Selwyn Market on my mind … or is it Rawlings Park?

The demolition of Makola No 1 by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council on 18 August 1979 cut the heart out of Accra’s commercial bosom. Our economy has never been the same again

Sane Eteshi – Matters Arising

A beautiful picture, with what is supposed to be an aerial view of Makola, that most celebrated market in Accra, has been doing the rounds on various WhatsApp discussion platforms. I do not know how old the picture is, or who took it, but I keep wondering whether it was taken during reconnaissance by a certain Flight Lieutenant who once planned to drop a bomb on that same market to rid the country of kalabule, or exorbitant pricing of goods.

I do not know how the name of the market changed from Selwyn to Makola, but in the 1960s and early 1970s it had quite a pull for us students, as the go-to place for provisions. It was also the source for most things that one could not find in the Kingsway, UTC, Chellaram’s, Chebib and Glamour department stores. We went to Makola to buy “materials” for our turtleneck shirts and bell-bottom trousers. I remember buying “cedi mama” from Makola for my first dashiki during my university days.

K Chellaram & Sons, circa 1940s
The K Chellaram & Sons department store (right), circa 1940s

Makola also served an academic purpose for me. When I was a student at the School of Administration, my marketing term paper on “The role of the market woman in the foodstuff supply chain” led me to make several visits to interview the traders on breaking bulk, financing using the susu system and fixing daily prices.

Although the market did not help finance my own university education, I had many friends who were fed, housed, clothed and schooled by Makola women, and even heard of those who were taken through Law School – situated conveniently at Makola – having been awarded the proverbial “Makola Scholarship”.

Last stab in Ghana’s underbelly

Sadly, Makola Market was destroyed because it was a high-level intended target of the June 1979 uprising that visited on us the unruly Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.

The AFRC was intent on curing all the ills of Ghana through a housecleaning exercise. We are now told that this decision was based on anecdotal evidence of urine having been poured on soldiers by Makola women because the men in uniform asked for a reduction in the price of goods.

What was happening at Makola, which the young soldiers could not wrap their brains around, was a manifestation of a failed system that several economists had tried to cure with palliatives, without success. What was needed at the time was the adoption and rational application of the science of economics, rather than the wanton destruction of an edifice. The soldiers’ vengeful action affected our economy so badly that, several years on, we are still feeling the long-term, adverse consequences.

Read also: “J J Rawlings: I did what I had to do

In the short period of housecleaning before the handover to the elected Limann government, the supply chain collapsed because Makola was the heart of commerce, acting as some sort of central mercantile exchange. Makola Market was not the cause of our economic problems: it was the effect of an unrealistic exchange rate, and of the purchasing and hoarding of “essential commodities” that no one really consumed anyway, preferring to hoard them as a hedge against the galloping exchange rate and our rapidly depreciating cedi. Anyone who thought that he could usher the country into a nirvana of economic bliss must have been delusional, or in a state of super-euphoria.

Once the whole stock of goods hoarded by market women was sold at knockdown prices, with no proper economic activity going on for three months after the descent on Makola, no government was going to be able to recover from the blow to normal economic life.

The reverse move, from hyperinflation into depression, killed off Ghana’s economy. It simply died through shock.

Can’t go back

With Makola razed to the ground, there have been grave and far-reaching consequences for many Ga families that depended on the dynamic mercantile exchange that was this central market. Not only did many Accra matriarchs lose their stock and trading capital and all the other assets they had built up over a long life of working at the market, but there was no replacement for their activity.

They could not go back because there was nowhere to start from afresh. Many were scared because they did not know when the soldiers might come again. There are tales told that some were traumatised because of the maltreatment they suffered at the hands of the soldiers. Others lost the will to live and became depressed. Some died, weighed down by the shame they had suffered.

The spirit of enterprise died with the destruction of Makola.

And yet, 40 years on, the only legacy of the great commercial history encapsulated in the old market is a park without grass or a play area – a lorry park, a car park. It is a grotesque testament to the transmogrification of the most central place of enterprise in our capital city into a nondescript piece of land carrying the name of the person who created its ersatz avatar: Rawlings Park.

Admittedly, Rawlings stayed in power for 20 years, yet I wonder why successive presidents have never thought of restoring Makola to its original glory, or of reverting the space in the Central Business District and returning it to its old purpose.

Is it because the transitional provisions of the constitution prevent this?

Vision of modern commerce

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we need to breathe new life into our economy in Ghana. This is what we need: a testimony to the women who created enterprises that fed and nurtured thousands of people in Ghana, that created the jobs we needed, that could kickstart our economic development after this corocoro business.

I can envisage an aesthetically tasteful, multipurpose Centre of Enterprise, rebuilt with the most energy-efficient materials. It would serve as a visitor attraction for tourists and Accra shoppers, and emerge again as a gem in the centre of Accra – a pedestrianised city centre that would be the cardinal piece in the multi-patterned tapestry of our mixed economy.

Makola will rise again.

Kɛ otawɔ ni okpa fai lɛ, akɛ ohe faa bo.

Croydon, August 2020

Ade Sawyerr

Owula Ade Sawyerr is a writer, social activist and founder partner of Equinox Consulting, which works to develop inner-city and minority communities in Britain. He comments on economic, political and social affairs and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party.

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