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Ebola could be the Spark for new violence in Post-Conflict West Africa

Ebola could be the Spark for new violence in Post-Conflict West Africa

November 12, 2014, by Babar Turay


Sierra Leone has very high unemployment figures, particularly amongst youth. The World Bank estimates that around 60% of the country’s youth are unemployed, the highest rate in sub-Saharan West Africa.[1]

After the civil war, commercial motor bike riding became the key alternative to mining by youths in Kono. However, the atmosphere of fear and siege currently created by the ebola epidemic has left most of these youths idle for a greater part of their days. This has created discontent amongst them, which is further fuelled by the persistent rumours of the misuse and mismanagement of funds intended to support poorer communities in the ebola crisis, including the donations made by the international community, by top government officials.

Youths are unhappy about the manner in which the crisis is handled by the government and cite the examples of the 62 million Leones (approx. 14,000 USD) that were said to have been given to each Parliamentarian last month for the fight against the disease in their constituencies and the over 40 billions of Leones (approx. 9 million USD) that the government claims to have spent already on the crisis, which in their eyes have had very little positive impact on the ground.

The state of emergency enforced by the government is another source for concern and agitation amongst youth. A commercial bike rider asked me recently: ‘If the disease is not brought under control after 90 days of the president’s state of emergency, what happens? Are we going to have it extended? Will this not be the longest state of emergency ever in Sierra Leone, which in my view is against the constitution? We will prefer some people are killed by ebola than all of us to die in our homes due to hunger.’

Adding to this situation is the fact that diamond production in the artisanal sector, which used to be the lifeline for the local economy in Kono, has dwindled a lot recently. This has caused many women, especially the wives of miners and diggers to turn to Micro Finance Institutions to support their petty trades, through which they used to support their household economically. However, the downturn of artisanal diamond production and the economic toll this has taken on businesses and all other economic and social activities in the district has left most of these women without the means to pay back their credits and loans. Furthermore, the ebola crisis has caused the local markets to be virtually empty, as most people are forced to be restricted to their homes. Most market women who have braved to go to the markets said that they now don’t even make a quarter of the sales they used to make. They told me that they are ready to face court action if they cannot make the sales to pay back their debts.

After the civil war people’s view was generally that Sierra Leoneans will no longer allow violence as a means of resolving conflicts, due to the indelible scars that the war left on especially the diamond rich district of Kono. Most Sierra Leoneans -- including me -- were convinced that people will now seek less violent means to resolve conflicts. However, today the ebola crisis has rekindled the tendency for violence, and unfortunately this is again connected to poor allocation of resources and bad governance.

This is particularly the case for Kono, as historically the people of Kono have felt marginalized in the allocation of national revenue by successive governments, whilst other parts of the country have been developed. Even though Kono is host to the most productive diamond mines in the country, including the OCTEA mines (initially Koidu Holdings) which is the main source of national revenue to date, public infrastructure such as the road leading to Koidu City is among the worst in the country. This, combined with the heavy economic burden placed on the population and other socio-cultural issues in Kono, are a potential recipe for chaos. A reminder of how easily civil unrest can be sparked in the District, especially during a crisis, are the two civil strikes at the Koidu Holding Kimberlite Mines in 2007 and 2013, which were caused by poor working conditions and government’s insensitivity to the plight of the poor populace around the mines, and left many civilians wounded or even dead.

More recently, the ebola crisis has caused similar outbreaks of unrest and violence. On the 21st October 2014, a violent demonstration involving angry and hungry youths in the township of the city of Koidu was sparked due to a political leader’s auxiliary’s refusal to have his sick mother be taken to the isolation centre for a suspected case of ebola. Youths took to the street chanting that the ebola situation has been blown out of proportion by the authorities and that they were tired of it. The situation escalated, live guns were shot by the police and military, and some youths answered by throwing stones and using live fire arms, which subsequently led to the death of two innocent passers-by on a motor bike. Shops and all businesses were closed for two days and a curfew was declared in the township to bring the situation under control. Some of the suspects are still on the run and two of them were declared ‘wanted’ with the sum of five million Leones (approx. 1,125 USD[2]) prize money promised to anyone who may give information leading to their arrest.

The multitude of youths that stormed the streets of Koidu on this 21st of October within a short time and the violent nature of the riot was a clear demonstration of youths’ resentment of the present situation. The question then is: How much longer will people be able to cope if no immediate steps are taken to prevent a descent into violence?

Especially in Kono, diamonds had a lot to do with the untold damage to human lives and property during the rebel war between 1991 and 2002. The ebola crisis, however, may not be burning houses and ambushing vehicles, but its effect on homes and communities and every aspect of society is nevertheless clearly visible in the lives of the people. It remains a great a cause for concern and a potential trigger for violence, as was sung by the late king of reggae, Bob Marley: “A Hungry Man is an Angry Man”.

[2] This is almost 1.5 times the GDP per capita in Sierra Leone (which was approx. 810 USD in 2013)

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