Understanding West Africas Ebola Epidemic: Towards a Political Economy

Understanding West Africas Ebola Epidemic: Towards a Political Economy

by Ibrahim Abdullah, Ismail Rashid

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From 2013 to 2015, over 11,000 people across West Africa lost their lives to the deadliest outbreak of the Ebola virus in history. Crucially, this epidemic marked the first time the virus was able to spread beyond rural areas to major cities, overturning conventional assumptions about its epidemiology.

With backgrounds ranging from development to disease control, the contributors to this volume - some of them based in countries affected by the Ebola epidemic - consider the underlying factors that shaped this unprecedented outbreak. While championing the heroic efforts of local communities and aid workers in halting the spread of the disease, the contributors also reveal deep structural problems in both the countries and humanitarian agencies involved, which hampered the efforts to contain the epidemic. Alarmingly, they show that little has been learned from these events, with health provision remaining underfunded and poorly equipped to deal with future outbreaks. Such issues, they argue, reflect the wider challenges we face in tackling epidemic disease in an increasingly interconnected world.

Editorial Reviews

Yusuf Bangura

A bold, critical, and wide-ranging anthology on the Ebola crisis. It will excite everyone interested in understanding why the Ebola viral disease overwhelmed the Mano River Union states.

Robtel Neajai Pailey

This book successfully turns the neoliberal project on its head, forcing us to demand a different kind of development in contexts (such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) where exclusion, exploitation, and extraction reign supreme.

Jacques Depelchin

Rarely has a book recounted such a preventable catastrophe, and from so many perspectives. In the process, it breaks down the boundaries of current thinking, and speaks truth to power.

Africa at LSE

A valuable contribution to the Ebola literature but also key for anyone interested in the state of Africa, epidemiology, and political economy.

Conflict and Survival Medicine

A fascinating insight into the background of the three countries which bore the brunt of the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

Adia Benton

This comprehensive volume offers valuable analyses of the structural roots and social impacts of the West African Ebola outbreak. An excellent resource for anyone interested in learning about the history and political economy of this devastating epidemic.

Paul Farmer

This eye-opening volume restores the social history of an epidemic that can't be understood without first acknowledging the economic policies that have impoverished this region. This book should (and I hope will) be read by anyone interested in global health. And that should include all of us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786991713
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 10/15/2017
Series: Security and Society in Africa
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt



Allen M. Howard1


It is not surprising that the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) spread fairly rapidly and easily among Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, or the countries faced similar difficulties responding to it. They long have constituted a region in several respects. Four points emerge from a regional approach. Their similar histories – especially their histories of extractive economies and structural poverty, foreign intervention, colonial rule, patrimonial regimes, and, in the two cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone, civil wars – made each state ill prepared to address the Ebola crisis. Structural poverty grew out of the Atlantic slave trade, commodity trade, and other global economic relationships. On top of the impacts of long-existing extractive economies, all countries had by 2014 further depleted their educational and health systems because of externally imposed cuts in public spending (through Structural Adjustment Programs) and predatory and military regimes that drained national treasures. Together, those factors led to widespread distrust of government and youth disengagement and rebellion. Second, the three countries long have been and today are integrated by complexly ramifying social, economic, and cultural networks (nodes plus flows) that link individuals, places, communities, and institutions, facilitating communication and providing a basis for coordinated action. Third, in addition to their networks, peoples' patterns of movement within the region may help account for how the disease spread and how information was disseminated, while their history of social struggles may help explain how people at the grassroots level organized to combat the disease and overcome divisions. Finally, many factors suggest that future delivery of health services and responses to epidemic disease could be organized more efficiently with a regional approach – as could preparation for the challenges of climate change.

Yet, deep skill reservoirs exist throughout the region, and energy rises from below. Over the past 200 or more years, people throughout the region have resisted foreign oppression and struggled against internal structures of domination. And they have debated and created alternatives. Today, women's, youth, and environmental organizations dedicated to building a better future have launched projects that might serve as local and regional models to other communities and build new linkages among people of the three countries. They often generate imaginative ideas, political pressure, and alternative forms of action that complement and challenge the efforts of officials and health workers.

