West Africa Ebola fears

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on edge over fears of Ebola return. By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia

 

It has been five years since the deadly Ebola virus was beaten out of the Mano River Union countries.

The countries, which have suffered countless wars and political unrests over the past three decades, still bear the psychological scars from the pandemic, which claimed more than 11,000 lives and caused widespread fear throughout Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The return in February of the much-feared disease to Guinea, which is where the 2014-2016 outbreak started, has sent a wave of panic across the sisterly countries that have a lot in common, including poor healthcare delivery and poor infrastructure.

Re-emerging from the same Guinean Forest Region where the last pandemic began in 2014, the disease has already claimed five victims with hundreds more under surveillance within the first two weeks.

Swift international intervention included the dispatch of anti-Ebola vaccines.

The World Health Organization’s representative in Guinea, Alfred Kizerbo, emphasized the importance and efficacy of the vaccines in saving people of dying from Ebola.

And the global vaccine alliance, Gavi, revealed it had half a million doses ready to deploy if needed.

But this was not without resistance from people who, despite the devastation of 2014 – 2016, still doubt the existence of the disease.

Guinea’s minister of health, Remay Lamah, who hails from the Ebola-affected area, has lashed out at people who promote ‘fake’ ideas about the vaccine.

He told the BBC: ‘This vaccine is not a poison. This is why we are administering it in public so that you yourselves can see the reality.’

Despite Guinea’s porous borders, Sierra Leone and Liberia have not reported any case at the time of going to press.

Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio, however, was not leaving anything to chance.

On hearing the Guinea re-emergence, he instructed his new health minister, Dr Austin Demby – who was in country with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention during the last Ebola outbreak – to take immediate action and ensure the country’s emergency response system was increased to Level 2. This would ensure enhanced surveillance, active case finding and robust community engagement.

Liberia’s President George Weah reacted to the new Guinea outbreak by ordering health authorities ‘to heighten the country's epi-surveillance and preventative activities’.

Coincidentally, the 54-year-old footballer-turned-politician was in the region that borders Guinea, as part of his three-year anniversary tour of Liberia, when news of the resurgence broke.

A senatorial aspirant at the time of the 2014 Liberia outbreak, Weah had teamed up with the Ghanaian singing sensation, Sidney, to create an Ebola awareness song during the last outbreak.

Now president, he has instructed health officials to ‘immediately engage communities in towns and villages bordering Guinea and increase anti-Ebola measures.’

Amid the panic, Liberian health authorities reported one suspected case of Ebola in a woman with malaria-like symptoms who had been to the Guinean town of Nzerekore on February 12. The country’s minister of health, Wilhelmina Jallah, later confirmed that the woman had tested negative for the disease.

The outbreak of Ebola in Liberia in March 2014 exposed the weakness of the health sector of Africa’s oldest independent republic.

A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) caused healthcare workers to succumb to the disease in that outbreak, and led to hospitals and clinics turning their back on potential Ebola patients out of fear.

The 2014-16 outbreak overwhelmed Liberia.

Burial teams were unable to cope with the number of dead, and a large Indian-owned crematorium in a township southeast of Monrovia had to be opened. Meanwhile, thousands of non-Ebola patients died of curable diseases for fear of being diagnosed with Ebola if they reported to hospital.

Since the defeat of Ebola, the Liberian government has not said what it intends to do with the ashes and remains of victims of the 2014-16 outbreak.

There are suggestions that those who had been buried hurriedly in shallow graves prior to the introduction of cremation could be exhumed and reburied in a more dignified way.

Before the February return of Ebola to the sub-region, people from the Mano River Union countries nervously monitored news from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which was combating its own Ebola outbreak.

The outbreak is the DRC’s 12th since Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in isolated villages on the banks of the river after which it is named.

The latest DRC outbreak comes less than three months after a separate outbreak in the western province of Equateur officially ended in November 2020. 

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Liberia gripped by downfall of graft tsar

The country’s Nigeria-born anti-corruption head has been forced to quit after allegedly faking his own ID. By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia.

