How to avoid Ebola-inspired violence in West Africa

U.S. Airmen board a C-17 bound for West Africa at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Credit: USAFRICOM,

U.S. Airmen board a C-17 bound for West Africa at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, carrying supplies for medical treatment centers in Liberia as part of AFRICOM’s Operation United Assistance.

Last month, I wrote another short piece for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’sAfrica Conflict Monitor,” this time about the international community’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. It was published as the “featured analysis” in the December 2014 issue. While reviews are mixed on whether Ebola is finally coming under control, the article reflects the urgency of the time at which it as written (early November 2014). Attention has largely moved on to other issues (like North Korea and Russia’s troubled economy), but the long-term approach advanced here – framing and suggesting steps toward battling Ebola’s political and economic side effects – remains just as relevant as it did during the height of Ebola panic this fall. Check out a version of my full article below. As always, comments and suggestions welcome.

As of late November 2014, the number of reported Ebola cases in West Africa has exceeded 15,000, and the death toll from the incurable disease has surpassed 5,000. At the same time, eroding confidence in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone portend an increasingly perilous future for civil harmony if the epidemic is not contained. While widespread conflict remains unlikely, an increase in Ebola-related violence in the region adds urgency to an important objective – curbing the public health crisis before rising discontent over how governments have handled Ebola incites unbridled politically- or ethnically-motivated clashes.

In the fight to quell the infectious disease, West African governments have looked increasingly to foreign partners like the United States for help.  On 16 September 2014, President Barack Obama responded by rolling out the beginnings of a strategy to combat Ebola, and his administration has repeatedly emphasized that the epidemic is a US “national security priority.”[1] The deployment of an expected 3,000 American military personnel to the region – the cornerstone of the US response – will help relieve an overburdened and underequipped public health infrastructure in West Africa’s three most affected countries. Yet even as the US government and others devote greater resources to halting the spread of Ebola, there has been little serious discussion of how to prevent a corresponding political and economic crisis in the region.

The spill-over effects of Ebola in West Africa

As the Ebola outbreak approaches the one-year mark, warning signs pointing to political instability and economic decline continue to mount. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, both ravaged by more than a decade of civil war between 1989 and 2003, the likelihood of relapse into widespread conflict remains low, but both countries have already experienced a handful of episodes of Ebola-related violence. On 21 August 2014, Liberian soldiers opened fire on protesters objecting to a blanket quarantine and night-time curfew in a Monrovia slum, killing a local boy and injuring many others.[2] In eastern Sierra Leone, two local residents were killed in a deadly riot on 22 October 2014, instigated by health workers’ attempts to draw blood from a 90-year-old Ebola patient.[3] Meanwhile, in mid-September, rock-wielding villagers in rural south-eastern Guinea murdered eight government officials and journalists on an Ebola awareness mission, believing that the delegation itself was carrying the disease.[4]

This sample of recent incidents is connected by a common thread: namely, the apparent disconnect between disenchanted populations – often in poor, isolated corners of the country – and local governments increasingly seen as unable or unwilling to address local needs. Relying on soldiers to serve as the government’s primary interface with local communities has aggravated tensions between the state and its population, and gaps in the public health response have undermined confidence that governments will be able to bring the epidemic under control, let alone resuscitate economic growth. The World Bank estimates that, if Ebola persists, Liberia’s Gross Domestic Product could contract by as much as 12% in 2015, and Sierra Leone’s economy could shrink by nearly 9%.[5] In Liberia, the current outbreak has fuelled accusations of government corruption, and ill-advised policy decisions (for example, threatening prosecution against any Liberian found to be shielding Ebola cases) have further tarnished President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s reputation.[6] Meanwhile, fear of Ebola crossing borders – Mali and Senegal have both inherited cases – has heightened regional animosities.

An explosion of conflict in this fragile environment is certainly not inevitable. Ordinary Liberians and Sierra Leoneans have demonstrated an extraordinary resilience during and after the civil wars of the 1990s and few wish to see a return to widespread violence. Moreover, the vast majority of violent incidents in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 are connected to concern about the spread of Ebola, suggesting that a focused effort on containing the disease itself could preclude future deadly clashes. Finally, international assistance aimed at resuscitating the economy and reviving public confidence in local governments can help ensure that Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone or others do not succumb to political collapse or war.

