Liberia: Beyond The Ebola Scourge

Liberia: Beyond The Ebola Scourge

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 12:37 pm

By Wale Okediran

Arriving in post-war Liberia in June 2007, all the tell-tale signs of a country still recovering from a 14-year civil war were glaring. From a ramshackle airport building to poorly dressed airport and security officials, the sign of grinding poverty and post-war weariness were all around to be seen.

As we left the Robertsville airport for the one-hour trip to the city of Monrovia, it became obvious that Liberia was still recovering from its years of civil strife which cost the country an estimated 250,000 casualties. On both sides of the road could still be seen buildings damaged by mortar shells while the blue berets of the Peacekeeping UN troops could be seen everywhere. Just outside the airport, we chanced on the Military Barracks that housed the UN troops. Amidst the barbed wire-fortified building was a big billboard with the screaming headline…WE BRING PEACE!

The last stage of the civil war was in 2003 under Charles Taylor, when rebel forces who had entered Monrovia tried to push him out of office. The resultant war which has been acclaimed as the severest in the country’s 14-year civil war became so bad that Liberians cried to the outside world for help. However, the UN insisted on Charles Taylor’s departure from the country before it could send in its troops. Thanks to the joint initiative of Presidents Obasanjo, Mbeki and Kuffour, Charles Taylor was eventually persuaded to abdicate while Nigerian troops moved into the country in August 2003 before merging into the then UN forces that eventually moved in October of the same year.

For this timely intervention which saved millions of lives, Nigeria and indeed former President Olusegun Obasanjo are still held in high esteem in Liberia. Everywhere I went during my one week stay in the country, Liberians were still appreciative of this wonderful gesture by Nigeria, which reportedly cost Nigeria US$8 billion, the death of 100 soldiers and another 100 missing. Apart from contributing about 9,000 of the 12,000 UN soldiers then resident in Liberia, the country’s Ministries of Commerce and Defence were headed by Nigerians for a number of years. The only drawback to the ECOMOG mission was the spate of allegations against the soldiers, ranging from rape to violence, production of teenage pregnancy as well as armed robbery.

At about the time of my trip, many Liberian newspapers reported the story of the theft of a Liberian ship which was hitherto under the care of the UN troops. ‘This would be the second stolen ship in the last one month’ remarked the newspapers. Both ships were eventually traced to Ghana! Also, in one of the several seminars on HIV/AIDS conducted by my group during my stay, some community and religious leaders were of the opinion that as long as the UN soldiers remained in Liberia, the war against HIV infection, prostitution and teenage pregnancy could never be won. ‘Each time a UN soldier is convicted of a crime, he is aided to escape from the country by his superiors before judgment can be meted out,’ complained one community leader.

Liberia, Africa’s first republic, was founded in 1822 as a result of the efforts of the American Colonsation Society to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. The society contended that the emigration of blacks to Africa was an answer to the problem of slavery and the incompatibility of the races. Over the course of 40 years, about 12,000 slaves were voluntarily relocated. Originally called Monrovia, the colony became the Free and Independent Republic of Liberia in 1847. The English-speaking Americo-Liberians, descendants of former American slaves, make up only 5 per cent of the population, but have historically dominated the intellectual and ruling class. Liberia’s indigenous population is composed of 16 different ethnic groups.

I had gone to Liberia as part of a five-member team contracted by the then Ghana-based NGO, AWARE Africa, to support the passage of the HIV Anti-Stigma Bill by the Parliaments of the West African sub-region. Prior to our trip to Liberia, the team had visited Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Senegal, where we engaged parliamentarians and stakeholders in the HIV sector. Five years later, when I visited Liberia again, the country had made a remarkable improvement in both its physical infrastructure and human resources. Apart from renovating its bombed-out buildings, pot-holed roads and collapsed power lines, Liberians had been able to put the pains and horrors of the war behind in search of a better future. What had not changed was the country’s gratitude to Nigeria for saving it from itself.

It is therefore ironical that the approximately 4 million-populated country which was saved by Nigeria will now be the source of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease that has become a source of death and national anxiety to Nigeria.

However, before we castigate Liberia for being the source of our current travail, it is on record that Liberian health authorities had advised Patrick Sawyer, the courier of the deadly cargo, not to leave the country. The reason for Sawyer’s defiant act, according to his wife, was because Sawyer wanted to take advantage of Nigeria’s good health system which contrasted vastly with Liberia’s poor health facilities. Even if Mrs. Sawyer’s claims were correct, it is still believed that it was the duty of Liberia to prevent the known virus carrier from departing the country.