Liberia’s strict immigration laws have come under scrutiny, after the head of the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission was forced to quit after allegedly falsifying his Liberian citizenship.

The West African republic has a number of regressive citizenship laws, which prohibit dual nationality, ban anyone who is not of ‘negro’ descent from Liberian nationality, and make it illegal for non-nationals to hold senior civil service jobs.

While the laws have been repeatedly denounced by President George Weah, the president was forced to accept the resignation of Nigeria-born Austin Ndubusi Nwabudike over allegations regarding his immigration status.

Born in Nigeria’s Delta State, the former lawyer practised with the Liberia National Bar Association, something non-Liberians are prohibited from doing, before being promoted to various high-ranking positions following the 2017 election of the footballer-turned-politician George Weah.

The charismatic barrister, who claimed to have been naturalised as a Liberian in the 1980s, was appointed by Weah to head the Governance Commission, a key role tasked with maintaining stability in the country, which suffered a genocidal civil war between 1989 and 2003.

After more than two years at the Governance Commission, Weah appointed Nwabudike chairman of the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission in October 2019.

Weah’s promotion of the Nigeria-born lawyer caused unease within the cabinet.

However, Nwabudike would probably still be at the helms of the Anti-Corruption Commission had the president not given him a new – and more politically sensitive – position as chair of the National Elections Commission ahead of crucial mid-term senatorial elections.

It was during Nwabudike’s appearance before a senate committee to confirm this new role that he failed to prove he was a naturalised Liberian.

He compounded the confusion by presenting five different dates of birth, according to senators and members of the country’s association of lawyers.

President Weah, who was facing public criticism for choosing a foreign-born lawyer for a top position, yielded to pressure and withdrew Nwabudike’s nomination.

He, however, retained him as head of the anti-graft body.

Sensing blood, civil society groups mounted fresh pressure for the removal of Nwabudike from the Anti-Corruption Commission, while the National Bar Association announced Nwabudike’s expulsion, from the legal fraternity, citing: ‘The doubt raised by the Senate over the citizenship of Counsellor Nwabudike.’

A statement by the lawyers added that the allegations against Nwabudike ‘cast a very dark cloud over the integrity and credibility of the Liberian National Bar Association and the Judiciary’.

Its Grievance and Ethics Committee found out from court records that a ‘purported certificate of naturalisation presented to the Liberian Senate by Councillor Nwabudike showed that he was issued by Criminal Court “B” at the Temple of Justice on May 13, 1982, when in fact that court was called the People’s Criminal Court “B” [at the time].’

The statement added that Nwabudike’s various passports showed five different, and conflicting dates for his birth, while the name on his passports was slightly different to the name given to them.

The Bar Association also revealed that the date of birth on Nwabudike’s Liberian ID card was different to the date given on his handwritten wedding certificate – with a different day and different year cited – and that he recorded his citizenship as ‘Nigerian’ on the marriage certificate, despite allegedly being a naturalised Liberian for almost a decade at that point.

Under pressure, Nwabudike submitted his resignation letter to President Weah, stating: ‘The monumental progress made by the government in the fight against corruption, both in the public and private sectors, is being marred by public debate of my person rather than what contribution I can make towards the economic development of our country. It does not serve the overall strategic interest of your government and our people if I were to constitute a distraction from the national agenda.’

Since being forced to resign on February 26, Nwabudike has refrained from media comments.

However, he denies any wrongdoing.

Some supporters of the ruling party claim the campaign against Nwabudike runs contrary to the purpose for which Liberia came into being – as a place of freedom and opportunity for black people and Africans.

But opposition supporters believe the Nwabudike affair highlights the problem with corruption in the country.

‘That a man would fake all legal documents to end up chairing the Anti-Corruption Commission is in itself corruption,’ remarked a government critic on a radio programme.

Outspoken opposition leader Simeon Freeman has called for the prosecution of Nwabudike, arguing that President Weah failed to do due diligence before elevating a man who had only claimed he was a Liberian.