This chapter also poses questions that build upon the structural analysis provided here – and provides some speculations. I was prompted to write after attending a panel at the 2014 African Studies Association Annual Meeting in Indianapolis. The panelists were experts on Ebola with field stays in the region. I asked them how historians, geographers, and other scholars of the humanities and social sciences might contribute background research that would help them address the crisis. They had no suggestions and wanted to know about concrete things that would enable their day-to-day work, such as how people in the region handled bodies of the deceased. While it is totally understandable why field workers would want information directly useful in their frontline campaign against EVD, I thought a deeper and wider background would also be valuable in both shortand long-term struggles against Ebola and other diseases.

Pre-colonial commonalities and integration: continuities

Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia lie within an area where rainfall averages 1,500 mm (59 inches) per year, or more (Brooks 1993, 13). They all contain both lowland rain forests and drier highlands, but the environmental gradient has meant that historically forest covered a great share of Liberia, and a much smaller portion of Guinea, with Sierra Leone in between. Futa Jallon and the Guinea Highlands are the sources of rivers that cut through all three en route to the Atlantic (Clarke 1966, 12-13). Each year rainfall patterns into a wet season and a dry season with the interior areas having a shorter period of rainfall.

In the pre-colonial past, the region was socially, culturally, and politically dynamic. People were affected by many of the same forces of change and had similar, though not identical, beliefs and practices, many of which continue today in modified form. People did (and do) speak languages from the Mande, West Atlantic (Fula or Pular and Mel), and Kruan groups (Brooks 1993, 27-33). Within each group there is considerable but not full inter-intelligibility. Because of migration, trade, and social inter-mixing, many people learned and still learn languages of different groups. Thus, Krio became the lingua franca of much of Sierra Leone in the twentieth century.

Age initiation associations were widespread, as were masking arts. In the deep past, the male Poro power association and its variants had spread over much of the region (Brooks 1993, 43 ff.). Comparable female associations, especially Bondo and Sande, also have been long present. Masking arts are renowned, and people have created and shared rich dancing, singing, story-telling, and genealogical practices. People freed from slave ships in Sierra Leone, especially Yoruba-speakers, also have introduced beliefs, social practices, rituals, and associations, as well as masking and dancing practices, which have been borrowed by others (Cole 2013, 32-45, 155-163; Lamp 1996; Nunley 1987; Wyse 1989, 9-14).

The geographic distribution of languages seems to have been relatively stable over many centuries, but that does not mean that "ethnicity" or "ethnic" identity, however defined, has either coincided with language or remained stable. Though recent political leaders often have played up "ethnic" differences, "ethnic" lines have been fluid and blurred historically (Howard 1999, 13-40). Today, a great many people, perhaps most, have "ethnically" diverse ancestry and often live in "ethnically" varied households, especially in towns and cities (Harrell-Bond et al. 1978, 320-332 ff.; Cole 2013, 45-51).

Islam and Christianity have spread widely. The former has been established over many centuries through the influence of migrating Muslim traders and clerics, and through state-building, reformist, and expansionary movements (Barry 1998; Person 1968, 1015-1141; Skinner 1976). Christianity has been present along the Upper Guinea coast since the fifteenth century, but in its current forms is a nineteenth-century arrival, having been introduced and/or propagated by missionaries, repatriated and liberated Sierra Leoneans, and Americo-Liberians (Coifman 1994; Fyfe 1962; Wyse 1989, 33-39). The region long has had highly trained clerics and scholars of both "world" faiths, especially of Islam.

