Friday, 23 January 2015

The human factor

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa came as a bolt from the blue, an apparently natural disaster. And yet, as we approach the anniversary of the first diagnoses deep in the bush of Guinea, new facts are emerging about how opportunistic politics and bad governance – locally and internationally – made the crisis far worse. This is particularly true in Sierra Leone.

The once narrow gap between Monrovia’s handling of the crisis and Freetown’s is now a chasm. Liberia’s new cases are dwindling into single figures, while Sierra Leone’s continue at an alarming rate. Many more now link the persistence of Ebola to Freetown’s disorganisation, lack of capacity and corruption. As our Feature,  The politics of Ebola, makes clear, the evidence cannot be ignored. The health ministry is one of the most corrupt: ghost-workers stalk its corridors and ambulance crews and nurses have to strike to get paid. More of Sierra Leone’s brave health-workers have died than in any other affected country.

The government presents statistics that underestimate the crisis. Public education about the disease, even in the worst affected areas, is appalling. But politicians have received millions to help them sensitise their constituents. When Liberia accepted that cremation of the dead was vital, Sierra Leone demurred. The main Freetown cemetery is now unable to cope and turning into a health hazard.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone’s recent past has been marked by rebellions, civil war and chronic underdevelopment. So that does not explain why Sierra Leone’s situation is so dire.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Je suis Charlie

As shock-waves spread after the murderous attack on staff at the Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, African security officials are weighing the implications for their own countries. Given the global coverage earned by the attacks in Paris and on the Westgate Mall in Kenya in September 2013, some Islamists see such armed assault as a means to bludgeon opponents, divide communities and step up recruitment. Even in remote areas of north-east Nigeria, the repeated attacks by Boko Haram on schools – with a far higher death toll than the 141 children killed in December’s jihadist attack on the military school in Peshawar, Pakistan – has won the group the notoriety it sought.

Some, like the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, are bold enough to speak out against the Islamists, while others have been cowed. Some of Africa’s foremost intellectuals have fallen in these battles. Libyan human rights lawyer Salwa Bughaigis, who campaigned against Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi’s brutal secularist regime and then against Islamist repression, was murdered in Benghazi in June. At the start of this cycle of confrontation, the left-wing Algerian intellectual Salah Chouaki was shot dead in September 1994 after a succession of threats from the Groupe islamique armé. That was in the early stages of the war between Algeria’s security state and its Islamist opponents. An unrelenting opponent of Islamism but a doughty defender of religious freedom for all, Chouaki wrote: ‘The best way to defend Islam is to put it out of the reach of all political manipulation’.