As the Ebola crisis continues to devastate, Desmond Davies examines how the chaotic response in dealing with the deadly epidemic, is a direct offshoot of failure by the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and questions how poor governance precipitates crises in Africa at large.
While the focus on the unprecedented spread of the Ebola virus and the record number of deaths has been on inadequate health facilities in the affected countries – especially Sierra Leone and Liberia, which had undergone years of devastating civil wars, what has been overlooked is the woeful failure of these governments to provide timely and accurate information to their citizens when the virus first began its assault.
Indeed, the virus had telegraphed its intentions when it emerged in Guinea earlier this year: that Sierra Leone and Liberia would be next if nothing was done to stem the onslaught. Those who happened to warn of an impending catastrophe were dismissed as alarmists while political leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia buried their heads in the sand.
This response is symptomatic of a malaise afflicting many African countries – more so in West Africa, where there is a tendency of governments to withhold the most mundane of information from the public. It is not surprising, therefore, that rumours and misinformation abound – which complicate matters.
It was because the rumour mill took charge in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia that the governments were unable to rein in recalcitrant citizens who refused to heed the belated warnings about what is Ebola and how to combat the virus.
In Liberia, residents of Monrovia attacked an Ebola isolation clinic because they were wary of it being in their midst. When the Liberian government attempted to curtail movement in one of the city’s slums, the residents rebelled, forcing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to order troops to enforce the order.
In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Koroma announced a state of emergency, giving powers to the army to ensure that people stayed indoors between 5pm and 5am.
It appeared that this did not work because the government announced a four-day lockdown last month, whereby Sierra Leoneans all over the country had to stay indoors for the duration of the lockdown. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, these were clearly desperate measures to deal with a desperate situation.
Misinformation has been responsible for misunderstandings that have led to violence or civil disobedience in West Africa.
For instance, in 2004, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) was on the cusp of eradicating polio by undertaking an immunisation programme in Nigeria, the last bastion of the disease, rumour and misinformation led to people in the northern part of the country refusing to be part of the exercise. Rumour had it that it was aimed at Muslims, with the claim that the vaccine was the HIV/Aids virus.
This was not the case, but the damage had been done. The misinformation campaign set the programme back many years – to the extent that Nigeria is still the country with the largest number of polio cases in the world today. Even with its sophisticated public communication apparatus, the WHO failed to counter the rumours in Northern Nigeria.
The capacity of governments, whether national or local, to communicate effectively with citizens is a basic function of modern governance. The Department for International Development (DfID), which is spearheading the UK’s development assistance programme, including current support for the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa, came up with key characteristics of good governance regimes in 2006, including state capability; responsiveness; and accountability.
Alas, the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia appear to have failed miserably in this test. For instance, the leaders have shown that their governments are unable to get things done; they have not been able to respond to the needs of their citizens during the Ebola crisis; and citizens have not been able to hold their leaders and governments accountable for their failure to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Programme, in a policy brief on government communication capacity to achieve good governance, notes: “Legitimacy is…earned by leaders who possess the ability to communicate a clear vision for the country as well as policy choices and trade-offs they have made on the public’s behalf. Integral to the goal of legitimacy is the capacity to carry out two-way communication with citizens in a meaningful and ongoing manner.”
As the World Bank paper also pointed out, it should not merely be a case of dishing out information. “The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness and ability to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted sources of information.”
If this is the case, then the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia lack legitimacy because of their failure to open channels for getting feedback from their citizens. It is not surprising that in Liberia, the people want the government to step down in favour of one of “national unity”.