Accra's mayor on his city's greatest challenges

City planning: Accra mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowah has made waste management one of his main priorities. (Intellectual Reserve)

City planning: Accra mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowah has made waste management one of his main priorities. (Intellectual Reserve)

Mohammed Adjei Sowah is acutely aware of the limits of his own power. The mayor of the Accra metropolitan area — the heart of Ghana’s sprawling capital, home to 1.6-million people and counting — is expected by residents to be able to solve all of the city’s problems, but he does not always have the authority to do so.

“It’s the biggest challenge we are confronted with. Unfortunately, as mayor, you are a lot closer to the people than national government, so it is difficult for the people to hear what you are saying, that you are not in control of this, and for them to appreciate it,” said Sowah, speaking last week to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of the C40 Financing Sustainable African Cities Forum in Johannesburg.

Part of this challenge is the often confusing distribution of responsibilities between local and national governments.
Part of it is also Sowah’s total reliance on the national government for funding. Current regulations mean that he is allowed to raise a maximum of $400 (this is not a typo) from capital markets. “In South Africa, the local authorities have the mandate to access funding on the capital market, to promote development. In many parts of Africa, including my city, we don’t have that capacity. So what you can do is then to push government. In South Africa, [the] lesson learnt is that [in the funding of] these projects they are far ahead of us.”

As urbanisation speeds up — there are now 4.6-million people living in greater Accra — so mayors and local governments are going to need more power, argues Sowah. “Urbanisation is a global phenomenon and in Accra it is becoming more pronounced ... This is the right time for us to rethink about the composition, the structure and authority of local government in urban areas. We all know that by 2030 more than about 55% of the global population could be living in urban areas, and by 2050 it will hit more than 70%. That makes it very critical for us to reorganise local government, especially in urban areas, to be responding to the anticipated population growth and the challenges that come with. I don’t think there’s time to play politics around it and push it back, else we will have our government crashed if we don’t take steps to be able to address it.”

But critics worry that giving mayors too much power may create more potential for the abuse of that power. Currently there are question marks surrounding the awarding of a lucrative sanitation contract in Accra to Zoomlion, a Ghanaian firm that was blacklisted for fraud by the World Bank.

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“First of all, Zoomlion is a big company,” said Sowah. “It’s the biggest and most successful sanitation company in Ghana ... I think that for whatever the case is, the facts should be there, and the law should take its course. There’s too much talk about speculation, suspicion and some work being done. I’m aware the central government is also investigating the company. The attorney general is involved; the Ghana police is involved.”

Sowah has made waste management one of his administration’s main priorities. He has made headlines by trying to clean up the infamous Agbogbloshie landfill, one of the largest dumping grounds for electronic waste in the world — by 2025, he wants to have reduced the solid waste going to all landfills by half— and is working to expand the city’s capacity to deal with liquid waste, which is what the controversial Zoomlion contract is for.

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Housing is also high on his agenda. “When people come to the city they have to find a place to sleep. Unfortunately, the housing deficit is increasing, and a lot more informal communities are coming up.”

These challenges are only going to increase along with Accra’s population, and the city’s rapid expansion shows no sign of slowing. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, the national development paradigm was that we should develop the rural areas to stem the flow of people into the urban areas.

“Practically, that has [had] no result. We are unable to provide the necessary development to those areas to persuade the people to stay. Life is becoming more challenging and people are looking for areas where they can earn a living. Therefore, the urban areas become the most opportune.”

A good mayor, says Sowah, is one who recognises this reality — and plans accordingly. “I also think we should pay attention to the future needs, and not only the present needs of the people. The future looks bright but there is a need for us to step up and do more.”

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