Ebola: A symptom of global capitalism in West Africa

Interview with Chernoh Bah of the African Socialist Movement

DECEMBER 10, 2014  Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

In coastal West Africa, one of the poorest regions in the world, the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are being ravaged by the Ebola virus. Despite successful anti-colonial campaigns in the mid 20th century, the countries of West Africa, like many other nations throughout the Global South, have never truly escaped the bonds of Western imperialism. Today, imperialism is alive and well and practiced under the guise of neoliberalism (via economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and direct foreign investment (coastal West African resources are owned by some of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world, such as Firestone in Liberia). The result of this indirect (but no less exploitative or violent) “neo” colonialism is chronic underdevelopment and political instability which stem from the disenfranchisement of the poor and indigenous, the empowerment of corrupt foreign-backed politicians, a lack of social infrastructure, and an emphasis on economically and environmentally damaging mineral-based export economies.

From US and European backed military coups, to corporate funded rebel terrorist factions, to the current viral epidemic, West Africa is the true face of global capitalism. The Ebola crisis is not an isolated incident or a self-contained tragedy. Ebola is merely a symptom of the exploitative nature of African-Western relations. In such an environment of poverty and disenfranchisement, crises like Ebola are not the exception; they are the norm.

In order to counter the Western bias within mass media coverage of Ebola and to hear, for once, the view of an actual West African, The Ground Up conducted this interview with Chernoh Alpha M. Bah throughout a series of correspondences this November.

Bah is a human rights advocate, author, and journalist from Freetown, Sierra Leone. He is the founder and current chairman of the African Socialist Movement, a pan-Africanist movement with thousands of members throughout West Africa. His first book, Neocolonialism in West Africa, was published in 2013.

GU: In a broader historical context, what is the significance of Ebola occurring now, in the early 21st century, and is the crisis truly comparable to previous epidemics such as AIDS, as is often mentioned in the media?

CB: The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not an isolated historical phenomenon in the world. It should be understood within the context of the global struggle for resource control and the effort of the capitalist world to dominate peripheral areas where strategic resources are located. The Ebola epidemic can only be understood within the scope of the growing desire of western multinationals to explore new areas for the development of international finance. The countries of West Africa that are now the epicenters of this deadly epidemic–Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea–contain many of the strategic resources needed by corporate interests to feed the global market economy. Guinea, for example, hosts the largest North American aluminum corporations; Liberia is the largest base of the Firestone Rubber Company; and Sierra Leone has a consortium of multinational corporations engaged in iron ore, diamond, bauxite and multinational agribusiness firms.

In the middle of this crisis, the activities of multinational corporations are still flourishing. Mining activities are still ongoing; corporations continue to transport ship loads of minerals out of the region. Inversely, the local economy has been disrupted and communities have been devastated by the crisis. A state of both helplessness and powerlessness exists amongst the indigenous population, which puts the world’s business and imperialist powers in an advantageous position to dictate their terms of engagement with the inept leaders of the countries besieged by the epidemic. The significance of this ugly situation is that it accelerates the entrenchment of neocolonial control and helps to consolidate the control of African resources by global capitalist forces. The magnitude of the epidemic is unprecedented and, unlike others such as AIDS, the Ebola outbreak has placed the affected African countries in a politically vulnerable position by exposing the fragility of African states and their obvious inability to respond to deadly emergencies.

I recently spoke with a resident of Bo, Sierra Leone. She told me this crisis has disrupted society more than, and is worse, than the civil war which Sierra Leone and Liberia experienced throughout the 1990s. Is this a common sentiment?

This statement is surely correct. In the case of the civil war, there was a tangible enemy. The enemy was visible. It was a human enemy that could be physically fought against and engaged. There were instances where communities organized themselves into self-defense units to protect their communities from rebel onslaught. The Ebola outbreak presented a different situation; a war without a visible or tangible enemy. People are called upon to fight against Ebola but the enemy cannot be physically engaged. The Ebola enemy is a virus; one that is reportedly without cure and whose potential to infect is rapid and deadly. The devastation caused by the Ebola outbreak carries with it huge impacts; the ramifications are tremendous. Entire families and entire communities have been wiped out in the twinkling of an eye.