Interestingly, the Ebola issue which a Nigerian newspaper has tagged ‘The Virus Diplomacy’, will not be the first episode of a ‘viral transfer’ between Nigeria and Liberia. It is on record that an undisclosed number of the 9,000 Nigerian soldiers who served in the ECOMOG force during the 14-year Liberian Civil War came back home with the HIV infection. A sizeable number of the HIV-positive soldiers went on to infect their wives while another sizeable number finally succumbed to the infection. Nigerian military authorities later spent a lot of money (assisted by the US PEPFAR fund) to clear up the HIV mess years after the ECOMOG mission.

I had managed some of these soldiers in my hospital during my days in full time medical practice in Ibadan a few years ago. When asked why they were so indiscriminate in their relationship with women, many of the soldiers who were in the prime of their years replied that the war was long, they missed their wives and women were cheap and available in Monrovia due to poverty and the vagaries of the war. My soldier patients did not mention incidents of rape which some of the soldiers had been accused of as the cause of the high incidence of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy in Liberia during the ECOMOG occupation.

As if to confirm this bit of information, it has been revealed that Nigerian soldiers fathered and left behind 250,000 children in Liberia after the ECOMOG mission. This fact was revealed by the Director-General of the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTCA), Dr. Sule Yakubu Bassi, who made the revelation to the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora during an interactive session with the Committee in July 2010. In order to confirm this fact and rehabilitate the children who were said to be roaming the streets of Liberia in abject poverty in search of their fathers, Bassi urged the lawmakers to prepare to visit Monrovia on the issue. Dr. Bassi further revealed that the oldest of the children whom one newspaper columnist unfortunately tagged ‘ECOMOG bastards’ was about 16 years old.

Apart from war and poverty, there must be something in Liberian women that makes them so irresistible for 9,000 soldiers to father 250,000 children (an average of 27 children per soldier). When the legendary late music superstar, Michael Jackson waxed the famous song “Liberian Girl” in 1983, the Liberian Civil War had not happened then. According to records, “Liberian Girl” was the ninth single to be released from Michael Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. The song was written as early as 1983 and was among those considered for The Jacksons’ Victory album. It was reworked and rewritten for Bad. The song was released as a single in Europe and Australia. In the song, Jackson espoused the Liberian girl’s virtues thus:

“Liberian Girl . . .More Precious Than Any Pearl/Your Love So Complete. . . Liberian Girl, You Know That You Came And You Changed My World.”

The song got a positive reception in Liberia, with women from the country viewing the song as empowering. As one Liberian lady, Margaret Carson put it in an interview with the Washington Times: “When that music came out … the Liberian girls were so astonished to hear a great musician like Michael Jackson thinking about a little country in Africa. It gave us hope, especially when things went bad…It makes us to feel that we are still part of the world.”

Now with the Ebola virus causing havoc and panic in Nigeria courtesy of a Liberian by the name Patrick Sawyer, Liberians have definitely stamped their presence in the world. Expectedly, many Nigerians are seething with anger over the invasion of their country by the Liberian Ebola virus courier. And despite apologies from the Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf, many Nigerians have suggested possible retributions to the small country. While some people are advocating for a permanent closure of our borders to Liberians, others have demanded for compensation from the Liberian government to the families of the Nigerian victims. A more outlandish suggestion from another enraged Nigerian was for Nigeria to invade Liberia as a form of punishment on the already Ebola-infested country.

However, if we are to punish Liberia for the Ebola crisis, is it not also fair for us to compensate our small brother nation for the war atrocities committed by our soldiers during the ECOMOG years? What about the HIV infection that our soldiers were accused of spreading among other social vices perpetrated under the guise of helping the beleaguered country? Are we to agree with some newspaper commentators that the 250,000 unclaimed children fathered by our soldiers was Nigeria’s assistance to replace the 250,000 Liberians said to have perished in the 14-year Civil War?

Already, the suggestion for countries to close their borders and ban air travels with Ebola-infested nations has received severel knocks from those who believe that such a decision will be counter-productive. Equally, help in form of drugs and doctors has been pouring into Liberia and other countries severely affected by the Ebola virus, all in the spirit of humanitarian gesture. Thus, instead of mapping out strategies to ‘avenge’ the harm done Nigeria by Liberia over the Ebola issue, what should be uppermost on our minds should be how to support each other in this very difficult period. Whichever way we look at it, issues of public health, diplomacy and trans-border movement and commerce will continue to pose enormous challenges to nations due to the ease with which we now relate with each other due to improved technology, international commerce, war and natural disasters.

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