The countries affected by Ebola have been let down by a number of international organisations. But the late, lackadaisical and meagre response from the body that claims to represent all Africans and proudly protect the sovereignty and self-determination of African states has perhaps been the most disappointing of all, argues Nanjala Nyabola.
“We are meeting here at a time when our sisters and brothers in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are facing grave challenges…which have over the last few months so abruptly halted their path towards development and reconstruction.”
The quote above is taken from a statement given by African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on 28 October following a solidarity visit she made to the afflicted countries. Almost 8 months after Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) characterised the Ebola outbreak in the Mano River basin as an emergency situation, the AU finally pledged 1,000 doctors from across the continent to assist with managing the disease. The statement and its timing echoed the general response the AU has given to the most pressing challenges in contemporary African history: vague, seemingly focused on the wrong end of the crisis, late, and many dollars short.
A look at the timeline reveals that at every stage, the AU has been several steps behind local and other key international actors. The first case of Ebola came in Guinea in December 2013, when MSF as the lead organisation emphasised the lack of capacity within the country’s healthcare system. By March, MSF had declared the situation an emergency that required more international attention. Only in April did the AU convene the first of a series of meetings to “respond to the crisis”, but which in effect only led to the issuance of a communiqué. In fact, by its own account, the AU did not release funds to address the outbreak until August, when $1 million was released from the Special Emergency Fund for Drought and Famine. By this time almost 3,000 people had already died from the disease.
It may seem unfair to level this criticism against the African Union when other international organisations are charged with the specific responsibilities pertinent to addressing this crisis. For instance, the World Health Organisation – by its own mandate the “directing coordinating authority for health within the UN system” – didn’t mobilise a robust response until August either, while the UN Security Council didn’t react properly until September. In fact, MSF and others have been forced to repeatedly urge the international community to step up its response to Ebola.
However, a slow response is particularly embarrassing for the AU for several reasons. First, the crisis is unfolding in its own backyard. Several key AU institutions sit in West Africa, and it would be fair to assume that the AU could leverage this into some kind of regional coordinating mechanism. Is there a reason in 2014 for the US to establish a military command to oversee the response to Ebola when AU member states spend so much on building their own military forces?