Can Sirleaf survive ebola? Political legitimacy and government response to the ebola crisis in Liberia, by Mary Moran

The following is the complete address given by Colgate’s Mary Moran, professor of anthropology and Africana and Latin American studies, at Duke University in September. It was written for oral presentation, is unrevised, and should not be cited or circulated without permission.

When I submitted the title for this talk about two weeks ago, I was very much thinking of the term “survive” in its metaphorical sense. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of an African nation, faces the greatest challenge of her career, and unprecedented criticism both at home and abroad for failing to rebuild the national health care infrastructure and for her handling of the present crisis, including calls for her resignation (VOA news, Sept. 2, 2014).

I am a political anthropologist, not a medical one, and my intention here today is to try to place the government and public response to ebola in Liberia squarely in its local, historical and social/cultural context. But metaphor became concrete reality with a Front Page Africa headline on Sept. 10, “Ebola Hits Seat of Liberian Presidency; 1 Dead, 1 Quarantined” reporting that an administrative assistant to the Foreign Minister had died from ebola while her husband, also infected, was a staffer in the President’s office, two floors above in the same building.

The location of the executive offices in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building is itself a kind of metaphor for post-war Liberia. The ornate 1960’s era Executive Mansion, like the American White House built as both a residence and the seat of presidential power, was extensively damaged and looted during the fourteen year-long civil war. It was partially renovated by the United Nations and international donors following the first post-conflict election in 2005, but at a ceremony to celebrate the “switching on” of limited electrical service to the capital city, an electrical fire raced through the walls, completely gutting the fourth floor of the eight story building. Ever since, the Mansion has remained closed while President Sirleaf conducts official business from a suite of offices in the Foreign Ministry building and lives in her private residence in Monrovia.

What does this mean for the symbolic image of a chief executive who constitutionally wields great power centralized in the presidency, with the ability to appoint county level administrators who are the equivalent of US state governors, yet whose operating budget, security apparatus, policy planning resources, and technical infrastructure are largely provided by foreign donors? With the relentless and not inaccurate official descriptions of the epidemic as “out of control” and threatening the stability and even existence of the nation state, what can a 76-year-old woman half way through her second and last term in office do to convince her fellow citizens to comply with the emotionally wrenching “best practices” of virus containment, including giving up their sick, dying, and dead family members to strangers in white “space suits,” in most cases never to see them again?

And how can this be accomplished in a post conflict political context little more than a decade old, in which basic legal, social service, and educational structures remain unreconstructed? Why would the citizens who elected her to two terms in office by relatively healthy margins believe that she would conspire with other government officials to invent the ebola crisis as a means of generating an enhanced flow of international aid and why are they skeptical that the announcement of increased international funding will do little to enhance their own survival? What are the implications of the militarizing of this epidemic, by both the Sirleaf and Obama administrations, and what can the 3,000 US troops soon to be on the ground in Liberia likely accomplish?

In this presentation, I would like to discuss the sources of legitimacy and the national imaginary Sirleaf drew upon in her electoral successes, the erosion of that popular support since her rise to power, and the set of factors outside of her control that continue to account for Liberia’s dubious distinction as ‘ground zero” for ebola in West Africa. Although most press coverage continues to homogenize, universalize, and exoticize the spread of this “African” virus, a quick comparison between Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (also known as the “Mano River region) and their neighbors, Senegal and Nigeria, reveals the impact of recent civil conflict as a significant explanatory variable in the severity of impact.

In Nigeria, ebola arrived in July with a Liberian government official traveling on official business, who had visited his ill sister, a nurse, a few days before. Although Nigeria has at least as well-known a reputation for being corrupt and disorganized as anywhere on the continent, it has not seen anything like the recent history of conflict and destruction of health infrastructure as the Mano River countries. With the largest population in Africa (173.6 million people), the consequences for rapid transmission were obviously catastrophic. Yet, the outbreak was contained to 19 confirmed cases, of which 8 have been fatal. Another 300 known contacts of the patients have been under watch, but there have been no new cases for over a week.

