Fear of Ebola Virus Deepens

Motley extraordinaire Aaron Noonan examines the spreading Ebola epidemic in an interview with Joe Manning, Honorary Consul General for Sierra Leone to Ireland.

The Ebola outbreak of 2014 was first reported last March and has since spread throughout West Africa, from Guinea to Sierra Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria. It has so far resulted in over one thousand deaths, the worst outbreak since the discovery of the disease in 1976. Governments and health organisations across the world have mounted a huge mission to contain the latest outbreak, as the risk of a pandemic continues to grow.Ebola_outbreaks

Sierra Leone is one of the countries most affected by the disease. It is similar in size to Ireland and has a population of 5.7 million. Ravaged by civil war throughout the 1990’s, the country is still very much in the rebuilding process. After the war ended in 2002, Ireland began providing aid to the country, forging a strong relationship between the two nations, with Sierra Leone becoming a Key Partner of Irish Aid in 2013. Since 2005, Irish Aid has provided €83.1 million through projects aimed at building lasting infrastructure and basic services in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Joe Manning, the Honorary Consul General for Sierra Leone to Ireland, has recently returned from the West African nation. He has been travelling there since the early 1970’s and has grown to understand the nature of politics and governance in the country – and how that may effect and exacerbate the continuing Ebola crisis. He sat down with Motley to discuss the many challenges the country faces such as corruption, economic stagnation, healthcare, peace and security.

“It was a terrific country when I taught there in the mid-seventies,” he says. “It really worked. The school that I taught in, a secondary school, was as good if not better than that school I came back to in Ireland. I explain this to young Sierra Leoneans now and they can’t believe it. In the seventies the literacy rate might have been 80%. Today it’s about 30%.”

The growth of the diamond trade in the mid-seventies brought with it widespread and unchecked corruption in government departments.

“Diamonds were a huge source of easy corruption. Corruption is a thing that grows, it doesn’t stay static. It’s like a cancer that spreads, and it did spread. If it’s not stopped, corruption leads to anarchy. In the eighties corruption ran riot until the civil war broke out in 1991. The interesting thing about the civil war is that it wasn’t ethnically based, it wasn’t tribally based, it wasn’t religiously based. It was a reaction to the level of corruption in the country. Unfortunately, those who started the civil war became extremely corrupt as well.”

After the civil war, which resulted in over 50,000 deaths, ended in 2002, the country began the rebuilding process. Corruption, however, was still a major problem in the war-torn country. “The corruption just started straight away again,” according to Manning, “there was a lot of money pumped in that time by donor agencies.”

In a country so ravaged by war and violence, its ability to rebuild and recover has been greatly hampered by systemic corruption in governmental sectors. Although employed by the Sierra Leonean government, Manning acknowledges the commitment of Irish Aid, in particular their team in Freetown, the capital, in building lasting infrastructure in the country. He maintains that the biggest challenge to Irish Aid and its British counter-part, the Department for International Development (DFID) is working with the Sierra Leonean government and finding worthwhile projects to work on, where money won’t be squandered or embezzled. For these organisations hoping to rebuild the country, supporting the education sector is key. But they face many problems, despite having the funds to improve education in the country.

“The biggest opposition we would have is the Ministry of Education in Freetown. They’re difficult to move. When I was out there recently I was talking to a very experienced Sierra Leonean who has had high office in various places. I told her what we were trying to do. She said that we had to go and talk to The Ministry of Education. I said “Why? They won’t be much help to me.” She replied “No, but they can hinder you.”

In another instance, the DFID were forced to pull out of a programme for education in the country, over a dispute with the Minister of Education over the handling of the funds.

“I think they’re right to pull out. I think the mistake they made is that they quietly pulled out. They should have pulled out noisily. We have to publicly say it. Talk to the people of Sierra Leone over the heads of government. We have 100 million euro in education over the next 5 years, but we’re afraid that the Ministry of Education is eating the money. Everyone will know what you’re saying and that will embarrass the government. That is what needs to be done. The time for quiet diplomacy is gone.”

In a country whose growth is so stunted by widespread corruption, large-scale mistrust of the government exists, which can be disastrous, particularly in times of crisis. “There isn’t a trust in the officialdom that you would normally have here,” Manning explained, “for a time people believed Ebola was a government plan because the Ebola Crisis started in an area that voted for the opposition. They believed it was a government plan to kill them. It certainly wasn’t obviously, but it’s that lack of trust.”

With the population suspicious of its own government, it took a long time before the scale of the Ebola crisis was acknowledged. “There’s an urgency about it now, but there’s a huge lack of capacity there. It’s going to need to be managed by the WHO. The big fear is that it will spread to Freetown because the living conditions are very cramped. The official figures are that a thousand people are after dying, it’s likely much higher than that. Those are only the recorded deaths.”

Beyond the Ebola crisis, Manning believes that Sierra Leone has a long way to go before it stops relying on foreign aid. “One of the things that really depressed me there was not only that things are so bad, but nobody expected them to get better. There was no life on the horizon.” He notes the potential for a renewed civil war in the fragile country. “My fear is that Boko Haram in Nigeria will spread to Sierra Leone. It wouldn’t be for religious reasons; it’ll be for social reasons. You have 80% youth unemployment. It’s like a tinder box ready to go off. That’s a breeding ground for fundamentalism.”

Although Sierra Leone has come a long way since the civil war, it still suffers from a plethora of issues – economic, social, and political – and despite the fact that the latest Ebola Crisis has reignited international interest in Sierra Leone, the country requires far more attention than it receives. Though relief organisations such as Irish Aid work hard to rebuild the infrastructure the country has lost, they will not be able to fulfill its mission until corruption at government level is eradicated. To do that, aid organisations and governments need to publicly highlight corrupt practices. As Manning notes, “If the issue of governance can be sorted it can be a very prosperous and self-sufficient country.”