Nowadays, most people in the region claim to be members of a "universal" faith. One report states that Christians make up 86 percent of Liberians, about 21 percent of those in Sierra Leone, and ii percent of Guineans, while, conversely, about 84 percent of those in Guinea and 78 percent in Sierra Leone are Muslims. Such statistics fail to consider the strength of "indigenous" beliefs and practices, especially around healing and sacred places. Syncretism is widespread, and many have blended "universal" religions with "indigenous" beliefs and practices around naming, remembrance of the deceased, and so on (Cole 2013, 180-209; Ellis 2007, 220-280; Skinner 1976; Wyse 1989, 33-59 ff.). Despite religious chauvinism in some circles, people tend to be tolerant of religious difference.

Like religion, food, above all rice, has provided a shared set of deep beliefs and practices around which many people of the region might come together (Fanthorpe 1998). Rice historically has been the staple food crop for most (Currens 1979; Njoku 1979: 105 ff.). People tended and cultivated tree crops. Palm trees have been universally present in the lowlands and its margins, and palm oil has provided a nutritious base for soups with leaves and meat or fish (Holsoe 1979). Kola trees were scattered widely and dense stands were found around the lower Moa and Scarcies Rivers (Brooks 1993, 24; Howard 2007). In the drier uplands people raised cattle, most notably in Futa Jallon, where from the eighteenth century on large herds supported a hierarchical social order. Goats and sheep were kept by farming families nearly everywhere.

In the pre-colonial era, farmers, authorities, and traders organized exchange across the coastal, lowland, and inland zones of the region. Gold, mainly from Bure, circulated widely. The sea and coastal strip yielded fish and salt, the forest and its margin produced indigo, palm oil, and other products, especially kola, while the drier regions exported cattle, as well as shea butter and other things (Fyle 1979a; Fyle 1979b; Holsoe 1979, 66; Howard in preparation a). Women and men produced cloth, pottery, iron tools, jewelry, weapons, leather goods, wood carvings, and other manufactures for exchange (Holsoe 1979). Thus, although farming communities grew much of the food they needed and exchanged many things locally, a significant commerce existed within and across ecological zones. Traders also carried out an internal traffic in captives and other enslaved people, with Futa becoming a major recipient from the eighteenth century onward. Finally, from the 1400s, traders and others sold ivory, gold, manufactures, woods, and other commodities to Europeans and Eurafricans on the coast.

Once Atlantic demand for enslaved labor began to grow, and European, Eurafrican, and African traders along the coast organized to mediate that demand, the region became a supplier of captives. During the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the overseas human traffic remained small in scale, relative to other areas of Africa and to later regional exports. It nonetheless was very harmful to people who came under attack and was instrumental in the rise of new classes of power holders, both those who specialized in trade and those who claimed political titles and established family dynasties, some of Eurafrican ancestry (located in what later became Guinea and Sierra Leone) (Rodney 1970). Starting in the mid-iyoos, shipments rose rapidly and reached their highest levels by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. On January i, 1808, the British began their campaign for abolition of the slave trade, with Freetown as the primary base. Exports from places near the Sierra Leone peninsula stopped but they remained quite high for the region as a whole into the 1840s and were not finally ended until the early 1860s.

The impacts upon security and social life were devastating, though not evenly felt throughout. Southeastern Liberia seems never to have become an important source of enslaved people, whereas areas raided by Futa Jallon were hit hard and lowland Sierra Leone and southwestern Guinea were deeply affected (Barry 1998; Misevich 2008; Howard in preparation a). Many sections of the region underwent a transformation of the kind described by Paul Lovejoy, as slave holding became widespread, slave gathering mechanisms were developed, and political leaders geared up to participate (Lovejoy 2000). Regional economies were weakened and skewed toward exporting. Enslaved Africans laboring on American plantations contributed significantly to the enrichment and industrialization of Britain, the United States, and other northern countries (Fields-Black 2008; Blackburn 1997, 510-580; Solow 1991).