Likewise in Senegal, where the initial case was a student returning from Guinea, there has been, astoundingly, only that one case and no fatalities. The student recovered, and while 67 contacts remain under watch, there have been no new cases reported. Compare these figures with Guineas’ total number of deaths at over 600, Sierra Leone’s over 500, and Liberia’s over 1500, and it is clear that an intact, undamaged, yet still African healthcare system, even in Nigeria where people may not like or trust their government any more than Liberians or Sierra Leonians like theirs, is perfectly capable of dealing with the threat.

Notice also that in spite of the consistent press emphasis on ignorance, tradition, and “backward” local practices like paying respect to the dead or eating “bushmeat” in spreading the virus, it was highly educated, cosmopolitan airline travelers who enlarged the regional footprint of ebola. In the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia, the presence of multiple and diverse external humanitarian aid organizations managing health care in a patchwork and uncentralized fashion has also clearly worked against the implementation of centralized national monitoring and response systems.

In Liberia, post-war health services were deliberately decentralized in order to promote the goal of reintegration and democratization and investment in the meso-level of administration was systematically underfunded. This policy, Sharon Abramowitz argues in her contribution to our Hot Spots collection, led directly to the lack of anyone answering the ebola hotline phones that Liberians were told to call if anyone in their family became ill, as well as to the days-long waiting times for anyone to come and pick up the dead. In Guinea and Sierra Leone, the rural clinics where patients first appeared in the early days of the epidemic were understaffed and under equipped, often little more than shells to represent the presence of “the government “ and its concern for the well-being of the population.

Sources of Legitimacy and Sources of Doubt

While “African” political systems are sometimes treated as fundamentally different from the “rational” or pragmatic politics of the west, in fact legitimacy, a set of beliefs and expectations that a leader has the right to give commands and expect obedience, functions in much the same way as anywhere else.

Liberia, in particular, has a long history as a national state, dating back to its declaration of independence in 1847, and although the central government might not have had effective control of much of the territory it claimed, it was a recognized “player” among the contesting autonomous polities that defined integration and conflict in the region ( see Knorr and Filho 2010). As I have argued elsewhere, twentieth century Liberians were familiar with the practices of elections, the symbolic trappings of the national state, and integrated a fairly clear national identity into other forms of self-description based on ethnicity and language.

Although the complexities of Liberian history are usually reduced to the axis of “native” indigenous people vs. descendants of the African American colonists, this dichotomy itself was intersected by numerous other factors such as intermarriage, fosterage and adoption, and upward class mobility. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is often perceived, even by her own people, as of Americo Liberian descent, but in fact her grandparents include three ethnic Liberians and one German trader, deported during World War I when Liberia declared allegiance to the allies. Both her parents were fostered by Americo Liberian families in Monrovia, positions more akin to unpaid servitude than true adoption. Her father was the first person of indigenous descent to be elected to the Liberian legislature and her maternal grandmother was a Kru coast market woman.

Sirleaf has called upon all of these cross-cutting identities in building her electoral constituencies, and with notable success. Women have turned out in large numbers to support her candidacies and she has responded with major programs to upgrade public market places with childcare, health clinics, and financial service offerings like micro credit. While her gender was assumed to be an impediment in “traditional” Africa (press coverage of the 2005 election kept referring to her as a “queen;” especially baffling when the point was that Liberia was returning to democracy), theorists such as Amadiume (1987)and Oyewumi (1997) have argued that the category “woman” divorced from other markers of relative status such as age, family relationship, etc. does not operate in Africa with the same valence as in western politics (see Moran 2010); Sirleaf has consistently used kinship imagery in her public personal and is known as the “old Ma,” a term which denotes significant authority within households.

When she first ran for the presidency against Charles Taylor in 1997, Sirleaf came in second in a Taylor landslide of 75% of the vote. As I have argued elsewhere, Taylor, a warlord now serving a 50 year sentence for war crimes, won with thinly veiled threats to reactivate his armed forces which had succeeded in conquering and administering two thirds of the country if he was not elected.

