system evolved into a sophisticated venture with the contracted parties (land guards) wielding injurious weapons like machete and guns.
Simply put, the attempt to protect lands carved a place for ‘land guards’ who exist mainly to meet a demand for land protection services in urban Ghana. It is no news in urban areas, especially in Accra where everyone knows that litigation can be lengthy and might cause financial and property loss in the end.
Who are land guards?
Land guards are illegal persons hired by land owners to “scare” people off the lands they have acquired. They are more like vigilante groups who perpetrate assault and vandalism against land developers and their projects. Although it started as a genuine intention to protect the property of actual owners, they currently work for the highest bidder regardless of whether the person is the rightful owner or not.
They are hired by people who want to avoid land issues in a system where records can be hard to keep. The phenomenon of land guards took hold after Ghana returned to constitutional rule in 1992. This period ushered in the liberalization of markets and an increase in economic growth opportunities and credit access.
This led to increase in the acquisition of property as potential investors sought out investment opportunities in real estate and ordinary citizens felt relatively secure to invest in land. Increased interest in land acquisition led to an appreciation of land value, especially in Accra where land owners sold particular lands to many people.
Many buyers became victims of multiple sale and had to turn to the courts of law to seek redress. However, the long and costly processes of accessing justice in general and land litigation in particular deterred people from the formal processes of the judiciary. Some also employed the two system side by side, thus while pursuing their land through the formal justice systems, they still maintained the land guards to ward off contestations and encroachers through physical surveillance.
How the land guards operate
These land guards were initially youths of a particular area where the land of interest was located. If it were a clan, stool or family land, the land guards will involve the young men in those associations. In the case of individual lands, it was anyone who could help protect the land.
Their job was to prevent anyone except the contracting party from entering the land. Over time, contesting parties of a particular land had their own land guards, these two groups in discharging their duties fought with each other. To gain the upper hand, they resorted to wielding weapons. As the community youth grew faint hearted, land owners had to employ hardened persons, including criminals and ruthless gangs to maintain the higher ground.
These land guards sometimes without being commissioned by anyone can inhabit a land and extort money from the lawful owner before he or she can develop the land. They also demolish properties as directed by whoever hired them irrespective of whether the person is the right owner or not.
The era of estate developers also gave their activities a boom, as they were largely used to protect the boundaries of very large acres of land. Although administration system has been improved over time, the services of these land guards are still prevalent. In some cases, some have a temporal abode on the property while in other instances, they only undertake periodic surveillance and call for back-up when necessary.
In many places of Accra, there have been a lot of injuries over some of these land guard clashes. Including the killing of two top police officers, Owusu Sekyere (Kweku Ninja) and Jerry Wornu (Taller) in the country in the 1998. They were killed at Ablekuma in Accra, which used be notorious for land guard activities.
The state’s response to this menace
In as much as there were several reforms to make the land guard phenomenon dormant, the death of the two officers raised a national call to action. The incident reiterated the fact that the activities of land guards threatened the lives of the Ghanaian people on one hand and undermined the state on the other. Their use of illegitimate force to threaten, intimidate, and, in extreme instances, kill their victims became unwelcomed.
Several attempts were undertaken by the state through the Police and Military to curb the prevalence of land guard in the country. There were periodic swoops and arrests based on intelligence and surveillance, but usually the culprits had to be released because they were not caught in the act. It reduced the prevalence for a period, but it picked up as expansion to new development areas ensued.
The state reiterated its resolve to end the menace by disbanding the activity and making it a prohibited act in Section 12 of the Lands Act, 2020 (Act 1036). It says “A person who unlawfully exercises or purports to exercise supervision or control of land development in the a location which he has no interest in the land, extorts money or other benefits from the person who has an interest in the land or prevents a developer from developing the land or personally or through another person unlawfully uses force or violence to prevent the person with interest from having access to the land or drives away that person with an interest in the land from the land commits an offence and is liable to a summary conviction to a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years and not more than 15 years.
Thus, anyone arrested in relation to land guard activities can be imprisoned up to 15 years. Apart from this, the state had undertaken lots of land administration reforms including developing an online system of checking the validity of lands and other landed properties and streamlining registration processes. There is also the Real Estate Agency Act which regulates the real estate sector which goes to improve land transaction and hence reduce the use of land guards.
The Ghana Police Service has also set-up an anti-land guard task force that fends off and arrests land guards as and when they receive reports or investigations discovers such persons. These notwithstanding a lot needs to be done to totally rid the country of land guards.
Employing land guards comes at a cost which goes to affect the value of a land in many urban areas even more. Because, when all is said and done the cost invested in maintaining them will be passed on to whoever is acquiring the land or the property.
The fear of land guards has held many people back from acquiring lands in order to build or undertake projects. Thus, it has made the acquisition of land and properties the reserve of the highest bidder. This to some extent limits opportunities to acquire properties and even the opportunity to reduce housing deficit in the country, which is over 2 million according to the Ghana statistical service. It also limits infrastructure development as a whole in other areas other than housing.
People who could hitherto acquire a land and build, have resorted to renting or mortgages which is still expensive, but comes without the headache of land guards. Those who could also venture into Real Estate which has huge potential in the country are looking elsewhere.
The activities of these land guards have impeded infrastructural developments because their activities make it hard for one to acquire a land to build an infrastructure that will help develop the society through other businesses and job creation. Their activities have also impeded the development of social amenities in communities. Recently, land guards set ablaze a new police station in Tebibiano near Obom in the Ga South Municipality; an edifice which is to benefit the larger community and ensure law and order in the society.
The value of lives lost due to land guard activities cannot be quantified. Kweku Ninja and Taller were national assets in relation to the nation’s security. There are many skilled and impactful persons who lost their lives through same means. Most of these people, including entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, and politicians among others could be contributing significantly to national development but are no mores.
I am personally aware of multi-million-dollar projects that were cancelled because the investors were chased at gun point by land guards when they went to visit the proposed land for the projects. The cost of weeding out the land guards is in itself an economic lost. Funds that could have been used to improve security in less endowed communities must be committed to chasing illegal land overseers.
A lot has been done by the state to turn the situation around, but there is still more room for improvement. If the justice system can be equipped to fast track land disputes, there may not be the need for land guards, because people don’t have to wait for up to 20 years to get a verdict. Citizens must also learn to do their due diligence, before entering a land transaction.
If they are incapacitated, they should employ the services of professionals, like Lawyers, Surveyors and Real Estate Brokers. Citizens must provide prompt and adequate information of these criminals for prompt action by the Police. The state must invest in massive sensitization of the public against the menace of land guards to deter people from engaging them.
>>>The writer is the CEO of CBC Properties Limited, a member of Ghana Association of Real Estate Brokers (GAR) and Ghana Real Estate Developers Association (GREDA); Email: [email protected] Cell: +233-20-422-5002