The magnitude of the damage is difficult to measure. The most terrifying thing is that there seems to be no hiding place, no possible escape from Ebola. Added to this debilitating situation is the fact that the people of West Africa have become synonymous with the Ebola virus, a virus that is not the result of their creation or wishful invitation. It is a demoralizing situation. The global media has transformed the people of West Africa from humans to viruses. In the eyes of most people across the world, people from the epicenters of the epidemic are all potential Ebola patients, i.e. carriers of the killer virus. This global stigmatization of all of West Africa did not happen with the civil conflicts [of the 1990s] as it is happening now. This is due to the way the western media is presenting the situation to the non-African world.

From a geopolitical standpoint, what are the real socio-economic conditions which precipitated the crisis, and what caused those conditions?

Most of the countries affected by this epidemic are resource-rich countries, but they are at the bottom of the global development index, with some of the world’ worst health statistics. Nearly three of every five pregnant women in Sierra Leone die during child birth. The country has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Life expectancy in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is still below forty. People suffer from poor, or near absence of, health infrastructure; social service delivery is non-existent. More than ninety percent of the population of these countries experience suffocating hardship, growing unemployment and starvation. The influx of multinational corporations engaged in mining and large-scale agribusiness has also displaced rural communities from their lands and sources of livelihood. It is within this social environment – of poverty, hunger and underdevelopment – that the Ebola outbreak occurred.

The ultimate victims are the poor, oppressed and exploited masses. More than six months into the outbreak, the epidemic has reached every corner of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, yet no member of the political class of these three countries has been infected by the virus. The victims have so far been the healthcare workers – working under extremely difficult conditions – and the poor and helpless masses.

How has the international community actually responded on the ground, and what geopolitical ramifications do you think the response entails for the future?

The international community’s response has been ironic to say the least. Most of the countries involved, not excluding China, have deployed hundreds of soldiers to the affected countries. The United States has deployed over three thousand troops in Liberia, the British have sent hundreds of soldiers into Sierra Leone (including an active naval presence on the coastline of Freetown), and the French army is also in Guinea. This is in addition to French troops in Mali and a British International Security Advisory Team (ISAT) that was in Freetown years before this outbreak. World powers have used the Ebola outbreak to create strategic military bases in West Africa without opposition from either local or international populations. It is questionable why a consortium of military forces from various parts of the world can intervene in a health crisis of whatever magnitude. Why should a military response be invoked in relation to a health epidemic? This is central to my earlier statement that the Ebola outbreak has created an opportunity for the global market forces and their governments. It places the world powers in a position of advantage to further exercise their political and economic control over our communities and our resources.

The United States, for instance, has been working to create a base for its African Command Center (AFRICOM). There has been a barrage of opposition to the United States decision to create another military base in Africa, especially in Sub-Sahara Africa, following its controversial presence in Djibouti. The Liberian government of Ellen Johnson-Shirleaf has offered AFRICOM a base in Liberia since 2005. The United States had been constrained from deploying to Monrovia [Liberia’s Capital] due to global opposition to AFRICOM. The Ebola outbreak has seemingly offered the United States a perfect opportunity to deploy its military in Liberia with relative ease and no criticism from any sector of the local population or the global peace movement itself. Ebola has brought AFRICOM to Liberia in peace. Apart from the US, UK and France, the situation has also opened a new trend in the Chinese involvement in Africa; China has also deployed a detachment of the Chinese Liberation Army in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is the first presence of the Chinese Army on African soil. All of these international military activities could have been difficult to implement within a relative short period of time without the Ebola outbreak.

What is the role of markets and the profit motive in both precipitating the crisis and in hampering an effective response?