President Obama’s articulation that the virus poses a threat to “the political stability and economic stability of [West Africa]” suggests that the US government anticipates wider ramifications of Ebola beyond public health.[7] On this matter, many West African governments, as well as the UN and European Union (EU), are in agreement. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has indicated that Ebola “has gone beyond health issues…It has gone to the areas of affecting social and economic situations” and “it may even affect political stability if this is not properly contained and properly treated.”[8] On 18 September 2014, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2177, agreeing that “the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security.”[9]

Nonetheless, despite widespread recognition of the epidemic’s political and security dimensions, the international community’s response has focused almost entirely on immediate humanitarian concerns: more doctors, nurses, ambulances, and medical facilities. In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone little has been done – by local or international actors – to address the broader issue of governance underlying a fraught public health response.

AFRICOM and the US response to Ebola

Consider the Obama administration’s policy as an example. US strategy to combat Ebola has three main components: domestic preparedness, civilian (i.e., medical and public health community) response, and the military deployment. Most domestic critiques of Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis – in the American media, foreign policy community, and US Congress – have focused on the first component.[10] Meanwhile, the second layer of response – deploying health and disaster response professionals to West Africa to treat Ebola patients and monitor the virus’ spread – is largely the domain of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and US Agency for International Development and has endured far less censure from critics.

Contributions from the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), established 1 October 2007 to spearhead US defence projects on the continent, constitute the third layer. Obama’s strategy tasked AFRICOM with its largest mission yet, which includes building at least 10 new Ebola treatment centers and a medical staff training facility in Liberia and establishing an “air bridge” to rapidly move supplies in and out of Ebola hotspots. AFRICOM will also coordinate the US government’s future humanitarian relief efforts from a staging base in Senegal and a new Joint Force Command headquarters in Monrovia. Service members will stop short of providing direct patient care, concentrating instead on logistics, command and control, and engineering.

Sidebar: A history of AFRICOM public health programs

To many observers, the decision to deploy American armed forces to West Africa came as an initial surprise. However, AFRICOM has, since its founding in 2007, played an important role in public health initiatives in Africa. The command’s inaugural theatre strategy in 2008 included an objective to “turn the tide on HIV/AIDS and malaria,” and AFRICOM is now the US government lead on efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in African militaries.[11] In 2012, AFRICOM helped establish a six-nation task force dedicated to malaria prevention in East Africa, and the command regularly arranges table-top exercises on “Pandemic Disaster Response” with African governments, including Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.[12]

At these tasks, explained President Obama, “our Armed Services are better…than any other organization on Earth”.[13] Endowed with a wide variety of talents, generous funding, first-rate technology, and relatively robust experience on the continent, AFRICOM emerged as a logical and expedient choice to lead US government efforts to tackle Ebola.

The decision to deploy military personnel also makes sense within the context of how the threat is framed in the US. Inter-agency meetings on Ebola are attended by members of the National Security Council, and the White House routinely describes the effort to contain the virus as a “national security priority.” Describing the issue this way in the lead-up to Obama’s announcement likely helped to bring the US Congress, frequently critical of the president’s initiatives, on board. It also speaks to the growing trend of incorporating so-called “non-traditional” security challenges – a collection of threats that do not directly employ violence but can be seen as underwriting it – into defence planning. Under this expanded definition of national security, Ebola joins the ranks of other humanitarian and climate-related challenges – from food shortages to global warming.

Toward a new strategy for containing Ebola’s political and economic spill-over

All this makes US strategy on Ebola more puzzling. Recurrent rhetoric on the need to avert political instability in West Africa points to a response that is broad in scope and one that diagnoses and addresses a key determinant: widespread disillusionment with the performance of local governments. However, substantive US action to this point has been limited to reactive, humanitarian concerns like building treatment centers and equipping them with doctors, nurses, and medical supplies.

