Colonial Governance, Modernization, and the Process of Informalization in Accra

By Jennifer Hart

The British colonial government moved their administration from Cape Coast to Accra in 1877 – a date which often marks the beginning of British consolidation of colonial rule in the Gold Coast. The motivations for the move were multiple. Protests over the imposition of new taxes and discontent over the abolition of slavery, for example, created tension in Cape Coast where powerful trading families, farmers, and political leaders used their wealth and position to place checks on the colonial state’s authority.[1] Accra, which had emerged by the mid-19th century as the center of powerful social and economic networks in the southern Gold Coast, was a viable commercial alternative. But those economic prospects were equally weighed with considerations of health and the standards for appropriate urban residence on the Gold Coast.[2] The British move to Accra, then, highlighted the persistent importance of economics in the expansion of colonial power and the ways that economics mapped onto emerging forms of spatial organization and regulation in colonial urban imaginaries in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

PS/1834/9 Various Places in Accra. July 31, 1975. Photographer: Ben Kwakye. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

If the British moved to Accra in order to escape the complicated politics of Cape Coast, the political, economic, social, and cultural organization of Accra provided its own challenges. As John Parker argues, Accra was a Ga town well before it became a colonial capital. Undoubtedly, the town had long been shaped by the centuries-long presence of Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, and British forts along the coast. The residents of Accra, like those of Cape Coast, also participated in the emergent systems of global capitalism as traders.[3] As elsewhere along the coast, trade generated other forms of interaction and exchange. As scholars like Hermann Hesse, Kuukuwa Manful, Ato Quayson (in spirit and by reference if not in an actual post), Deborah Pellow and others note in this series, intercultural exchange influenced a highly cosmopolitan culture in which Afro-European families, Afro-Brazilian returnees, Hausa migrants, and Akan traders interacted to shape the city’s unique and varied socio-spatial landscape. As Parker, Quayson, Sackeyfio, and Roberts have demonstrated, Accra’s cosmopolitan culture developed within and alongside indigenous political and social institutions.[4] The integration of new migrants and the social, cultural, and political change they provoked were negotiated through indigenous systems of spirituality, authority, land tenure, and social organization.

R/6081/1 Accra Town Views. August 21, 1958. Photographer: Paul Anane. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

These strategies of adaptation and expansion provide important context for understanding the politics of space in Accra under British colonial rule. British officials filled colonial archives with reports and memos that complained about indigenous resistance to colonial plans to re-order the city through decongestion, dismissing African opposition as ignorance or backwardness.

Ethnographic histories of Ga spatial practice, however, suggest that, in failing to take African complaints seriously, colonial officials dismissed indigenous forms of spatial order and caused new kinds of problems. Both British officials like Thos E. Rice (an early 20th century Colonial Sanitation Officer) and Accra Town Council members saw opportunity when disease, fires, and natural disasters threatened the town’s population. Their grid-like plans for new urban developments and decongested/resettled sections of the old town, however, failed to account for either the spiritual and social significance of space or the social and economic networks that operated within that space. In other cases, proposed technological solutions to perceived problems with sanitation disrupted local health practices and worsened sanitary conditions when infrastructure systems were not fully implemented or were unable to keep up with the pace of change in the growing city. In response to what Bill Bissell describes as “the incapacity of legal and bureaucratic instruments to reorder the totality of the everyday” – a process of urban planning that was “marked again and again by incoherence, incapacity, and incompleteness”[5] – African residents often ignored colonial regulations and reforms or adapted technological systems to better suit the realities and needs of everyday life. Drivers stopped to pick passengers up along the roadside to supplement inadequate municipal bus systems, urban residents installed cornmills and distilleries in their family compounds to provide important infrastructure for daily tasks, Hausa migrants altered street layouts to better fit Muslim values attached to spatial organization, and cooked food sellers operated in lorry parks and markets where their products were in greatest demand.

R/2200/3 Street Scenes. 1955. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

In response to African adaptations and resistance, British and African colonial agents created new regimes of regulation and order. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the Accra Town Council, which included both “official” British representatives and “unofficial” African members who were elected from the city’s population of ratepayers, passed an increasingly intrusive series of regulations that sought to dictate the built space and socioeconomic practices of urban life in Accra. Late 19th and early 20th century debates about sanitation pathologized African residents and justified increasingly intrusive interventions in the daily lives and private spaces of urban dwellers, including the design and organization of the family house. By the 1920s, zoning and other regulatory practices sought to separate public and private, residential and commercial activities, create new standards for commerce, and set aside prime urban real estate for expatriate businesses. The regulatory power of the state was manifested through large-scale infrastructure projects, including road and market construction and sanitation – what Brian Larkin calls the “colonial sublime”.[6] But these building projects were often intended to reinforce more intimate forms of regulation that segregated commercial and social activities and created new rules about the manner in which Africans could engage in economic activity. Corn mills and distilleries, for example, which were often located in or near the family compound, were labeled nuisances, subject to legal action. Commercial regulations were complimented by town’s system of rate-payment, the property surveys which inspired the creation and enforcement of standard building practices and tenancy agreements.

R/6081/1 Accra Town Views. August 21, 1958. Photographer: Paul Anane. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

In tracing the unfolding regulatory landscape in Accra over the first half of the twentieth century, I argue, we can more clearly see the ways in which spatial regulation was an important part of a process of informalization through which both European and African representatives of colonial government sought to protect the economic interests of European industry and expand the reach of global capitalism in this important African trade hub. Colonial regulatory policy initiated a process of informalization, through which the activities of local residents were categorized as illegitimate, undesirable, and illegal. The “incoherence, incapacity, and incompleteness” of colonial rule made it difficult to enforce regulatory codes and dictate the practices of urban residents. Market traders, distillers, drivers, mechanics, and countless others created innovative systems of mobility and exchange in the city – transforming space into place in ways that were locally meaningful. And some African residents advocated openly for the regulations and infrastructures organized through the Town Council. But in implementing policies and plans for urban development, these laws and regulations created a spatially-embedded hierarchy of social and economic activity that privileged expatriate capital and rendered these kinds of African practices as something existing outside of the formal sphere of capital, trade, and accumulation.

PS/1834/2 Various Places in Accra. July 31, 1975. Photographer: Ben Kwakye. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

While it is tempting to label this process of informalization a byproduct of the particular violence and injustice of colonialism, I would argue that informalization is a consequence of modernization itself. The longer history of spatial politics in Accra – much of which is discussed by other contributors in this series – highlights the remarkable persistence of the strategies, rationales, and discourses of modernization, rooted in the colonial period but which are continuously reinscribed through systems of government regulation and development policy. This is a history that is simultaneously particular to Accra and also representative of much broader processes, evidenced not just in cities that were at one point subject to colonial governance but also in cities at the center of Western industrial power. At a time when city governments around the world are thinking about what sustainable development and sustainable cities might look like, understanding these processes not only helps us understand Accra’s urban past but also to imagine alternative urban futures.

headshot 2.jpgJennifer Hart is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University. Her first book, Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation (Indiana University Press, 2016) is an ethnographic history of African automobility in 20th century Ghana, which was recognized as a 2017 finalist for the African Studies Association’s prize for the best book in any field of African Studies. Her research sits at the intersection of the history and anthropology of technology, infrastructure, and urban space. In addition to more traditional scholarly publication in book chapters and journal articles, she directs the digital humanities project Accra Wala and she writes frequently for public audiences on her own blog (, in professional publications (Africa is a Country; Clio and the Contemporary), and in collaboration with photographer Nana Osei Kwadwo as part of the Instagram-embedded art project This Trotro Life.

[1] For a detailed discussion of one particular case, see Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2015.

[2] John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann), 2000: 97

[3] Parker, Making the Town, 2.

[4] Parker, Making the Town; Ato Quayson, Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2014; Naaborko Sackeyfio, The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana, 1920-1950 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press), 2014; Jonathan Roberts, “Medical Exchange on the Gold Coast during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 45 (3) (2011): 480-523.

[5] William Bissell, Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 2011: 3, 1.

[6] Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise, 7.

Featured image (at top): PS/1693/2 Area View of the old Kaneshie Market. February 14, 1975. Photographer: Ben Kwakye. Ministry of Information. Information Services. Photographic Archive (Accra, Ghana)

One thought on “Colonial Governance, Modernization, and the Process of Informalization in Accra

  1. Thank you,fascinating insights,well thought out!You often wonder what the legacy of colonial intervention has done to a region/nation across all spheres…socio,political,economic,environmental,etc,and how that resonates inter generationally right to the here and now…the power of history to put present circumstances,particularly the state of people and the environment,in truthful context,is both empowering and a guide to the future.


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