In Fragile Sierra Leone, Peace Could Be Next Ebola Victim

A round of applause for Ebola survivor, Sewa Mansaray, at the Kerry Town treatment center. Freetown, Sierra Leone, January 14, 2015. (James Fulker/DFID)

Sierra Leone has suffered an unfortunate recurrence of the Ebola outbreak early this year, with two confirmed cases just days after the World Health Organization officially declared West Africa free of the virus. While authorities will again be occupied with eradication, another lingering problem requires attention: Continued marginalization of those who have survived the epidemic threatens the stability of some communities, many of which remain fragile after a decade of civil war ending in 2002.

Nearly 4,000 people have died from Ebola in Sierra Leone since the start of the outbreak in May 2014, while about as many have survived contracting the virus. As I discovered during a visit to the country this month, stigmatization and societal rejection often add to the joint ache, impaired vision, and extreme fatigue that are common after-effects of the disease.

These personal accounts confirmed findings from a study from nearby Guinea, in which 97% of survivors reported being rejected by former friends, and 60% a lack of acceptance from former communities. Sierra Leone authorities have seemingly encouraged this practice, with widespread public information urging citizens to avoid physical contact and alert authorities to those suspected of infection.

The reemergence of the virus shows that such caution is necessary, particularly in areas near the Liberian border such as Kailahun and Kenema, where most people lost their lives. There is, however, a stark contrast between the advice on avoiding infected persons and the limited public information provided on how citizens should adapt to the post-Ebola situation. Particularly outside the capital Freetown, updated advice on how to relate to survivors is rarely encountered.

Even as survivors are issued official certificates to prove they can no longer transmit the disease, many are met with fear and mistrust when returning to their homes, jobs, and communities. Likely exacerbating the problem is the way that restrictions on bodily contact, as well as traditional practices around caring for the sick, funeral rituals, participation in secret societies, and public gatherings have challenged traditional national values such as trust, openness to strangers, and hospitality.

The aftermath of the Ebola outbreak exposed the fragile state of social cohesion in many communities and has triggered several cases of conflict and violence. Pel Koroma, National Director of Play 31, an NGO that facilitates mediation and reconciliation in rural communities, told me that some survivors were accused of having introduced the virus to their communities, or even of practicing witchcraft. Some have struggled to find work or been blocked from practices such as using water pumps or visiting markets, because their money is thought to be infected. Others still have returned to their communities to find that neighbors have destroyed their belongings or even blocked them from their homes. Meanwhile, some have tried to blend into new communities, only to be forcibly removed when their identities were revealed.

The situation threatens to create wider instability, particularly if new cases of Ebola continue to be reported. This would be particularly disappointing in the context of the gains made during the decade following the civil war. When the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) left Sierra Leone in March 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared it one of the world’s most successful stories of peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery (Sierra Leone remains on the PBC’s agenda).

Despite this, large parts of the population are still traumatized by the war and its aftermath, and even small disputes can quickly turn violent. Koroma and other civil society members have also identified growing discontent with the country’s extensive unemployment, poverty, and corruption, which is eroding patience with the government and its handling of the post-conflict recovery process.

Relations between civil society and the government have dramatically soured as the attention and presence of the international community has diminished. A particular sticking point is the ongoing constitutional reform process, which is being used to pave the way for President Ernest Bai Koroma to run for a third term at elections in 2017. Third-term movements in fragile post-conflict countries such as Burundi have led to widespread violence in recent years. Interestingly enough, the fact that the Ebola outbreak interrupted the president’s supposedly strong performance has been cited as one of the motivations for supporters of another term.

The UN Development Program has recognized that the reintegration of Ebola survivors poses an imminent challenge to maintaining the country’s hard-won progress toward stability. Responding to this threat, the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in Sierra Leone has expanded its peace and mediation work to also include Ebola-related conflicts. However, its ability to create meaningful change has suffered since the departure of the Peacebuilding Commission, because it now reports solely to the national government, which has limited capacity to respond to its warnings.

“Relapse into conflict is not at all an unlikely scenario,” WANEP National Coordinator for Sierra Leone Edward Djombla told me. “Trust in the communities is still a big issue after the war, and renewed suspicion and fear could easily lead to public disorder and conflict.

“We see so many warning signs, and on top of it all comes the constitutional review process. If the president pushes through with a third term, there surely will be unrest.”

Sharing this concern about the cumulative effect that another social trauma could have on an already distressed population, Pel Koroma called for a new national reconciliation commission. This would be modeled on the body that addressed issues of mistrust and fear in the population at the national level after the civil war.

The proposal would go some way toward restoring the lost trust between the government and communities in the wake of the Ebola crisis. However, it is unlikely that the government in Freetown, which is hard-pressed to respond to the medical and economic consequences of the epidemic, will agree.

Minna Højland is United Nations Liaison Officer for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.