Blood tests at the government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Demotix/Tommy Trenchard. All rights reserved.The Ebola tragedy has spawned massive global media coverage of Sierra Leone and Liberia – with harrowing images of victims, relatives, health workers, doctors, and aid agency staff. Yet one key ‘stakeholder’ in the fight against Ebola has been notably missing from these narratives – the governments of both countries. Most of us would be hard pressed to name the presidents of either country as they have been almost invisible, and the same goes for their respective health ministers. For anyone who did not know better, these countries seem to lack any kind of central government. Far from it. Both are politically stable and have had a series of democratic elections ever since the civil wars that ravaged them in the 1990s.
The politically correct explanation for this ‘invisibility of the state’ lies in the prejudice of a western media that still views Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as a basket-case that can only be saved by well-meaning outsiders. While it is true that this paternalistic post-colonial mindset still exists (witness Band Aid’s resurrection of the insulting “Don’t they know it’s Christmas” song), this explanation misses a more unfortunate dynamic at play.
Ebola outbreaks have been occurring intermittently since 1976 in Central Africa (DRC) and East Africa (Sudan, Uganda) and thankfully, until now, they have either been contained or fizzled out. We need to be asking some difficult questions about just why this latest Ebola outbreak has spiralled out of control in these two small countries, when much larger neighbouring countries like Nigeria and Ghana have been able to quickly halt the spread of the disease into their territories. The conventional argument, regurgitated daily by the global press, is that these are both poor countries with ‘weak health systems’. This does not tell the whole story. Since the civil wars ended in Sierra Leone and Liberia, both countries have become the darlings of the Western aid effort, receiving inflows of grant aid that are way above the SSA average on a per capita basis, thanks to their ‘historic ties’ with the UK and USA respectively.
So why has the response to Ebola been so weak in both countries? The answer is crystal clear – the governance that has characterised Sierra Leone and Liberia for decades, with administration so weak and corruption so venal that both contributed greatly to the outbreak of their civil wars. Both have hardly improved since then. As numerous political economy studies have amply shown, this particularly weak governance is closely connected to the deep ethnic, class and linguistic cleavages in both countries, with small elites (‘Krios’ in Sierra Leone and ‘Libero-Americans’ in Liberia) imposing an exclusionary style of development over the mass of the rural population through their control of the political, administrative and economic system. What this means, in practice, is that the public health system for the impoverished majority is appalling, especially in rural areas.
Historically, a major source of the wealth of the elites in both countries has come from their deep involvement as intermediaries in the foreign aid business. They have always displayed a strong desire to deepen the ties of dependency on foreign aid as a way of feathering their own nests, particularly through the rental of land, buildings and vehicles to aid agencies. For this reason, and although it may sound harsh in the current context, in the same way that successive governments lobbied hard for UN peacekeeping missions to stay in both countries long after the civil war had ended, so powerful elite groups in Freetown and Monrovia are today in no hurry whatsoever for the global media obsession with the Ebola crisis to come to an end.