About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, October 20, 2014

As Obama saves Liberia from Ebola

An inside look at why the US has deployed its military to fight Ebola and Western media coverage of this “rescue mission”

Over the last month, efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa, especially Liberia, have dominated the news on all international cable and satellite television. United States President Barack Obama has even deployed the American military to save Liberians from the scourge of this disease. The Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gives daily press briefings about its efforts to save the people of West Africa from this epidemic. Missing in the big Ebola story are efforts by West Africans (and other Africans) to save themselves.

The story is depressing because one wonders what the governments there are doing themselves to save their citizens. This is especially so because Liberia and Sierra Leone are often praised for being “democratic,” managed by responsible governments that care about their citizens. It is possible there are many efforts by these governments to save their people but the avalanche of self-congratulatory news-reports by Western journalists and their media outlets obscures these efforts. However, that Ebola has lasted this long and has claimed well over 4,000 lives is very revealing.

This is not the first time Ebola has struck. Uganda has been hit by Ebola four times over the last 14 years. The first time was in Gulu, northern Uganda in October 2000 (where 393 people got infected) and it spread to Mbarara (five infections) and Masindi (27 infections) making a total of 425 infections. There were 224 deaths and the epidemic was declared over within three months. In December 2007, Ebola struck again in Bundibugyo, infecting 149 people with 37 deaths but it was done away with in two months. Ebola struck a third time in Kibale, infecting 24 people and killing 17 but was over within a month. The last time Ebola hit Uganda was in November 2012 and it infected only 15 people, killed four and was over in a month.

There are many problems with the Uganda healthcare system but we can give our corrupt and incompetent government credit for containing Ebola. The spectacle of the American military being deployed to save Ugandans from Ebola has been avoided. The efforts to save Africans, which are favoured by sections of Western governments and populations, usually compound rather than remove the problem.

For example, Liberia was saved from civil war by American troops, Sierra Leone by the British army. Since then these two countries have been managed as trusteeships by the “international community” through the United Nations, the World Bank, the EU and other Western agencies. If such foreign interventions work, how come there is limited governmental ability to contain the epidemic?

Indeed, over the last 15 years, Western media, academia and governments have been singing praises of the democratic character of the governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia. They have said that these are liberal multiparty democracies, holding free and fair regular elections, enjoying a free press, having effective checks and balances on the exercise of power and hence high government responsiveness to the interests of ordinary citizens. However, my friends from these countries, especially award winning Sierra Leonean journalist, Sorious Samora, has been telling me that Western tales of accountable government in Sierra Leone are bogus.

Sierra Leone and Liberia are experimental labs for outsiders seeking to prove that the best efforts to save Africans have to come from outside. Western governments train their armies, run their bureaucracies, guard their presidents etc. Their leaders are thus celebrities in London and Washington DC where they are given Nobel prizes for peace. Meanwhile, back home, their citizens wallow in poverty and misery and there is little trace of government on the ground. That is why Ebola has devastated them.

The failure in Liberia and Sierra Leone to contain Ebola is largely a product of inability by these so-called “liberal democracies” to build effective governments that can serve their citizens and thereby win their confidence and support. Their elected leaders are a cabal of elites involved in anarchical grabbing of public resources. Rather than serve their people, the leaders of these nations have been keen to please those in London and Washington who keep them in power and therefore whose interests they serve.  Consequently, ordinary people in Liberia and Sierra Leone were going to hospitals and removing their sick, taking them back home for treatment. Others are refusing to take the sick to hospital all together. In Liberia many people think public announcements about Ebola are a trick by the government to cause a stampede in order to get foreign aid dollars from abroad. The presence of American troops saving Liberians is exactly what Western media want – to show their nations off as caring and prove that Africa doesn’t work.

These lessons came to me last week when I watched a BBC documentary titled Rwanda: the untold story. When Rwanda faced a major disaster of genocidal proportions, these saviors ran away. Rwandans rose to the occasion and liberated themselves. Since then Rwanda has pursued an independent project of reconstructing the state and economy and reconciling its people. This project has been successful beyond measure. But sections of Western society don’t want an African-led success story. They have grown increasingly angry because President Paul Kagame is setting a wrong example.

Just imagine if it was the American troops that ended the genocide in Rwanda in 1994! The American general commanding the war would have won a Nobel peace prize; Hollywood would have acted more than 100 movies telling of his heroic exploits and those of gallant Americans troops. Kagame and his soldiers destabilised this consensus by stepping unto the plate and saving Rwanda from self-destruction. Many well-meaning people in the West appreciate this. But sections of Western society have never accepted that this example should stand, hence documentaries and “academic” research to prove that RPF did not actually stop the genocide but that it actually perpetrated it.

Recently there was a story in the Wall Street Journal explaining how CDC had helped Uganda learn how to contain Ebola. It went to great length to explain the role of America in helping Uganda. There was not a single sentence on the efforts of Ugandan doctors, nurses, and political leaders who mobilised resources, organised people and conducted mass sensitisation campaigns to contain the virus. The message was simple but fundamental: every failure in Africa is African and every solution must be Western. Welcome to the world!


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