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Military approach to fighting Ebola in West Africa: A Déjà Vu

OCTOBER 28, 2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

British Army Medics head to Sierra Leone to help combat the Ebola Virus

British Army Medics head to Sierra Leone to help combat the Ebola Virus

The Ebola outbreak has uncannily thrust the military back into the public eye in West Africa, and by extension Sierra Leone, following the deployment of thousands of men in camouflage to worst hit areas in the sub-region.

First, it was the United States of America who in early September announced the deployment of thousands of troops in their former satellite state – Liberia – in  an operation code named ‘Operation United Assistance’ to “set up a joint force command headquarters in Liberia to support military activities and help coordinate aid from other agencies, appoint a General Officer in Monrovia, provide engineers to build Ebola Treatment Units, and establish a training site for health care providers to direct care to Ebola patients,” according to the United States Department of Defence.

While skeptics and conspiracy theorists have questioned, even doubted the motive of the US Ebola intervention, for the majority of Liberians, it presents a huge sigh of relief because local authorities have been overwhelmed by the shear magnitude of infection and death rate – the highest among the three afflicted countries.

America’s intervention in Liberia could not have come at an appropriate time for the Ebola weary Liberians, especially those in Monrovia’s sprawling slums, who are in dire need of urgent help as thousands of their loved ones succumb to the deadly outbreak daily.

The same can be said of their counterparts in Sierra Leone and the capital Freetown, where new infections and deaths have multiplied so fast that they now surpass the joint aggregate of Kailahun and Kenema – two former epicenter districts. To date, the Western Area has a cumulative infection rate of more than one thousand, while the two eastern districts are on the delicate precipice of reaching one thousand.

Thus, like their cousins across the Atlantic, the Brits have emulated the Yankees by sending 3,000 troops, mainly medics, to Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone. Like in neighbouring Liberia, the civilian administrators have made a mess of the situation in the months following the beginning of the outbreak. And in the same fashion as Liberia, Sierra Leone has lost many souls, including health professionals, less than six months into the outbreak!

The above ramification is symptomatic of a wider failure in the ability and capability of our national and local leadership to maintain the sacred credo of a social contract between them and the masses.

It is also a poignant reminder of the sorry state of health infrastructure in our country, despite a confident picture painted by the authorities prior to the outbreak.

The fact that the military – national and foreign – are being drafted in to maintain law and order and provide hope to a rather hopeless populace is even more melancholic to adherents and disciples of democratic good governance who in the wake of the 90’s euphorically declared an end to the military’s unpopular and controversial foray in national politics.

I am not oblivious of the fact that global view about security has now shifted from a state-centric, traditional perspective to a globalised view accentuated by a multiplicity of security outlooks and dynamics, including looking at security from a global health lens, as we have learnt with the current Ebola outbreak.

That said, it is no gainsaying that the military are belatedly being drafted in to assuage the impact of the Ebola menace as a result of a monolithic failure by civilian leaders to maintain law and order and reign in on unbridled corruption and maladministration.

It seems that Sierra Leone’s fight against the deadly Ebola virus is fashioned within the perspective that civilian leaders believe this ‘war’ will only end with the direct intervention of the military.

Now you see how our civilian administrators have vindicated the late literary pioneer – Chinua Achebe – who in ‘Anthills of the Savanna’ opined that the ‘intellectual (civilian) envies the man of action (military)’ if not for anything but getting things done fast!

Thus, Achebe said the comical and obsequious Professor Okong now ‘wears Khaki safari suit complete with epaulette’ in foolish mimicry and admiration of the military head of state.

In present day Sierra Leone, as the Ebola outbreak spirals out of control, it seems the public is rather warm to the idea of the British army and our national army intervening to help crush the ‘enemy’. We have seen that with the renaming of the Emergency Operations Centre to the National Ebola Response Centre, with Steve Guojia being supplanted by Retired Major Paolo Conteh, until now the Defence Minister, who like Professor Okong, likes being clad in military camouflage or safari suit with epaulette.

The new head of the NERC has a military background which I am pretty sure influenced the decision by State House. And gauging the pulse of members of the public, it seems pretty obvious that retired Major Conteh’s appointment has universal endorsement. For many, only a robust military intervention would help contain and defeat the virus.

As the number of new cases keep surging and lives are being lost, and in light of a public emergency, no brainer for thinking that once again it would need the British Army, with support from their Sierra Leone counterparts, to help the civilian leadership clean up the mess they have created.

Inasmuch as the new military intervention is welcome, as we all seek to bring this sad episode in our history to a close, here is hoping that things will start getting better as men of action act decisively to confront the virus and annihilate it on its deadly track.

But, this is also hoping that as civilians once again look forward to the military to produce results, the former would in future learn the hard lesson of acting in time and on time, so that they may not need to hurriedly call on the military or emulate their discipline to get results.

Thus, this large scale western military intervention in a health emergency – though novel in West Africa in general and Sierra Leone in particular – leaves one with a particular feeling of déjà vu.