The global market forces are integral to this crisis. As I stated earlier, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not an isolated phenomenon in history. It is part of the race for control of local markets, resources and national economies that feed the international financial market. Capital is central to the Ebola outbreak, which provides a convenient opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to maximize profits off of the thousands of Ebola victims across the region. As the Ebola outbreak creates a conducive environment for international military deployments in West Africa, it has also provided a convenient opportunity for bio-chemical research foundations and institutions to undertake profit-driven experiments. Already, a conglomerate of pharmaceutical companies is engaged in the development of various vaccines in response to the Ebola crisis. Costs associated with research and vaccine development have been alarming and range in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is obvious that the tardiness assumed by the international response to the crisis was determined by market forces and profit needs. Ebola is not a new phenomenon in the world; first diagnosed in the late 1970s in the Central African region, efforts towards vaccine development have historically been neglected. It was not profitable to develop a vaccine for a virus that affected only a tiny sector of a population. Today, Ebola is not only an African problem but is also considered a global public health emergency. A market value for an anti-Ebola vaccine is now in existence as a consequence.

Western scientists have been unequivocal on this question. They have openly admitted that an effort to develop a vaccine in response to Ebola was not prioritized because the market value for such vaccines never existed when the outbreak was first reported in the Congo in the 1970s. Today, the market and profit needs have been necessitated by the ongoing deaths of thousands in West Africa. This has been amplified by the fear of the epidemic spreading across the Atlantic. Market considerations and profit have been central in determining how the international community responded to the Ebola outbreak.

To what extent can the former colonial powers, the global capitalist institutions such as the IMF, and Western Capitalism in general be held responsible for the Ebola crisis?

The western nations have been strongly criticized by the various neocolonial regimes in the region for the amount of time it has taken them to respond to the appeals for help. But to limit the assessment of the international complicity to the slow response of western nations to the epidemic is completely inadequate. It helps to evade a fundamental question, namely the objective conditions before the outbreak and the role of international finance in engineering the outbreak. I do not think that we have to limit criticisms to the slow response of the capitalist nations. The central issue should be the genesis and source of the virus. Where can we locate the source of the virus? How can we trace the genesis of the outbreak? These questions point to key bio-chemical issues. I think there is still need to investigate the source of the virus in West Africa. The western scientists and representatives of the western corporate media have assumed the leading roles in explaining the situation. This is very unfortunate and highly problematic because the Africans, who are the actual victims, are not involved in these discussions. This is not new. I am of the view that the only credible narrative regarding this situation must come from the indigenous communities affected by the situation. Evidence is emerging that indicts several multinational corporations and educational institutions like Harvard University, Tulane University and the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) in a laboratory exercise in West Africa associated with the experimentation of certain anti-viral vaccines, including ZMAPP. This was almost a year before the outbreak. Is it possible to connect this exercise with the outbreak? This is an issue that requires tremendous investigation and academic discussion. Instead of this, the discussion is centered on how much aid money is required to contain the virus and how much money is needed to expedite the development of anti-Ebola vaccines. I think the discussion must be moved out of these parameters. It will be unjust for the people of West Africa to be deprived of knowing what exactly happened in their communities. They need to know who engineered the process that claimed the lives of several thousands of innocent people. So far, this has not been the case.

What is your opinion on the increasingly hysterical US response to Ebola spreading across the Atlantic and what does this response (which has more or less become a pop culture phenomenon and a lightning rod for nationalist conspiracies) say about the larger US-West African relationship?

It is nothing new. The western media always uses crisis situations in Africa to spread its stereotypical views of the continent. Africa is always presented as the backyard of the world – a place of disease, of poverty and hopelessness. They have done this with the famine in Ethiopia and they did it with the conflicts of the 1990s in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Ebola situation has not been an exception. They have presented the Ebola virus as an African disease; a symptom of the primitive nature of African society. Western scientists and journalists have misled the world to believe that the Ebola virus is the result of the eating habits of African people; that the virus was spread from chimpanzees to humans because the Africans have an appetite for “bush meat” and they got Ebola by eating animals. This is an attack on African civilization and it directly insults the intelligence and level of development of the African personality. But this is a narrative that is informed by a colonial attitude of racial supremacy and arrogance rooted in western society. The fact is that the Africans have lived peacefully and harmoniously within a habitat that hosts chimpanzees and other animals for hundreds of years. There was no case of Ebola in West Africa until a team of western scientists and researchers reportedly began experimenting trial vaccines in the Gola forest of eastern Sierra Leone about a year before the outbreak. The western journalists and university academics in the west have ignored this reality; in fact, they have worked to subsume it.

