By Chima J. Korieh
Associate Professor Chima Korieh reminds us of the challenges, misconceptions, and successes related to recent events in his native country. Chima’s latest book is “Life Not Worth Living”: Nigerian Petitions Reflecting an African Society’s Experiences during World War II (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2014).
I was in Nigeria over the summer to explore the archives for my book on Africans and the Second World War. The period coincided with the outbreak of Ebola virus in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city of about 13 million people. Mr. Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American and the first Ebola case in Nigeria, had flown into Lagos from Liberia. Sawyer was already symptomatic when he arrived in Lagos on July 20. The case in Lagos brought widespread panic in the country, but the government took immediate steps to contain the spread. This included large-scale mobilization of human and material resources, the immediate isolation and monitoring of those who came in contact with Mr. Sawyer, and aggressive public enlightenment.
Nigeria is a very good example of what could be achieved with domestic expertise and capacities. It was a Nigerian female medical doctor, Dr Ameyo Adadevoh, who insisted on isolating the country’s first Ebola patient when she correctly suspected that he may have been infected by the virus. Her action saved many lives. The federal, state and local officials took the necessary steps that effectively limited the spread of the disease to other parts of the country.
The Nigerian experience has shown the capacity of an African country with resources to deal effectively with such health challenges as the outbreak of Ebola. Unlike Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are still recovering from long periods of civil war and where the basic infrastructure is woefully inadequate, Nigeria is in a better position to deal with such crisis. When The World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free after forty-two days of no new reported cases, only eight of twenty reported cases had died. Nigeria was very proactive when the first case was confirmed. An effective community approach using communication technology such as text messaging helped Nigeria officials to continuously keep track of every single person who had come in contact with Sawyer from the flights he boarded to the Lagos airport and his movement in Lagos after he arrived. This process known as contact tracing was dome quickly, efficiently until the last case was resolved.
However, there are conclusions that can be drawn from the outbreak of this virus. One is a new emerging discourse on Africans, survival, and disease. The other is the premium placed on foreign expertise. As a result of the outbreak of Ebola, what Nigerian writer Teju Cole characterized as the “white saviour industrial complex” or a “pathology of white privilege” in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, has reemerged. One needed to listen to a Texan government official’s remark when the first Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States. He assured the American public that the health department was in a better position to deal the outbreak because “this is not West Africa.” He basically framed African societies as backward “infantile objects” incapable of dealing with such outbreak. Additionally, the external interventionist paradigm, which has often defined Western approach to aid also came in to play. Western medical doctors who have gone to treat Ebola patients in the worst hit areas are hailed as heroes. As the Liberian author Robtel Pailey noted, “We’ve been assailed with images of mostly white foreigners flown out of the Ebola ‘hot zone”’ with the promise of expert care abroad. As spokespersons for the thousands “left behind,” they are the ones who have made the headlines. Such perspectives have ignored what she rightly called “domestic capabilities,” or what ordinary men, women, and children are doing to help their communities.
Other issues of concern are the “anachronistic” image of Africa that still prevails, as well ignorance about where the disease exists. The worst outbreak of Ebola is in the western African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Still, the media has characterized this disease as ravaging the entire West African region—a region made up of 16 countries. It is worrisome that even the mainstream Western media characterizes this enormous region as a country—a single region. As a result every person from West Africa and indeed Africans is suspect. People have deliberately avoided anyone who has travelled to Africa even if one has never been in an area infested with the virus. Indeed, The Washington Post recently wrote that “Despite clear geographical limits to the Ebola outbreak, many Americans seem confused. How else could you explain the recent Ebola scare that kept two children who had moved from Rwanda to New Jersey from attending school, despite the fact the East African country is Ebola-free. . . . Or the resignation of a teacher in Kentucky due to a backlash to her traveling to Kenya?”
Of course, Nigeria has been in the news for other reasons, including the ongoing Islamist insurgency led by Boko Haram. Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lid Da’awati Wal-Jihad) has been fighting to create an Islamic state. Founded in the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, in 2002, Boko Haram has carried out several bloody bombings in Nigeria since 2009, including the Christmas Day attack in 2011 at a Catholic church that killed dozens of worshipers and the bombing of UN Headquarters in Abuja in August 2011 and of the police headquarter in Abuja in June of that year. Nigerians also witnessed coordinated attacks in the northern city of Kano in January 2012 that targeted the country’s security apparatus and civilians, killing 185 people. More than 1,000 people were killed last year in attacks blamed on the group across the country including a school bombing that killed at least forty-six students in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Potiskum on November 10, 2014.
However, the horrific abduction of 230 schoolgirls by Boko Haram April 16 this year has once again brought the dangers posed by the groups to Nigeria and the West African regions. It has also resulted in a world-wide condemnation of the group and the emergence of a movement known as “#bring back our girls.”
While these attacks pose a serious challenged to Nigeria’s security and economic development, there are growing concerns about the failure of the international community to recognize the serious danger that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, West Africa’s regional stability, and the global attempt to fight terrorism. This is not obviously a Nigerian problem alone. The world, especially the West has to pay attention. The rest of the world needs to learn to cooperate just at the jihadist groups have historically done in pursuing their common interest and ideology. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is united with other fundamentalist groups in their disdain for Christianity and Western influences. These groups are united in their goal across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The rest of the world needs to approach the issue from a collaborative and cooperative strategic position.
Overall, the potential for greatness in Nigeria is enormous. Nigeria has emerged from decades of military rule and is today a thriving democracy. The country is the largest economy in Africa and the economy is worth $510 billion. The country is attracting direct foreign investment more than any other country in Africa despite all odds. The current success witnessed in Nigeria is a reminder that African countries have the potential for growth despite the current handicaps.