I usually know that a news item about Africa has reached a critical mass when it shows up on Gawker, long one of my writing break diversions. And so it is that Guinea has emerged again into the collective Western consciousness, this time due to increased coverage of an Ebola outbreak. The stories almost write themselves. Three Americans are infected, two of whom were treating Ebola victims in Liberia. Two Peace Corps volunteers in Guinea are exposed to the virus and placed in quarantine, prompting the evacuation of over 300 volunteers. New cases attached to one of the infected Americans appear in Nigeria. The two infected Americans still alive receive an innovative, unapproved serum and seem to have improved. A “misguided” U.S. Congressman attempts to link the Ebola outbreak with the growing refugee crisis along America’s southern border.
One shouldn’t blame journalists for covering what is a compelling and profoundly tragic story. The recent surge in outside attention, though, often obscures the fact that people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have been living under the shadow of the outbreak for months. The first cases of Ebola began to appear in Guinea’s Forest Region in February. The virus, at first classified as a general hemorrhagic fever but later confirmed to be Ebola, spread to Guinea’s capital Conakry by late March. More cases emerged in other cities in all of Guinea’s four regions, as well as in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Guinean government has declared the outbreak contained several times, yet new infections continued to appear. In short, the most recent wave of infections covered more extensively in the American press is the most recent event in a longer, larger health crisis unfolding in West Africa.
As Guineans have learned to incorporate a new threat into their daily lives, Ebola has also assumed a central place in Guinean political discourse. More specifically, the virus has become a point of contention within a longer battle between ruling party coalition, led by President Alpha Condé, and an opposition coalition headed up by the Fulbe politician Cellou Dalein Diallo. The rival groups have battled one another both in the press and in the streets for control over Guinea’s government since the contested 2010 presidential elections that pitted the two politicians against one another. This cycle of protests, government crackdowns, limited rioting, and failed rapprochement marks only the second period of multi-party politics in Guinea’s history.
Although the most recent episode of contestation signals a break from the one man, one party rule that defined Guinea for more than four decades after its 1958 independence, debate about Ebola has largely followed the already established grammar of Guinean political discourse present since at least the early 1950s. One day after five cases of Ebola were confirmed in Conakry, Dr. Oussou Fofana, a pharmacist and vice president of the opposition UFDG, accused the government of complacency while demanding that it cancel an upcoming concert by the Senegalese musician (and sometimes politician) Youssou Ndour. Fofana also lobbed a significant accusation against Condé’s government, claiming that authorities had learned of the Ebola outbreak as early as January but chose to do nothing, allowing the virus to spread throughout the country. Another UFDG VP blamed the outbreak on poor government policy, in particular an underfunded and crumbling sanitation and health infrastructure, while linking the virus to more systemic problems such as poverty, corruption, and misallocation of government resources. To the opposition, it seems, Ebola is just one in a long line of governmental failures – including mismanagement of mining contracts, frequent power cuts, and recent outbreaks of measles and cholera – that have strangled Guinean optimism that emerged in the run-up to the 2010 presidential elections.
For its part, the government has also lobbed its own accusations towards the opposition. Nantou Cherif, a leader within the ruling RPG Arc-en-ciel coalition, has accused the opposition and international media of spreading “propaganda” and overstating the threat of the virus, saying, “if you listen to what they say overseas, you would think that we’re all going to die tomorrow.” Alpha Condé reserved his ire for the NGO Doctors Without Borders, who had been one of the loudest voices of concern during the outbreak (one of their videos is at the head of this post), going as far as to claim, “they send out press releases [about Ebola] so that they’ll have enough money.”
More recently, both sides have moderated their rhetoric, emphasizing popular mobilization to combat Ebola’s spread and calling for regional and international responses to the outbreak. One should not dismiss earlier critiques, though, as simply political bluster. Guinea’s chronically underfunded and mismanaged public health system has made it difficult to properly respond to a growing threat. Likewise, foreign reports that speculate whether or not the disease might spread internationally are at the same time alarmist and alarmingly myopic. Just as importantly, it’s hard not to hear something familiar in the politicians’ statements. During Guinea’s First Republic (1958-1984), when Sékou Touré attempted to build the Guinean nation through any means necessary following independence, exiled opposition members often accused the Guinean government of regularly distorting internal problems, downplaying severe economic crises and ignoring the extremely difficult daily lives of Guineans in the name of progress. In response, Sékou Touré’s government would often (and sometimes correctly) point to foreign meddling in Guinea’s affairs, media mistruths, and to various “fifth column” plots meant to destabilize the government. The rhetorical parallels between then and now are striking. “Ebola” as a phenomenon, it would seem, has been fully incorporated into existing political narratives to a degree that politicians’ statements about it follow the same grammar and vocabulary present for decades. In a time of seemingly perpetual bickering between political parties, the outbreak has become normalized, further crippling any response from the political elite to what has been a stubbornly smoldering crisis.
Politicians aren’t the only ones reacting to the Ebola. Butchers report that people have stopped buying all kinds of meat, including beef. Some mothers are forbidding their children from eating at school, in parts of the Guinean countryside an important source of nutrition. One anonymous man on the street believes that the outbreak was manufactured by the government in order to “prevent street protests and the holding of municipal elections.” Lastly, and just as worryingly, during a public rally one religious leader linked the outbreak of Ebola to a list of supposed sins in Guinea, including children not obeying their parents, widespread use of drugs and alcohol, and the possibility of same-sex marriage in Guinea.
Americans tempted to point to Guineans’ reactions to the outbreak as examples of the “folly of Africans” might want to watch out for those planks in their own eyes. A better approach would be to take into consideration that, first, outbreaks like the one in Guinea are deeply embedded in the affected societies, and two, people’s reactions to those crises have deep and important parallels and precedents. Any attempt to understand why national and regional responses to Ebola have been lacking starts there. Physical distance provides a degree of safety for Americans worried about the outbreak’s spread to their homeland. Looking at the problem conceptually from afar, though, will only further hamper foreign attempts to help contain the growing health crisis.
John Straussberger is a PhD student in African History at Columbia University. His research focuses on ideas about political community, ethnic identification, and nationalism in post-colonial Guinea