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Liberia rocked by deaths of anti-graft tsars

The mysterious deaths of some of Liberia’s most high-profile financial professionals in October have gripped the tiny nation of less than six million people.

The publication of an official report into the killings was delayed last month, leading protesters to cry foul over the mysterious circumstances in which the four men died.
 
The dead include the head of the Internal Auditing Agency, Emmanuel Barthen Nyeswa, who was reportedly leading a team looking into the government’s handling of Covid-19 funds.
 
Nyeswa’s body was found beneath his balcony on October 10, just eight days after the bodies of two other senior auditors, Albert Peters and co-worker Gifty Lama, had been discovered in Peters’ vehicle in the busy banking district in the capital, Monrovia.
 
Nyeswa’s family described the senior civil servant as a man who fought tooth and nail to assist the government in clearing its payroll of ghost workers.
 
They described Nyeswa’s death as ‘sudden and tragic’, adding: ‘He was selfless; spent a lifetime of service giving back to the people of Liberia.’
 
The other dead auditors, Albert and Gifty, both staffers of the government revenue department, known as the Liberia Revenue Authority, were also said to have been engaged in the audit of government accounts at the Central Bank when they met their end.
 
A large crowd of curious people gathered as police removed the bodies to a hospital and then to a mortuary.
 
Confused and grieving familymembers including Peters’ wife Beatrice and Gifty’s husband Sylvester cited foul play and accused state security of initially denying them access to the bodies.
 
‘They were murdered,’ Sylvester Lama told the radio phone-in show 50-50.
 
‘And our request for an independent autopsy has been denied.’
 
When Lama insisted an independent autopsy be done on his wife’s body, the government said that Lama would have to foot the $30,000 bill.
 
His inability to pay meant government-hired pathologists conducted the examinations.
 
The police’s preliminary investigation into the deaths had barely progressed when news broke that another staffer of the revenue department, George Fanbutu, had been killed in a car crash in the eastern suburbs of the capital.
 
Police said it was a normal road accident.But a Facebook post that went viral immediately after the incident quoted eyewitnesses as saying the man had been attacked with machetes by two menchasing him on a motorcycle.
 
Conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of the four men have been heightened by the government’s failure so far to release the outcome of autopsies done on the bodies.
 
Police spokesman Moses Carter said it was going to take two weeks to release the reports to the public.
 
But while a government statement announcing the autopsies had been completed and reports sent to the Minister of Justice, the findings have yet been made public as scheduled.
 
Information Minister Ledgerhood Julius Rennie was quoted by state radio on November 19 as saying officials were in the ‘concluding stage’ to release the much-anticipated autopsy reports.
 
There is public anger that the autopsy reports had not been released prior to families interring the remains of the dead.
 
The head of the Internal Auditing Agency and auditor Albert Peters’ bodies were buried on November 14.
 
The other bodies were interred by relatives.Last year, a senior analyst with the Central Bank of Liberia was found dead ahead of an investigation into government’s use or misuse of $25m withdrawn from the country’s national reserve.
 
A police investigation said the man, whose body was found next to his vehicle, had been killed in a hit-and-run.Investigation into how the $25m was actually spent has remained inclusive.Concerned Liberians have taken to the capital over the deaths.
 
On November 16, riot police were deployed at intersections and strategic places in Monrovia to prevent a protest by a pressure group called The Council of Patriots, angry about the government’s failure to release the autopsy reports.
 
Police authorities said the organisers had not been granted permit to gather in the streets. However, protesters argued that the constitution allows for free assembly of citizens to vent their frustration in a peaceful manner.
 
Security analysts believe the unexplained deaths could hamper Liberia’s chances of attracting foreign investments at a time when youth unemployment is at a historic high.
 
The mysterious deaths have also raised serious concerns among human rights’ groups about Liberia’s future.
 
‘It’s very unfortunate that after over 13 year of peace under a democratic government, Liberia is facing again a state of insecurity at this time,’ said Adama Dempster of the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.
 
‘The general security situation in the country is totally fragile.’
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