In 2005, her primary opponent was international soccer star George Weah, popular with young people and especially with young men, but seen as lacking the educational credentials to govern effectively. In a field of 22 parties, Weah actually won the first round of the 2005 election with Sirleaf coming in second. In the run-off, many voters whose first round choices had been eliminated swung to her, giving her a narrow victory that was hotly contested by Weah’s supporters who could not understand how their candidate, who had “won” the first round, could now have lost. This is very similar to what we now see playing out in Afghanistan, with consequences for trust in the democratic process and the eventual winning candidate.

After promising to limit herself to one term, she opted to run again for a second constitutionally legal term in 2011, a move which greatly concerned many observers. In 2011 she faced Weah again, but this time he ran as a vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Winston Tubman, nephew of former President W.V.S. Tubman who had ruled Liberia from 1944 to 1971. With Tubman, a well educated lawyer at the top of the ticket and the popular Weah being groomed to succeed him, the race appeared close until the Nobel committee announced, four days before the election, that Sirleaf would share the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sirleaf did not break 50% in the first round, leading to another run off, which was boycotted by the opposition amid charges of fraud. Although she won the second round with 90% of the vote, turn out was significantly lower, with many believing the Nobel Prize indicated that the international community would accept no other outcome than a Sirleaf presidency.

Sirleaf’s history of former government service, her graduate degree from Harvard, employment with the World Bank, and extensive contacts internationally are both a source of legitimacy for her, but also contribute to the view of her as distant and out of touch with ordinary Liberians. In her first term, she made significant progress in reducing Liberia’s external debt, and brought in large numbers of foreign investors to assist in rebuilding the shattered economy. Economic growth rates over 5% per year brought accolades from her international fans. As recently as January of this year, Mats Utas blogged about the rising Liberian middle class, eager to show off their cars and expensive leisure habits, and wondered if the business climate that produced them was also instilling the kinds of democratic values that neoliberal policy makers assume accompanies rising incomes.

Sirleaf has been unable, however, to battle the increasing charges of corruption against her inner circle of advisors, and the appointment of several of her sons to important government positions has opened her to criticism. A 2009 report of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission included her name on a list of 50 individuals who should be banned from politics due to their involvement in formenting and extending the war (early in his campaign to oust the regime of Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor received financial contributions from Sirleaf; she later denounced him and admitted that she had made a serious mistake).

Above all, lack of quick progress in putting people back to work, rapidly upgrading educational facilities at all levels (last year, not a single high school graduate passed the entrance exam for the University of Liberia, which may indicate progress on the accurate and fair scoring of the exam, but little else), and endless scandals in the granting of land concessions to foreign developers all contributed to the deepening sense that the Sirleaf administration was no different from the old, pre-war, Liberian politics of exclusion. A recent article by Funaki and Glencorse of the Accountability Lab finds that the word “corruption” has become “an all-encompassing term that masks a myriad of differing priorities and concerns” in Liberia (2014: 847-49).

Yet, in spite of increasing opposition at home, numerous press exposés and a Transparency International ranking among the worst in the world, Sirleaf in many ways remains the darling of the international community, with the European Union’s Deputy Director-General for Development and Cooperation complimenting her exemplary leadership” during the crisis at a meeting late last week. Many Liberians interpret the sudden American military response announced by President Obama last week as a result of Sirleaf’s personal standing.

External Factors

The impact of the humanitarian and NGO response to the regional wars in the Mano River area are also being felt, and cannot be attributed to Sirleaf or any other regional leader. As Mike McGovern writes in his “Hot Spots” essay:

“The real story about ebola in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone is that these three countries, after two decades of civil war and or internal turmoil, have invested inordinate proportions of their budgets into placating, reforming, and shoring up their security forces, and almost nothing in health sectors that were already decimated by years of war and neglect. Those priorities were shared by their donor partners. The US invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reforming the Liberian army, undoubtedly a worthy and important undertaking, but only a fraction as much on the health sector. It is under these conditions that a military cordoning off of affected areas becomes the preferred form of public health intervention. When you have a lot of relatively well-equipped soldiers and a small number of poorly equipped doctors and nurses, you go with your soldiers.” — McGovern 2014

Johanna Soderstrom, also a contributor to the “Hot Spots” collection, writes that ex-combatants, whose relationship with the state tend to be “characterized by distrust, feelings of abandonment, frustration but also longing,” even before ebola, are likely to be one of the constituent groups mobilized by the crisis. “Liberia’s political elites carry a lot of weight with the ex-combatant community, and the behavior and statements by them during this crisis will strongly influence how the ex-combatant community responds.”

