A mason was busily mixing mortar at a construction site when an agitated woman ran to him. She was desperately seeking help to rescue three children in a pond nearby.
The woman’s house sits atop a hill overlooking sand winning pits at Akwasa Hills near Tuba Junction in Kasoa. Her daughter had seen a group of boys helplessly gesturing for help inside a pond close to their home.
Bayla, as the mason is popularly known, summoned one of his workers and the two took off to the site for the rescue, leaving behind a running concrete mixer.
“When we got there, the children’s clothing and sandals were by the edge of the pond. I descended into the water and spent more than 20 minutes looking for the children. The farther I went, the more I sank. I struggled to come out. God was my saviour,” he told The Fourth Estate.
While he trudged out of the water, Bayla received calls to return to the site because the concrete mixer was malfunctioning. He had to abandon the search for the children.
Of the three children, Samuel Adjei Mensah, 9; and Elisha Adu, 12 (a twin) were siblings while the third, Isaac Amoah, 8, was their friend.
Just about 300 metres away from the pond, the mothers of the three children were unaware of the calamity. The two mothers, Esther Dankwa, a fruit vendor; and Martha Yeboah, a food vendor; were washing.
Both mothers told The Fourth Estate that they didn’t know when their children left home.
At about noon on that fateful Saturday, Samuel went to call Isaac to go for a bicycle ride.
According to Esther, Isaac’s mother, Samuel was a regular visitor to her house. And on that Saturday, Samuel followed the weekly ritual, which turned out to be their last.
It had rained heavily on Friday night and their community was muddied, but it did not deter the two boys from riding the bicycle.
A few blocks away from Esther’s house, Martha, a mother of five children including Samuel, had run out of soap. She had sent her twins Elijah and Elisha (also known as Kakra and Panyin), the twins Samuel was born after, to buy detergents.
However, only one of the twins, Panyin, returned.
“I asked Panyin about the whereabouts of Kakra [Elisha] and he told me that they saw Samuel with his friend [Isaac] on a bike, so he [Kakra] went after Samuel to bring him home,” Martha recounted amid sobs.
Back at Esther’s residence, she panicked when her son, Isaac didn’t respond to being called several times by name.
“I started looking for him on the street close to the house because it was possible, he has gone out riding the bicycle. When I couldn’t find him, I asked his elder brother to look for him,” Esther said.
Her firstborn came back with disturbing news: “Isaac and his friends fell into a pond at the sand-winning site. There have been futile attempts to rescue them.”
Alarmed, Esther dashed to the site with two of her neighbours.
At the edge of the pond were the clothes and slippers of the missing trio—Samuel, Isaac and Elisha.
“The pond didn’t look like there was anyone in it. Yet, you could see the clothes and slippers of the children at the edge of it. The bicycle was also in the water,” Esther said clasping her hands.
In Martha’s house, a conversation with her younger brother and sister came to an abrupt end when a young boy delivered the chilling news about Samuel and Elisha’s drowning.
She rushed to the site with her siblings and saw Esther begging a man to help her find the children inside the murky pond.
The man protested. This was because a pole he inserted in the pond totally disappeared, signaling the pond was deep.
However, fueled by anxiety and motherly instinct, Esther decided to take a chance. She entered the pond to search for the children and nearly drowned.
“When I entered, I realised that the water was pulling me down, making it difficult to come out. I retreated and started shouting for help,” Esther recalled her near-drowning experience.
With no options left, she burst into tears, knowing very well that beneath the muddy pond were her son and his two friends.
“One of the women then called her husband who in turn called another person to come and help us. When he arrived, he said we could only find the children after performing a ritual,” Esther said.
Bayla, the mason, was that man, and they performed the ritual.
Assisted by two others, Bayla entered the muddy pond, their confidence boosted by the spiritual ceremony.
They first brought out Samuel. He was lifeless.
The motley crowd burst into wailing as the search for the two others continued.
“After more than an hour’s search, my son and another boy were found in the water. They were holding hands when they were found,” Esther recalled what she described as painful sight.
The other boy was Elisha, Samuel’s elder brother.
The sight of their departed children triggered flashbacks.
“He [Isaac] used to promise me, ‘I will build a house for you. I will buy cars for you.’ I don’t know if he was deceiving me or if someone intentionally took him away from me. He was my favourite son,” Esther said.
Martha, the food vendor, recalled some of her last moments with her son.
“On Friday when it was raining, he opted to go class by class and get the orders for food from children in the school where I sell. Later, he came to render the accounts to me while dancing. He had a look of satisfaction for making lots of sales.
“Had I known that was his last dance, I would have taken the time to watch him,” she said, mopping her face.
