‘Time for Africa to pull together’
“My mother never laughed at my dream OFINSIDER Africa, even though everyone else did because we didn’t have any money, because Africa was the ‘dark continent’, and because I was a girl.” Jane Goodall
WHEN the devastating Ebola virus broke out in Guinea in 2013, it did not only spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia; it also threatened the world.
By the time the outbreak ended in 2016, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, had lost more than 11 000 people and $2.8 billion in GDP, according to the World Bank.
Cases were reported in Nigeria, in several other African countries and in countries as far as the US and in Europe.
At the time, I was the president of Sierra Leone and had the difficult task of dealing with an extremely infectious disease unknown to us and many across the world.
The situation in all sectors was as grim as it could get.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) was at pains to grasp the unfolding calamity. Within a year, Ebola threatened the peace and security of the three most affected countries, and devastated their economies. Sierra Leone, which experienced a 15% economic growth in 2014, and once reckoned as the fastest-growing economy in Africa, slumped to -21%.
No doubt, according to the abundant literature and evidence, the challenges impacting us are generally global and more complex and persistent.
From climate change to human trafficking, to disorderly migration, religious and political extremism, the rogue application of information and communication technologies, to the outbreak of zoonotic diseases like Ebola and the coronavirus; it has become evident that distance and boundaries no longer serve as a sufficient restraint.
We are bound together, not only by geography but also by common challenges and shared interests and aspirations. This interconnectedness requires us, in this global village, to pull together for the peace, prosperity and the security of our world.
African militaries could play a substantial role in health emergency response, infrastructural development
and other civilian development initiatives.
In the fight against the deadly Ebola virus, collectively, several response mechanisms at local and international level were activated. One was the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (Unmeer), established through the UN General Assembly Resolution 69/1, and the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2177 (2014).
The mission rallied the world, under the auspices of WHO, to mobilise and deploy financial, logistical and human resources to help Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone attain zero cases. This support strategically included the use of the military in creating air bridges to facilitate the airlifting of protective clothing, medicine and other emergency supplies.
At local level, the military was even more central to the response. I am a witness to how effective they can be when challenged to provide constructive and supportive roles in times of need.
Whether in enforcing quarantine, or in building holding and treatment centres; or in the delivery of much-needed food, water and other basic services; the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) rose to the challenge of combating and defeating Ebola. In fact, the RSLAF exceeded expectations in that the treatment centres they were managing achieved more than 65% recoveries, far more than all other treatment centres.
This provided an indication that with the right leadership and vision, the military can constructively
support the transformation of societies.
In April 2019, in Portugal, I endorsed the initiative for an African Peace Engineering Corps (AFPEC). My vision is to carve out a new strategic role for African militaries in peacetime.
There are several reasons that support this proposition. Many countries are at peace most of the time and in most of those countries, the military has more capacity than other government departments in terms of equipment, technical capabilities and trained personnel. As such, it makes good economic sense to tap into the tremendous expertise lying underutilised within the rank and file of the military.
After all, they are being paid from their national treasuries and in many countries, have large budgetary allocations. It follows that through appropriate leadership and training, African militaries could play a substantial role in health emergency response, infrastructural development and other civilian development initiatives.
The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the perspective. From far away China, and again, within just a year, the pandemic has resulted in millions of lives lost, economies shattered, global peace and security threatened. In the same breath,
Covid-19 has once more showed the world how the military can be essential in ways other than their traditional functions.
In countries such as the US and Germany, the army continue to play a critical role in establishing holding and treatment centres, enforcing lockdowns, delivering emergency supplies and, crucially, rolling out vaccines.
As we have seen during the Ebola outbreak, and now in Western countries during the pandemic, the operationalisation of an African “Peace Engineering Corps” would therefore be of immense value in dealing with health emergencies like Covid-19.
The military have the manpower, the technical expertise and discipline to quickly move in, build holding and treatment centres and support the deployment of vaccines.
Using their medics – nurses, lab technicians and doctors – they can also be invaluable in the surveillance and management of the pandemic. Such interface between the military and communities will further help to build mutual trust and better civil – military relations.
Such arrangements should, however, be aligned with and inspired by the African Peace and Security Architecture and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This way, Western militaries could partner with their African counterparts in tailoring security missions and, in the process, develop AFPEC’S capabilities.
The AU should take ownership in harnessing the logistical, technical, and administrative capabilities of its military in support of the continent’s wider aspirations for environmental remediation, civil infrastructure expansion, natural disaster response services and more so, health emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic.