Who Rules the Waves?
“The future is not good at all” - Papa Panyin
I want to share a little of what has been proving to be rather troubled reflections on the contemporary making of ‘modern’ Ghana. Now, what I wish to share here is mostly based on a bunch of hunches rather than some reliable evidence that can be validated and/or replicated through method. In fact, it is really about a series of questions, which have come to plague my conscience of late; namely one, which is: Who rules the waves?
By this, I first wish to use the term “waves” metaphorically to think about who governs the groundswell of ideological, political, sociocultural, intellectual, economic and so on, sprays of Ghana’s passage into a rather nationalistic (and perhaps too bi-partisan) future; one which is also based on certain westernized path-dependencies that entangle us within what Anibal Quijano calls a “colonial matrix of power”—with its racist/sexist linear, hierarchical and competitive ideas of knowledge, growth and developmental progress.
I want us to think of this question of waves, not only in this sense, but also in the embodied watery sense of Ghana’s oceanscape – which I will use as a cautionary tale for speaking about the multitude of uneven developments and social inequalities that are arising in the modernizing of this nation state.
Additionally, for the avid knowledge producers among us, I want us to also think of waves at the quantum level, where we now know that the (scientific) observation of sub-atomic particles tends to fix their infinite wavelike possibilities (forms of becoming) into static particles (states of being). And, this thus, should make us further contemplate on what it means for us all, as we actively observe phenomenal interactions in this world. Most often, we do so with certain fixed (disciplinary) lenses, perspectives, views and standpoints about what is life, progress and/or development; thereby, perhaps also contributing to the reinforcement and reification of the very phenomena that we seek to change through our study of it.
Basically, I want to share a particular sense of dis-ease that I currently hold about contemporary Ghana (in all its Africa-rising-glow) and its accumulating “(post)modernity”, as Ghana now is a country that is epitomized by ongoing rapid urbanization alongside a fast shapeshifting socioeconomic landscape, which is egged on by technology, migration and the mobility of goods, services, capital and ideas. I do this by providing a critical—albeit rather superficial—reading on the particular “politics of space” that is being played out along Ghana’s coastline; in particular, outlining key concerns within its marine landscape in which apofo (artisanal fisher folk), the fish-mothers who sponsor them, and the local fishmongers who rely on their catch, are all entangled (and some might even say entrapped) within a dynamic figuration of “winners and losers”.
I offer these current—albeit conceptual, and in many instances anecdotal—observations on what is one very small aspect of Ghana’s fast moving tidal wave of modernity, through a prism of many other socio-spatial insights I have gained about the worldwide deluge of uneven development and social inequality that appears in the wake of many similar neo-colonial modernity projects. These are insights gleaned through over thirty years of living in and traveling to various settings around the globe (on five out of seven continents to be exact).
Long story short, I also wish to imbue the humble insights that I am about to share with a gravitas that is embedded in a feminist standpoint; that is one, which looks to emotion, intuition, dreams, and personal experience (alongside scientific method) as part of the experiential ground from which theoretical understandings can be made of rather dire material circumstances.
So now finally, let me tell you the essence of what plagues me.
There is currently a belief among various fishing communities that Ghana is succumbing to a chinalization of its waters; whereby Ghanaian elites (especially politicians) are said to facilitate the invasion of the Chinese into Ghana’s fishing industry. It is said that in many instances, the Chinese own the fishing trawler vessels; however, they require the inputs of locals in order to acquire the licenses (thus flags). And that this is easy enough in a context in which it is claimed that one can easily buy a license without meeting many of the requirements.
Some argue that China is solely engaged in fishing, and other businesses, on the African continent to ensure employment for its citizens through the exclusionary types of agreements it sets up with African countries. In Ghana, for example, it is alleged that about 40% of the crew on the fishing trawlers at sea are Chinese. And yet these Chinese trawlers are said to only provide a small percentage of their catch to Ghanaian fish-mothers and fishmongers for local consumption. In addition, the little they provide is believed not to be their best catch, for that is instead reserved for sale in international markets. In other words, apofo are expected to be the main providers of fish for local consumption, taking responsibility for about 80% of market supply.
Besides legitimate Chinese engagement in the Ghanaian fishing industry, there is talk of lights that can sometimes be seen dotted across the ocean at dawn—what is sardonically referred to as the “Chinese Christmas Tree”. These lights are said to be the product of illegal fishing trawlers that avoid the waters when naval patrols do their rounds, only to return when they are gone. These illicit Chinese trawlers are accused of often encroaching in the waters reserved for apofo. They are also said to be the driving force behind a key national challenge called Saiko, which is a term used in Ghana to refer to the “transhipment” of fish, from industrial trawlers to local canoes, at sea. In 2017, there was said to be 100,000 tons of Saiko fish in the system; thus, Saiko is a practice that is repeatedly blamed for the rapid decline of the local fishing industry.
According to local officials, Saiko brings with it an illicit environment that goes beyond illegal acquisition of fish, into that of arms and drug dealing. It is said that the fishing practices of these Chinese trawlers has resulted in the ruination of the coral reef, which consequently deprives fish of places to feed. These illicit trawlers are also accused of the use of illegal net sizes that result in the capture of small fish that they then toss, dead, back into the ocean.
The above practices reduce the amount of fish available for apofo, which then creates a desperate environment in which they engage in unacceptable fishing methods such as the use of dynamite, carbide and chemicals (e.g., DDT). The diminishing number of fish in the ocean, most likely accounts for the increased importation of fish into Ghana –especially after the end of the fishing season– from locations such as Mauritania, Morocco, Denmark and Spain.
The above vicious cycle is said to also be responsible for an increase in fish prices, alongside the decline of fish stock; thus, it is the reason why many apofo are said to be falling into debt, ill health, and depression. Additionally, apofo say that due to declining fish stock, they are forced to change their professions with some resorting to work as drivers, mechanics, truck pushers, or else to engage in seaweed collection. Others have had to migrate to far off locations such as Senegal and Gambia, where they are better able to work as fisher folk.
Consequently, apofo do not encourage any of their descendants to get involved in an industry that is seen to be corrupted and fast disappearing. And although there are avenues for voicing these concerns, e.g., the National Fishing Association, The Fishermen’s Council, and even the Fishers and Fishmonger Association, apofo speak of having been rendered silent—especially because the sector is also one in which Ghana’s burgeoning bipartisan politics are constantly used to pit Peter against Paul. This results in a growing sentiment amongst fisher folk, described as the “government does not value us at all”.
Much of what is going on along Ghana’s shores, however, is not lost to authority figures, such as the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA), which is very interested in carrying out its duties to the best of its abilities. This they try to do across a vast territory, to be surveilled with limited resources. Their work includes certain policies and procedures used to keep track of the various actors on the ocean. For example, the Ghana Shipping Act (2003), which requires the certification of ships—so as to ensure their seaworthiness. There are also efforts to maintain security on the ocean, through the installation and operation of a Vessel Traffic Management Information System (VTMIS) for 24-hour electronic surveillance and monitoring of Ghana’s coastline; the provision of International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Codes; plus a keen determination to police Ghana’s shores in order to prevent illegal fishing and other problematic activities. GMA is also in the process of increasing their coastline patrol service, through the use of satellite feeds, patrol boats and even possibly drones, to augment what is viewed as the limited security efforts supplied by the police forces.
Additionally, in 2018 through the Ministry for Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, the Ghana government announced a ban on fishing during the month of August. The announcement included a music video by the Fante rap master Kofi Kinaata. More specifically, the minister—Hon. Elizabeth Naa Afoley Quaye—spoke of how over two decades, the fisheries sector has been in massive decline and is perhaps even heading toward a total collapse. This being due to a crisis of overcapacity and overfishing of all stocks, which is further exacerbated by the various illegal fishing practices. The ban was intended to serve as a response to years of overfishing, which have resulted in dwindling fish stock; thus, the idea is to create the space for fish—in particular the small pelagics (keta school boys, sardinella and mackerel)—to spawn during that time.
The government’s announcement of the ban was met with much frustration, by apofo, especially as it did not at that time apply to tuna fleets. This was based on the assumption that they operate in the deep sea with their large trawler boats. For the apofo, however, the concern was very much about how the ban would negatively impact their livelihood and, thus, they also asked for it to be postponed for a year. As a result, the ban was to be rolled out for artisanal fishers from about 15 May to 15 June 2019, and also too for industrial trawlers from 1 August to 30 September.
This process of futuring the ocean, thus, its industries (e.g., fishing and even crude oil production), is one in which apofo—and by association their fish-mothers and fishmongers—are being subjected to mainstream narrations and enactments of Ghana’s increasing modernity, which does not always serve the immediate needs of ordinary people.
Working toward a deep interrogation of these kinds of scenarios, means asking significant questions such as: Who rules the waves of Ghana’s modernity project in aquaculture?
And answering this question is tantamount to also understanding who directs the (national) waves of a modern Ghanaian future; i.e., one in which there are several ‘strange’ bedfellows—accrued from across borders—and thus, coming to agreements that do not necessarily include several of the country’s own citizens - especially those who do not fit neatly into ideologies about commercial practice, urban waterfront development and, very specifically, neoliberal economic progress.
The dis-ease that I spoke of earlier, is associated to my sense that presently Ghana appears to have become some kind of “virgin territory” in which a “neo-colonial gold rush” unfolds; one where its postcolonial ports—as well as other urbanized locations—become the prospecting playgrounds for many an enterprising individual and/or organizational entity (here, I also include returnees like myself into the mix).
More importantly, since the neoliberal world of capital accumulation has run out of (both perceived and real) growth landscapes in the Global North, its neo-colonial networks are speedily settling into key ‘safe to operate’ locations in the Global South – where it can acquire multiple geopolitical mediums of choice for activating and enabling new, emerging markets, replete with the allure of billions of up-and-coming consumers.
So we find that in a postcolonial capital city like Accra, for example, the government, civil society, the private sector, and everyday citizens—alongside an array of international organizations and other sundry actors—engage in multiple (planned, speculative and unintended) interactions in order to catapult the larger body politic, and themselves, into a global marketplace; one which is characterized by competition and a rather uneven distribution of capital, goods, technology, knowledge and other resources.
In such a “free for all” terrain, many like our apofo find themselves in the unpredictable throes of rapid change that paradoxically feels slow (or even stagnated) to those who are also negotiating the hardship of everyday hustles to do with a basic lack of reliable services, inadequate infrastructure, limited daily resource acquisition, and a system plagued by political and everyday corruption.
The kind of prospective context that I speak of is also a mutating and fragmented landscape, within which stratified populations often go about their daily business in parallel, without any regard for each other’s circles of influence. It is a place where many a person gets left behind, while the lucky few—with substantial social and cultural capital, both local and global—easily negotiate burgeoning economies focused on consumptive lifestyles.
So therefore, in Accra (again as an example), we find that a substantial few now sip champagne, as a weekend pastime, while they (mysteriously) make and bank million-dollar deals within an economic landscape in which the average white-collar worker works hard to earn just about GHS800 ($145) per month, while those who are more hard-done-by, struggle to make even GHS5 ($1) for a whole day’s labor—under what is very much a blistering sun.
I would say that it is time to start questioning the very idea of our development, especially if it’s to be epitomized by the onslaught of highly commercialized existences that operate within the false, exclusionary and imaginary concept of the “nation-state”. The key question must be: What are the alternatives? Who is responsible for ensuring that all of our needs are equally recognized and met in this ruthless business called progress? And ultimately, who is to ensure that the future for everyone becomes much better than it’s not good at all?