Parents of the 3 boys Uncompensated
The parents of the children received an offer from representatives of sand winners, on whose site the children lost their lives. This was to mitigate their loss.
The sand winners had earlier borne the cost of the funeral of the children.
“A man called Lucky came to see me and asked what I wanted as compensation. I told him I didn’t know. He then asked if we would like to be compensated with parcels of land. I responded yes. But I told him I didn’t know about the other woman [Martha]. She also accepted the offer when they told her.”
Yet, eight months on, the parents of the dead children have not been compensated.
“Lucky called to tell me that until they begin work on the site, they won’t be able to compensate us because they don’t have money,” Esther explained.
The one-man crusade
For years, Roland Elinam Horsoo, a resident of the area, has mounted a crusade against the reckless sand mining in the area because it threatened lives and property.
“Looking at what has been done here, the slightest landslide or earth tremor could cause a massive disaster,” he lamented.
In 2016, when Mr Horsoo acquired the land on which he is building his three-bedroom house, it was part of the Akwasa Hills—a rolling hill dotted with some of the choicest properties. It offered a picturesque view of the valley below. But years of unbridled sand winning have split the hills.
This is threatening the structural integrity of the properties on it. The hills, once covered with trees has now become a death trap and a nightmare, residents say.
“When they started grading the hill, they were doing it day and night. We could barely sleep. All of a sudden, they started cutting through the hill until it became this mess,” a resident Bismark Sedinam said pointing to the degraded land filled with trenches.
He said residents had endured deafening noise from the sand winning activities but dust gave them the most stress.
“Our house has not been painted because of this.” Bismark who has lived in the area for 12 years said.
From the valley, Mr. Horsoo’s uncompleted house looks like one on a cliff. It hangs dangerously. Bismark’s house is not safe either.
The Geological Survey Department has warned on many occasions that the area is an earthquake zone. Mudslides are common in the area, The Fourth Estate found.
History of sand winning at Akwasa Hills
The Fourth Estate has found that unlicensed sand winners have, for a long time, mined sand from the area without permit.
The Minerals Commission of Ghana describes the Akwasa Hills as a restricted area because the hills form part of the Weija Dam green belt. It has, however, not been protected from developers and sand winners.
What is supposed to be a buffer zone for a dam that feeds thousands of households in Accra with water is now at the mercy of uncontrolled sand winning and construction of houses.
The Fourth Estate’s sources say an octogenarian, Margaret Abbey, popularly known as Aunty Maggie, claims ownership of the hills. In 2016, she allegedly engaged a man only known as Fokuo to level the undulating hills so she could sell out to estate developers.
Residents say that work led to the creation of a deep trench that split the hill into two. That trench is what has now been demarcated for the construction of a road network linking the community to areas behind the West Hills Mall.
It is this trench that poses a threat to Mr. Horsoo’s property and others. He told The Fourth Estate that he would not seat aloof and watch an individual’s parochial interest destroy the entire community.
First, he said he took on Fokuo and was told that the place was being levelled for road construction.
“I asked him whether he had a permit and he said it was at the [Municipal] Assembly and that he was working on it. I then asked him who the engineer was. His response was ‘when the time comes, we will get an engineer,’” Mr. Horsoo said.
The Fourth Estate learnt that Fokuo vacated the site in early 2018. According to sources, a court injunction from another person claiming ownership of the state-protected hills forced Fokuo out of business. A few months later, the matter was settled but Fokuo lost his job.
Fokuo declined to go into the details when contacted. He, however, confirmed that he was no longer in charge. His replacement is known as Fiifi.
Mr Horsoo continued his anti-sand winning campaign when Fiifi took charge. He asked Fiifi to show proof of a permit from the Ga South Municipal Assembly or proof of supervision from an engineer from the assembly as required by law.
Fiifi asked for time to produce the permit.
When The Fourth Estate contacted Fiifi on the site’s sand winning permit, said, “The matter is under investigation, and I don’t want to comment on it.”
Before he could provide evidence of the sand winning, Mr Horsoo said he also quit the job.
Mr Horsoo decided to find answers from the municipal assembly. He wrote his first two letters in April and July 2020 to the Ga South Municipal Assembly, seeking information on permits given the sand winners.
He was snubbed, but he didn’t give up. He fortified his third letter to the assembly with relevant portions of the Constitution, the Criminal and Other Offenses Act, and the Minerals and Mining Act.
He also petitioned the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).
A day after sending the letter to CHRAJ, he received a call from the assembly. It wanted a meeting.
The meeting ended with a promise by the assembly to visit the site and prepare a report on it.
