Ebola, Corruption, and Border Security in West Africa

By: Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

Dec. 22, 2014

I am currently in Guinea, where the first case of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was reportedly recorded. I arrived here on Friday night traveling by road from Freetown to Conakry. It is my first trip into the provinces of Sierra Leone since the end of the elections in 2012. I have been out of the country for the better part of 2013 and early this year, traveling around Europe and America promoting my recent book, Neocolonialism in West Africa. I returned to Sierra Leone about two weeks before the death of Dr. Sheik Umar Khan and the government’s declaration of a state of emergency in response to the Ebola outbreak. Sierra Leone has been unsteady since then; the outbreak has disrupted the normal routine of everyday life. The number of deaths and the horrific details of the casualties caused by the spread of the Ebola virus are extremely terrifying.

This is my first travel out of the country since the Ebola outbreak. I have had my own share of press coverage – national and international – relating to my individual contributions to fighting the Ebola crisis. I continue to record and report on the everyday events of infections and deaths accompanying this situation in Sierra Leone. The truth is that Ebola continues to claim more lives in West Africa.

In Sierra Leone, the national cohesion invoked in response to the crisis has produced a mirage of efforts. Some diplomatic officials have said the national response is chaotic: from songs to posters, billboards and radio jingles, it seems everybody wants their contribution to be noticed. Politicians, musicians, clergymen, religious heads are all out contending for space in the humanitarian field left behind by the wreckage caused by the epidemic.

At the heart of the confusion caused by these heterogeneous responses is the government’s own effort to remain in command. After several months into the crisis, Sierra Leone’s public officials are blaming the ordinary people for the ongoing spread of the virus. They said despite several warnings, the public has not given up their old ways: touching each other and washing the dead. A senior Chinese official who visited the country recently told journalists that people’s lack of trust in the government is responsible for their failure to heed to national messages of prevention put out by health officials. Lack of trust in government is indeed not caused by the Ebola epidemic. It is a symptom of the crisis of leadership in the country: corruption and graft continue to be major characteristics of governance in Sierra Leone for decades now.

Community people who have witnessed how poor political party organizers have transformed themselves into millionaires and built several mansions in a few years after their party assumed power can hardly trust ruling party officials when it comes to what is good or right for their communities. This is the dilemma of President Koroma’s government. The majority of Sierra Leoneans are disillusioned and they have lost confidence in Koroma’s officials. Political credibility is essential in national efforts to contain epidemics and disasters. The government of Ernest Bai Koroma is not happy. Recent newspaper reports on theft of Ebola funds and the inflation of health workers lists are all evidence of the deep rooted nature of graft and state corruption that surround public offices in the country. President Koroma himself is aware of this disease and so far, his regime is the real obstacle to all national efforts to mitigate Ebola.

The opportunity that this situation has provided to corrupt government officials who see the epidemic as a money making project has become the anathema to the national cause against the epidemic. The government of President Ernest Bai Koroma appears overwhelmed by the spread of the epidemic. In the midst of the chaos – produced by corruption and mistrust – the president’s response has assumed very draconian options directed not against those who are stealing Ebola funds, but against ordinary citizens. The state of emergency has provided more room for bribery and corruption to flourish. Police officers in charge of manning checkpoints and quarantined homes, health officials issuing travel passes to Ebola hot spots, humanitarian workers diverting food aid, and public officials pilfering donated funds are all stories inundating the local and international press. President Koroma sees the country as a place under siege by the Ebola epidemic. He has chosen to handle the situation in a military way. After all, his response is synonymous with the international approach to the crisis – all western nations involved in the fight against Ebola in West Africa equally deployed foreign troops in the affected countries.

Traveling from Freetown into the provinces on my way to Conakry on Friday, I came face-to-face with familiar scenes I had known and witnessed over ten years ago: military checkpoints, police officers, armed soldiers, and teeming long queues of people being screened by youths holding temperature checking machines. The scenes look very similar to the rebel war years; the only difference is that the security officers this time were not looking for insurgents. They were searching for the sick, people who might show signs of a fever or anything remotely associated with the symptoms of Ebola. I counted nearly ten checkpoints from Waterloo to the Guinea border before I lost count because I was getting tired and frustrated by the experience. At all of these checkpoints, most of those holding or operating the temperature checks were youths whom I suppose have volunteered to be part of the fight against the epidemic. Youth were an active force in the insurgency that wrecked Sierra Leone in the 1990s: many were conscripted into fighting factions and thrown into combat with no military training. The Ebola epidemic seems to have reinvented the same scenario – many of the young people involved in the screening of people have not received any basic healthcare training. These are obviously healthcare vigilantes involved in the fight against Ebola. They look like the war vigilantes during the rebel years.

I could not record the number of ambulances going back and forth from all directions. Makeshift structures built with tarpaulin and roundly fenced have been erected along major points on the highway. They are marked Ebola Holding Centers with huge signposts. These appear to be spread everywhere. The wreckage of the epidemic is evident on the rural scenery. The atmosphere smells of chlorine, which attests to the overwhelming nature of the epidemic.

I am traveling with two other companions on this trip. At a checkpoint near Portloko, a soldier asked for proof that we were actually traveling from Freetown. He wanted to know if we were not passengers from the surrounding areas. The reason for his enquiry is that the nearby communities of Portloko have been marked red zones and considered Ebola hotspots. There are travel restrictions on travel across districts recently announced by the president. In Freetown, a house-to-house search for potential Ebola patients started before I left. The soldier’s statement was based on the president’s orders, but our driver insisted that he was finding an opportunity to ask for a bribe. How can we know?

Stories of bribery and other corruption related activities are common with cross border travels in West Africa; the Guinea-Sierra Leone border is not an exception. Nearly everyone traveling on this road paid a bribe to security officers on both sides of the border. Cross border extortion is a major problem to regional integration in Africa.

Crossing the border into Guinea, all the Guinean security officers were concerned about was the collection of bribes. Every passenger passing through the border into Guinea had to pay a bribe of ten thousand Guinean francs. We entered Guinea with no temperature checks and went straight into Conakry without coming across an ambulance. Guinean officers on the road were more interested in looking for bribes than Ebola patients. They were not worried that those traveling on that road includes Sierra Leoneans who might be coming from Ebola hot spots in a country leading the charts on Ebola infections and deaths in West Africa.

Over the last three days that I have been in Guinea, I have to keep reminding myself that there is an Ebola epidemic in the region that continues to claim lives in my country. Here, it seems everyone goes about business as usual. Taxis plying the city of Conakry are loading seven passengers – four in the back seat and three in the front including the driver. They all seem comfortable and there is no complain about people touching each other. People are loaded like sardines into mini-vans – more are left standing than seated. Over-crowding cannot fully describe what is going on here. I also saw mosques performing burial rituals and relatives burying their dead in Conakry without the involvement of health workers. I have visited several offices and public spaces today. I have only seen a temperature machine in two public places. At one location, the guard operating the temperature machine seemed tired with the screening and just let people in. This is the country that the first case of Ebola in West Africa was reported by western journalists. It seems Guinea has attached less vigor in its response to the Ebola epidemic. With all the military power involved in Sierra Leone’s response to Ebola, the epidemic continues to claim more lives and inflicting more infections. How is this infection taking place? What is responsible for the rising deaths and infections in our country? Stay tuned for more reports from Guinea.

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