While the slave trade was stimulated by external demand, its organization in the region and often its impacts were connected with local and regional processes of social and political accumulation, power, and struggle (Howard in preparation a). Certain ruling groups, along with some other big men and women, professional war leaders, and traders built wealth, power, and influence through their participation in the slave trade (Rodney 1970; Mouser 1996). They also gained greater capacity to dominate those with fewer resources, especially those enslaved or otherwise under their patriarchal authority. The dominant classes, however, did not go unchallenged. Traders fought over control of towns; enslaved people and disgruntled wives took advantage of the presence of the colony and, later, European customs stations to escape (Howard in preparation a). States and decentralized polities organized to resist Futa Jallon (Barry 1998, 258-270; Hawthorne 2003). Enslaved people in Moria, now part of southeastern Guinea, and in nearby sections of contemporary Sierra Leone rose up against their masters, created Maroon settlements, and offered religious and other arguments against slavery (Mouser 1996; Mouser 2010; Rashid 2003).

In the nineteenth century, internal slaving and slavery itself expanded, in part because those with means put enslaved people to work as producers (Howard 2006; Klein 1998). In this so-called "legitimate" trade era, large numbers of free and enslaved farmers grew, harvested, and, often, processed palm oil and kernels, peanuts, and other commodities. Overseas and African demand, especially for cattle, kola, and imports, promoted economic and ecological integration. Professional traders spanned much of the region, and countless small traders and farmers carried commodities to exchange points. In the second half of the nineteenth century, traders, commodities, and information flowed widely through the "Sierra Leone-Guinea System," which comprised much of the upper Niger, southern Futa Jallon, and the highlands and plains of northwestern Sierra Leone and southeastern Guinea (Howard 1979). Traders also linked parts of interior Guinea and Liberia, and moved along coastal roads that ran from well north of what is now Conakry to near Monrovia. Various coastal areas, such as southeastern Sierra Leone, were tied into the world market (Hogg 2013). The integration that farmers, traders, and authorities forged involved protracted struggles over trade routes and sites of exchange (Howard 2003; Howard, in preparation a).

The "colonial" era: regional similarities and variations People in all three countries experienced many commonalities in the era from 1900 to about i960, with long lasting, often negative impacts. Politically, non-democratic regimes were established, and only late in the period were there limited moves toward wider participatory government. It is often said that Liberia and Ethiopia were the only African countries not colonized. While that is true in important ways, it obscures two realities in the Liberian case. First, the US has been a dominant foreign power in Liberia from that country's origins, and France and especially Britain have also exerted strong influence at times. Second the Americo-Liberian government based in Monrovia carried out an internal colonization of the hinterland, following a trajectory roughly parallel to that of the British in Sierra Leone and the French in Guinea. As one scholar has written: Liberia "was an active (albeit weaker) partner in the scramble for the hinterland. It made great efforts to demonstrate effective control in the hinterland territories it claimed" (Gershoni 1985, 35 ff.). All three conquered the interior, often with great brutality, and early on ruled autocratically through military officers (Abraham 1978; Barry 1998: 284-294; Denzer 1971; Ellis 2007: 208-209). All applied similar colonial techniques: defeating intransigent rulers, staging imperial events to demonstrate power, coopting "friendly chiefs" who ran patronage networks, dividing territory into administrative units headed by officers appointed from the center, and imposing taxes and forced labor.

While there were certain differences in administrative methods, all three governed without democracy or popular participation, thus creating a model of top-down rule that carried over into the national period. In Liberia, the True Whig Party (TWP), run by a rather small group of Americo-Liberian elite men, had a monopoly of power from 1883 to 1980. Even though it was challenged on several occasions and coopted some from the majority, the TWP never undertook basic reforms and continued to run the country hierarchically (Dunn et al. 2001, 332-336). Because of the miniscule public treasury and the entrenchment of Americo-Liberians as district officers and county administrators, Liberia developed a particular form of administrative corruption while promoting tribalism. "Some district commissioners built personal fiefs in the hinterland by these means, accumulating money and private estate ... In order to remain in power, they had to redistribute some of these resources through local patronage networks" (Ellis 2007, 214-215).


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