Two years later, he is yet to hear from the assembly.
Not satisfied, Mr. Horsoo proceeded to the Minerals Commission on November 9, 2020, with information and pictures from the sand-winning site.
He said he met the Deputy CEO for Compliance, Kofi Adjei, who was emphatic that the activities in the area were illegal and promised to deal with the situation.
During that encounter, Mr Adjei connected Mr Horsoo to the Minerals Commission’s head of taskforce, one Tawiah.
True to his words, on Wednesday, November 11, 2020, Mr Horsoo had a call from the Minerals Commission for direction to the site. A four-member team from the commission, including two police officers, arrived.
When they entered the site, a tipper truck loaded with sand and heading out was marched back to the site. The driver of the vehicle and other individuals on the premises were interrogated.
Mr Tawiah, the head of team then dismantled some of the machine parts with the intention of taking them away.
But the parts did not leave the site. Mr Horsoo claimed Mr Tawiah was compelled by “powers from above” a man purporting to be Lord Commey asked him to release them.
“The man asked him to leave the site, which he refused until he received a call from his boss [at the Minerals Commission] which made him abandon his work and return with the police to Accra.”
However, Lord Commey, the Director of Operations at the Jubilee House, Ghana’s seat of government, has denied the allegations.
“I am not a sand winner and I do not own any sand-winning company,” he said, and denied ever making the call on November 11, 2020.
“I did not make any calls to release sand winners at Akwasa Hills,” he said dismissively when he spoke with The Fourth Estate in his office.
Fiifi, who, at a point led operations at the site, later told The Fourth Estate during a phone interview that he had had two meetings with the purported owner of the site, Aunty Maggie, and Lord Commey in the latter’s office at the Jubilee House.
Mr. Horsoo claimed when he followed up on the development with the Deputy CEO of the Minerals Commission, he was told the sand mining site was a project under the One District, One Factory project.
The once receptive Deputy CEO of Compliance allegedly became unresponsive, Mr Horsoo said.
“I asked for a letter to substantiate and serve as evidence, but he said point blank that he would not reply to any letter.”
A letter Mr Horsoo sent to the commission On December 3, 2020, requesting the copies of licenses the miners obtained received no response.
When contacted, Mr Kofi Adjei declined to speak directly to The Fourth Estate but rather through his secretary, Florence Akpah.
According to the secretary, Mr Adjei denied making such comments.
How state institutions have neglected issues related sand winning
The Minerals and Mining Act, 2006 (Act 703) classifies sand and stone as major minerals. Contractors are, therefore, required to follow the same process as those obtaining a license or permit for mining minerals such as gold, diamond, and bauxite.
When The Fourth Estate requested copies of the license the Minerals Commission issued to contractors operating at the Akwasa Hills from 2019 to 2022, the commission said there were none.
“The Commission has neither proceeded nor recommended any minerals right within the area for Ministerial approval. In short, no mineral rights have been granted in the area,” it said.
As part of the environmental safeguards, sand winners are required to have permits from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, the EPA told The Fourth Estate in a response to a right to information request that it was “not aware of the sand-winning activities on-going at Akwasa Hills around Kasoa Tuba [School Junction].”
The EPA further promised to investigate the information provided by The Fourth Estate. The agency’s Deputy Director of General Services, Dr Christine Okae, immediately called the Head of its Kasoa Area, Peter Ackon, to look into the issue.
Evidence available to The Fourth Estate however showed that Roland Elinam Horsoo had drawn the attention of the EPA to the sand-winning activities at the site on April 19, 2022. This was 10 days after the death of the three boys.
Per the dictates of the Mining and Minerals Act, the Ga South Municipal Assembly had the responsibility of providing an engineer to supervise licensed sand mining sites.
However, four months after receiving The Fourth Estate’s RTI request, the Ga South Municipal Assembly admitted that it was aware of the sand winning activities on the Akwasa Hills.
The assembly claimed its attempts to stop the sand mining activities failed because the sand winners claimed, “they had licence from the Minerals Commission and Environmental Protection Agency.”
The assembly said it did not give any approvals for the sand mining, neither had any contractor presented any licence from the Minerals Commission and the EPA.
“Efforts to get them to present their licence proved futile,” the assembly made its case in the letter signed by its Municipal Co-ordinating Director, Isaac Kwakye.
Mr. Horsoo and residence of the area believe the negligence of the state institutions caused the death of the three children. They say if the Minerals Commission, the EPA and the Ga South Municipal Assembly had enforced the law, the children would not have died.
While the families of the three boys grieve their loss, the least they expect is justice as a befitting memorial for their irreplaceable children.
But so far, it has proven elusive.
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