Facilities and staff to treat Ebola are undoubtedly essential, and figures from the CDC and World Health Organization suggest scaling up relief efforts has helped slow Ebola’s spread. However, failure to address issues of governance – like public communications, corruption, and expedient administration – risk transforming a humanitarian crisis into a political one. As Guineans, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans lose faith in the ability of existing political institutions to help keep them healthy and safe, the probability of conflict escalates. Unfortunately, foreign governments and international institutions such as the UN remain relatively inexperienced in performing the types of fixes required. These include partnering with local elders and religious leaders to raise awareness about Ebola, training local governments on communications and messaging, and strengthening links between rural areas and their countries’ respective capitals.

The US can partially overcome its own shortcomings in these areas by adjusting its organizational apparatus at home. For example, should the National Security Council remain the primary avenue for day-to-day crisis management, a second body should be created to propose and implement longer-term solutions. The guest list should include, as a start, West Africa experts, linguists, political scientists and economists from in and outside of government.

An effective strategy to contain spill-over must also be multilateral. A rough division of labour has positioned French and British forces in Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively, tasked with a mission similar to AFRICOM’s in Liberia. China, Cuba and Germany have also promised to send medical and military personnel to the region, and more partners should continue to be brought on board. France, the UK and the US already have experience in promoting security sector reform in the region; equally-powerful efforts are required to help the civilian administrations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone regain the trust of their populations.

Matching rhetoric with action on Ebola

How the EU, UN, US and others have framed the Ebola crisis suggests they are attuned to Ebola’s debilitating strains on political and economic structures in West Africa. Moreover, the growing global commitment to sending medical and support personnel to the region demonstrates a general willingness to expend resources to contain the disease. Yet the means still do not match the ends. A “national security priority” or “threat to international peace and security” requires nations to propose action focused both on addressing the acute problem at hand and curbing its crippling side effects.

In Sum:

  • Ebola is widely considered a threat to national or international security, yet efforts to date have emphasised immediate humanitarian concerns while neglecting political and economic ramifications.
  • The US has authorised AFRICOM to deploy as many as 4,000 military personnel to West Africa primarily to construct Ebola treatment centres, provide logistical support and coordinate future US government relief efforts.
  • A more effective response will require that the US and its partners focus on restoring public confidence in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

[1] Barack Obama, “Weekly address: focused on the fight against Ebola”, White House, 25 October 2014.

[2] Norimitsu Onishi, “Quarantine for Ebola lifted in Liberia slum”, New York Times, 29 August 2014.

[3] Rod Mac Johnson, “Ebola riot in S. Leone kills two as WHO to launch vaccine trials”, AFP, 22 October 2014.

[4] Rukmini Callimachi, “Fear of virus drives mob to kill officials”, New York Times, 19 September 2014.

[5] World Bank, “Ebola: new World Bank Group study forecasts billions in economic loss if epidemic lasts longer, spreads in West Africa”, 8 October 2014.

[6] For more on Ebola’s political ramifications in Liberia, see Helene Cooper, “Liberia’s crisis puts president in harsh light”, New York Times, 31 October 2014 and [6] Kim Yi Dionne, “Why West African governments are struggling in response to Ebola”, Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post, 15 July 2014.

[7] David Hudson, “The President meets with senior staff to discuss the U.S. response to Ebola”, White House, 6 October 2014.

[8] Helen Regan, “U.N. chief: ‘Ebola has gone beyond health issues’”, TIME, 17 September 2014.

[9] United Nations, “With spread of Ebola outpacing response, Security Council adopts Resolution 2177 (2014) urging immediate action, end to isolation of affected states”, 18 September 2014.

[10] The President’s efforts to assuage a domestic audience that American public health infrastructure would be ready “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores” suffered a blow after a Texas hospital mishandled the arrival of Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan in early October.

[11] Gen. William Ward, testimony, House Armed Services Committee, 13 March 2008; Danielle Skinner, “Stability through health: U.S. AFRICOM hosts first HIV/AIDS program management training”, US Africa Command, 24 August 2011.

[12] For example, see Steve Owsley, “Pandemic disaster response exercise wraps up in Ghana”, US Africa Command, 14 February 2012.

[13] Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Ebola outbreak”, 16 September 2014.

This entry was posted in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, US policy, West Africa and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to avoid Ebola-inspired violence in West Africa

  1. Pingback: Doctor calls for blood donations to treat Liberian Ebola victimsBig Online News | Big Online News

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