This is why I think there is a need for investigation. People within the United States are obviously victims of western propaganda. It is important for them to understand that the Ebola epidemic and nearly all of the social and economic contradictions experienced by African people are born out of the murky relationship between Africa and the west. The Ebola epidemic is not an African disease. It should not be used to define the African and his or her civilization. The western nations have transformed the African continent into a vast laboratory for the political, social, economic and cultural experimentation of western ideas and projects. And the Ebola epidemic is one of the results of this experimentation.

Do you see any chance at marrying the rise in the US of demands for racial justice for African Americans and the West African struggle for the humanization of African Ebola victims?

It is obvious that the conditions of African people inside the United States are not different from those we experience on the continent. The struggles of the black people in America are an extension of the struggle on the continent. We share the same historical circumstances and we experience the same brutal treatments from the global capitalist, colonialist arrangement. Our struggle for self-determination in Africa is a critical component of the global movement for the liberation of the African and the restoration of his/her personality and dignity among the world’s peoples. The recent growth in demands for social justice by African people in the United States is not different from our ongoing efforts to overturn the conditions of oppression and exploitation on the African continent. There are ongoing efforts by several groups to break the isolation of our efforts from the various places we are located at the moment. I am optimistic that as the crisis of capitalism intensifies, oppressed people will be able to take advantage of the existing vacuum to create a holistic program against the oppressor nations. Nowadays, with the aid of technology, it will be easy to unite our forces across continents.

A new and under-reported phenomenon of socialist consciousness is on the rise in Africa, from the miner strikes in South Africa, to the Niger Delta protests, to the re-emergence of the revolutionary Marxist Thomas Sankara as a national icon in Burkina Faso (which saw its population overthrow its long-time dictator just this month). How do you feel the Ebola crisis and the response of global capitalism will affect this anti-capitalist trend?

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has unfolded in the midst of ongoing efforts to resurrect the tradition of revolutionary activity in the region. West Africa has a long tradition of revolutionary activism, a history of pan-Africanism, and a culture of resistance to imperialism and capitalism. In Sierra Leone, for example, the African Socialist Movement (ASM) is engaged in ongoing efforts to organize the workers and peasants into a socialist movement that will struggle against the class contradictions of neocolonialism. Masses are in motion and recent developments in Burkina Faso – events that saw the resurrection of the defiant spirit and image of Thomas Sankara – are a representation of the ongoing aspirations of workers and the greater majority of urban masses to struggle against the many neocolonial dictators in this region. The protests in Burkina Faso that swept away the neocolonial puppet, Blaize Campaore, for instance, were not a spontaneous and isolated event. It was part of decades of planning and organizing that embolden the urban masses against the dictatorship in recent years. The remnant tendency of the “Sankarist Movement” has exercised a tremendous amount of influence on many of the mass organizations, including a greater sector of the trade unions, since the early 1990s. It was these elements that spearheaded the protests to unseat Campaore. These developments had progressed, for years, inside Burkina Faso without any mention of them in the mainstream media.

It is obvious that the Ebola outbreak and the current presence of international military forces in West Africa add to the existing revolutionary dynamic in the region. Presently there are underlying currents that have the potential to create the need for national democratic revolutions in West Africa in the very near future, and there are general tendencies that offer the region’s revolutionary sector of the population an advantage and a possible path to revolution. The ongoing multinational exploitation and state corruption in the region, in addition to the huge military presence of foreign armies, are preludes to unfolding conflicts. We will have to see how these developments unfold in the near future and how the revolutionary movement will utilize its current advantages.

Can you briefly recall the conflict that has ensued between you and the government since you appeared on the front page of the New York Times, publicly criticizing the government’s political decision to refuse to distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical supplies donated via the coordination of the African Socialist Movement?

