Beyond the medical crisis: The politics of Ebola in Sierra Leone

15 April 2015

While international attention on Sierra Leone is focused on the practical elements of tackling the Ebola epidemic, the political developments in the country have gone largely unnoticed and continue to unfold. In fact, this is symptomatic of the approach that the international community has taken to Ebola in that it has been treated largely as a medical emergency requiring a technical response.

This is undoubtedly true in part, but it overlooks the inextricable political dimensions of the problem as the series of papers from the Institute of Development Studies on Ebola and Lessons for Development argues. These dimensions will continue to resonate long after we have ‘gotten to zero’ and risk being forgotten in the rush to respond.

What does politics have to do with Ebola?

Last month, the Vice President of Sierra Leone, Samuel Sam-Sumana – long known to have poor relations with the President – went into hiding and requested asylum in the United States claiming he was under threat from the government after the military arrived at his compound (various reasons abound for their arrival). A week later, the President sacked the VP, citing his cessation of duties. This has caused a constitutional storm in Sierra Leone – with the VP, trade unions, the opposition and others claiming the dismissal of the elected VP is beyond the powers of the President. The opposition went so far as to call for a national day of civil disobedience and the matter is now before the Supreme Court.

This may all seem irrelevant to the ongoing fight against Ebola, but there are some important undertones here. The Ebola response has involved a number of heavy handed (though potentially necessary) restrictions that the government has had to enforce through the police and military (people who break curfew or quarantine can be arrested and in one instance, two civilians were shot in October 2014). This has led to some claims that the incumbent government – the All People's Congress (APC) – is utilising the Ebola crisis to return to its authoritarian past (the APC was in power from 1967 to 1992, during which time it temporarily created a one-party state, abolished local government, and enacted a range of oppressive policies that limited freedom of speech and movement).

While of course unfounded, some of the rumours that spread during the early stages of the Ebola outbreak also demonstrate the political subtexts that the crisis has carried in Sierra Leone. It was rumoured, for instance, that Ebola had been introduced by the APC government to kill easterners, who largely support the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), thus depleting their voter base ahead of the next elections in 2017.

The APC government has also relied strongly on the military in the Ebola response effort – who have widely been perceived to have been effective. On 23 March, the Sierra Leone army chief ordered soldiers to stay in their barracks, reminding them that politics was no place for the military. This statement raised concerns that the military may attempt a temporary take-over of government, if they perceive the current political crisis to be detrimental to the country. Again, the military was involved in three coups in the 1990s so such fears are not unfounded given Sierra Leone's history.

The involvement of community leaders in the Ebola response

The Ebola response has also engaged, albeit somewhat belatedly, traditional authorities such as chiefs, religious leaders and traditional healers. These leaders can hold sway over community attitudes and behaviour and have proven useful in getting communities on board with sensitisation messages, including around alternative funeral arrangements that protect families from contracting Ebola from corpses. These actors have been key in stemming the transmission of Ebola. Yet again, utilising them in the Ebola response is not without its political ramifications.

Chiefs in Sierra Leone spoke about the resurgence of the concept of ‘strangers’ in response to fears about Ebola. The concept of strangers in Sierra Leone is an old one, referring to those who come from outside of the chiefdom (there are 149 chiefdoms across the country) and traditionally had to request entry into another chiefdom from the local chief, and accrued fewer rights than indigenes – in relation to voting, land access and marriage. It has been convincingly argued that social exclusion created in part by the ‘stranger’ concept contributed to the grievances that led some young men to join the rebel group that instigated Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.

With towns and chiefdoms quarantined during the Ebola response to prevent transmission of cases, the concept of ‘strangers’ has been used to stop those from outside the chiefdom (or even, we heard, indigenes who had been outside the chiefdom for more than two weeks) to re-enter, with the chief deciding on who could enter and who could not. While this may well have been important in preventing the spread of Ebola, it also restores a potentially exclusionary customary practice that has been pointed to as a conflict trigger in the past.

The importance of understanding the local and political context

None of this is to say that the APC is attempting to increase its hold on power, that the military is planning a coup d’etat, or that chiefs will return to exclusionary social practices. However, these local readings of the situation are important. The Ebola response is far from apolitical and is certainly not understood that way by Sierra Leoneans. What international experts may see as technical decisions to deal with a medical problem are, simultaneously, political decisions that affect who holds power and how much. This should not be forgotten in planning how the response unfolds. In the rush to get to zero cases, we should not overlook the longer-term consequences of what the response means for the future of the country.

Lisa Denney is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She has been researching Sierra Leone for the last ten years, most recently looking at state capacity to prevent malnutrition, as part of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium.

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