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Africa is on the rise, but Ebola menace exposes our selective pan-Africanism

By Makau Mutua | March 8th 2015

There’s no doubt that Africa is on the rise. Some explosive numbers are telling. The cradle of human civilisation has more than half of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies.

Its youth bulge – a sure measure of growth potential – is unmatched by any other region. Much of Africa’s wealth – mineral, solar, water – remains largely untapped. You can tell it from the recent swagger of the continent.

Even the flaccid African Union has been flexing its muscle against neo-colonialists. But Ebola, the deadly pathogen, has punched resurgent Africa in the gut. Ebola has exposed how far Africa has come, but how much further it has to go. Let’s cogitate on the Ebola lessons for Mother Africa.

First, let’s look at the narrative. It’s true that in the West Ebola was initially viewed – and reported – as an African disease. It was depicted as a “natural” result of “jungle” conditions. African slums teeming with destitute humanity were presented as Ground Zero for Ebola. “Primitive” burial customs – washing dead bodies, touching and crying on corpses – made highlight reels. Illiterate villagers “hiding” infected relatives completed this horrifying portrait of a prostrate Ebola hot zone. American nurses, doctors, and even journalists returning from Ebola-hit West Africa were quarantined for 21 days upon arrival. Colleagues shunned the brave humanitarians. It was the same old story about Africa – dirty, poor, and dangerous to “civilised” human beings. The land of Tarzan, the Dark Continent.

Initially, the West thought the disease could be confined to Africa. But then President Barack Obama told folks the pandemic was just a plane ride away. Imagine that – Ebola was only six hours from New York by plane. He mobilised the might of the US military to help “contain” the epidemic. But Mr Obama’s logic for pushing back on Ebola was curious.

He framed American intervention as necessary to keep America safe. He said, in effect, “let’s fight it over there so we don’t have to fight it over here”. You can’t blame the man. His first responsibility is to Americans. But there’s an African in Mr Obama, and you couldn’t help but hear his pain for Africa.

Second, following Mr Obama’s plea to the world to join America in the anti-Ebola war, the narrative started to shift. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the African sage who has taken Madiba’s place, called out the West and the rich nations for inaction. Slowly, the global media was shamed to stop reflexively blaming Africa for the pandemic. Reporters appeared to show more respect for Ebola victims.

There was more care not to show the graphic images of death on African soil. Macabre scenes of African babies writhing in Ebola pain became less common. It’s true images of a helpless Africa haven’t gone away, but they are less vivid. Returning healthcare workers became heroes, not dreaded Ebola carriers.

Third, while it’s true Ebola doesn’t have an African genetic fingerprint, African states should have owned the problem. That’s because the heart of the continent was the epidemic’s epicentre. The AU has been prone and paralysed. We all recall how active – and enraged – the AU has been towards the International Criminal Court.

Extraordinary meetings have been called to denounce the ICC. African heads of state and government have gone to Addis Ababa to breathe fire and brimstone, and threaten Armageddon towards the ICC. But our dear leaders have done zilch to combat Ebola.

Selective pan-Africanism is hypocritical. The AU needs to take the real problems of Africa seriously. Concerns over the ICC pale in comparison to Ebola.

Fourth, it’s been clear that the African states most devastated by internal conflicts are the most prone to outbreaks of Ebola and other deadly pathogens. That’s because civil wars have decimated healthcare and other public health infrastructure. Liberia was at one point hell on earth. Guinea was a byword for a human abyss. Sierra Leone was a poster child for barbarism. The three were hit by Ebola the hardest.

In contrast, Nigeria and Senegal – which were touched by the virus – quickly snuffed it out. That’s because they have functioning healthcare frameworks. The lesson is that power hungry elites that devastate their countries expose the people to decades of vulnerability. Such leaders are responsible for Africa’s crunching underdevelopment.

Finally, Africa must get serious because Ebola won’t be the only – or even the last – pathogen to break out. Every credible medical scientist predicts that such viruses lie somewhere in our future. How will Africa respond?

The one way to test whether African states are serious is to ask what they are doing to combat malaria, Africa’s number one killer. Malaria can be eradicated, as it was in some parts of the world. Let’s beat malaria and create the framework for beating Ebola-like pathogens.

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