Soderstrom writes that Sirleaf’s decision to fire senior governmental officials who refused to return from abroad, “underlines the already existing sentiment among ex-combatants that some can choose when to belong to Liberia and for many in the elite, Liberia is only one haven among others.” Soderstroms’ most hopeful analysis, echoed by others, is that the epidemic could encourage Liberians to demand more of their public officials, and that the imagery of parental care, which the pragmatics of ebola have already so violated, might paradoxically be strengthened.

In this context, how will the deployment of 3,000 American troops to assist in ebola “relief” be interpreted and received? Announced last week, the US response has already begun with the shipment of military equipment and an evaluation team to kick off “Operation United Assistance” with the six month (extendable) mission to build and equip more badly needed treatment centers for diagnosed cases. Currently, these plans do not include sending US medical personnel to Liberia; only logistics, engineering, and other non-medical support.

As of Monday (yesterday), the Pentagon clarified that they would initially be building one field hospital, with 25 beds, solely for the use of infected health care workers. In a country with a severe shortage of trained doctors and nurses to begin with, and given the toll the disease has taken on precisely these people, MSF, the humanitarian organization most engaged with direct medical treatment, has questioned the effectiveness of this policy. “More beds are very useful, but what would be even more useful is if the United States sent experts who could run these facilities” said the executive director of MSF/US on Monday.

Given the disastrous results of Sirleaf’s attempt to “militarize” her ebola response with the forced quarantine of the West Point neighborhood in July, it is surprising to see this turn to military solutions continuing. In contrast, a WHO situation assessment back on Sept. 8 noted that “non-conventional” interventions were for greater community engagement and that “where communities have taken charge, especially in rural areas, and put in place their own solutions and protective measures, ebola transmission has slowed.”

Even in densely settled urban neighborhoods, Liberians have been turning to techniques developed during the dark days of the civil war, when neighborhood self help groups organized fair and equitable food distribution networks for desperately needed supplies that had not yet arrived; mapping streets, identifying the most vulnerable, and setting up access points even when they had nothing to hand out.

The New York Times reported on the work of Dr. Mosoka Fallah, a young epidemiologist and immunologist who is working with community leaders and existing organizers in Monrovia to set up volunteer surveillance teams to identify ebola cases and delimit their contacts. Reports of neighbors banding together to deliver food, at a safe distance, to people who are sick in their homes (and not able to find a bed in one of the few government treatment centers) are largely drowned out by the deluge of articles on “irrational” villagers driving off health care workers, but they are there if you look for them.

Along with providing a counter-narrative to the tropes of primitive Africa, these stories are also evidence of the crisis of legitimacy in Liberia, as people turn from looking to their government and fall back on their own resources. Can Sirleaf survive ebola? With the situation changing almost hourly, it is clearly too early to tell, but although she may physically survive the epidemic, and politically survive to serve out her term of office, her legacy will bear the scars of this ordeal.

Mary Moran is Professor of Anthropology and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY (USA). She is the author of Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia (Cornell, 1990) and Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (U. of Penn, 2006) and numerous articles. Most recently, she coedited (with Danny Hoffman) “Ebola in Perspective” for Cultural Anthropology. Her current project concerns the experience of non-combatant men during the civil war.

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One Response to Can Sirleaf survive ebola? Political legitimacy and government response to the ebola crisis in Liberia, by Mary Moran

  1. Pingback: The Morning After: anthropology and the Ebola hangover, by Anne Menzel and Anita Schroven (2016) | Integration and Conflict along the Upper Guinea Coast/West Africa (IC_UGC)

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