We coordinated the shipment of much-needed medical supplies including stretchers, personal protective equipment, and other materials needed by health workers. We mobilized over US$500,000 worth of medical supplies. We asked the government of Sierra Leone to assume responsibility of clearing and delivering these supplies to affected communities. They initially agreed but when the shipment arrived at the Port in Freetown, they were held-up for two months because the government refuses to pay the shipping fees the required fee of about $6000 to clear the container. They argued that if the shipment is cleared and the materials are distributed to the affected communities, it will boost our political standing among the masses. They refused to distribute the items until the matter became the subject of international media discussion. When the issue appeared on the front pages of the international press, they also organized a local campaign to discredit our efforts. At some point, they planted expired drugs on the container and started claiming that we imported expired materials into the country. They wanted to create the basis for an arrest. It never worked. The voice of the masses prevailed. They were fully exposed. So far, ours have been the largest independent contribution to the fight against Ebola in the country. But the government has failed to acknowledge our contribution. That is not a problem for us. Right now we are involved in local initiatives to address the problems created by the epidemic. We are providing food supplies to communities and also feeding orphans. We have just commenced a large breakfast program to feed children orphaned by Ebola.

What is needed to stop the dying and suffering in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia?

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa requires an international mobilization from individuals and institutions committed to building a better world for all of humanity. It is our collective action in pursuit of justified causes that will help to change the face of humanity from what it is today. Thousands of innocent people in West Africa, including health workers, have died due to Ebola. There are thousands currently infected by the virus. There are hundreds of children orphaned by the Ebola outbreak. There is need to mobilize global efforts, including organized independent efforts, to address the vast range of problems that has resulted from this epidemic. Medical supplies and medical personnel from around the world must be organized and encouraged to donate their resources and skills to help save innocent people; women and children from the scourge of this outbreak. No amount of help is too small in such situations. Again, it is our collective efforts that will save the world from these types of threats.

Do you think the Sierra Leone and Liberian governments can withstand the crisis?

It is too early to speculate on all of the implications, politically and economically, that this situation poses for the beleaguered neocolonial regimes in Monrovia and Freetown. But it is obvious that the situation poses a very serious security challenge within the region. Sierra Leone and Liberia are countries that have recently emerged from devastating conflicts where the legacies of armed conflicts of the 1990s are still socio-economic and political factors driving everyday life in these countries. There are still hundreds of thousands of unemployed, uneducated, lumpen-ized and oppressed youths. The majority of these youths were ex-combatants who fought in the wars of the 1990s as child soldiers. Public policies and programs have done little to address the post-war expectation of this youthful population. The youths, like the rest of the population, remain massively impoverished. The objective conditions in Sierra Leone and Liberia have remained worse and deplorable. Economic difficulties, unemployment and deplorable standards of living have radicalized the majority of Sierra Leone and Liberian youths, mostly trapped in teeming slums in Freetown and Monrovia.

The Ebola outbreak has made matters much worse for the ordinary people. The level of suffering has increased and people’s anger and lack of faith in the government’s response mechanisms continue to pose serious challenges. There have been tensions amidst militarized approach to contain the outbreak by the local authorities in the region. In some cases, there have been isolated protests and community revolts against the effort of governments to quarantine infected communities. It is obvious that the rapid spread of the virus has exposed the inability and fragility of the governments in the affected countries. Public opinion has weighed considerably against the reputation of the national ruling elites. The possibilities for mass protests and national revolt are extremely high; which perhaps underline the kind of response assumed by the various governments in the affected countries. A state of public emergency that curtails individual freedoms and civil liberties is in force in Sierra Leone. This allows authorities to crackdown on public meetings and gatherings. Looking at all of these factors, it is obvious that the ability of the governments in Liberia and Sierra Leone to survive the crisis is extremely low, if not impossible.

How has the crisis damaged the legitimacy of the Koroma government in the eyes of Sierra Leoneans?

I think the Koroma regime was suffering a public opinion crisis even before the outbreak of Ebola. The regime has been inundated with stories of corruption. There was tremendous difficulties and hardship in the country before the outbreak. Unemployment rates soared and the local economy was in ruins before the outbreak. The epidemic only exacerbated an already devastating situation and intensified the level of anger and outrage of the masses against the government. The incompetence of Ernest Koroma and his government have been exposed by this epidemic. Public opinion is weighing considerably against the government. There is a lack of trust in the government, which accounts for the lack of cooperation from the people to whatever effort is being made by government officials to fight the virus. People are accusing the government officials of using the epidemic to enrich themselves. Mistrust, anger and outrage have tipped the scale against Ernest Koroma.

Conducted by Joshua Lew McDermott