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Liberia

In Liberia, The Good Faith And Bad Politics Of Ebola

Even as President Sirleaf is criticized by some, one opposition parliament member has decided to donate his own time and money to work directly with those affected by the outbreak.

President Sirleaf at the outbreak of the crisis accepts Chinese aid.
President Sirleaf at the outbreak of the crisis accepts Chinese aid.
Christophe Châtelot

MONROVIA — Legislator Saah Joseph is an exception. First of all, this 38-year-old opposition party member refuses to join the growing ranks of his political allies criticizing the way Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is confronting the deadly Ebola epidemic, which has hit this country hardest.

Second, this parliament member is on the ground every day fighting against the deadly virus at a time when several government ministers have simply fled the country to escape the epidemic that has already killed more than 2,400 Liberians.

"Ebola is a national issue, not a political one," says Joseph, who represents the 13th district of Montserrado (a county that includes the capital, Monrovia). He is a member of the Congress for Democratic Change, the opposition party founded by former soccer player and former presidential candidate George Weah.

Joseph has purchased three second-hand ambulances imported from the U.S. for Ebola patients to be driven to hospitals. That means he actually doubled the number of vehicles that health authorities in Monrovia had at their disposal. Before the crisis, he also created a free school for the poorest families and former child soldiers. "I did all that on my MP salary," he says. "The war had destroyed everything."

The last, gruesome chapter in this country's history in fact left Liberia torn apart in 2003. Moreover, critics say the foreign aid that came into the country since President Sirleaf was first elected in 2006 has been squandered.

Hassan Bility, West Africa regional director at the human rights organization Global Justice and Research Project, says: "There's no trace of it: not in health, nor in education or infrastructure."

Before Ebola

Most of the money now being pledged to help Liberia fight Ebola has not yet actually arrived in the country, but the defiance towards Sirleaf, 2011's Nobel Peace Prize winner, is growing, having begun well before the current Ebola outbreak. "It really started with her reelection in 2011," a foreign diplomat working in Monrovia says. "The level of corruption is ever-increasing. She's placing people close to her in the highest positions, including her son at the head of Liberia's National Security Agency."

Sirleaf is also accused of having waited until the end of July to react to the deadly epidemic that began months earlier, and of taking advantage of it to give herself more executive powers, which she did on Oct. 10.

"She wanted to limit freedom of movement, of speech and of reunion and asked to be able to requisition private properties without compensation," says Moses Acarous Gray, one of the most vocal opponents within the Congress for Democratic Change. "When our rulers have such powers, that's called dictatorship."

On a recent day, MP Joseph said he prefers not to talk politics, but rather focus on an anti-Ebola treatment center managed by the Health Ministry and the World Health Organization. The nurses in this 150-bed hospital, which was overcrowded as soon as it opened in mid-September, were threatening to go on strike if their monthly bonus wasn't raised to $700, from the less than $500 they get now on top of their $200 wages.

To ease their daily expenses, Joseph decides to make one of his buses available to transport them from their homes to this high-risk hospital. This comes on top of the vague promises the government has made about the bonuses. The strike is cancelled. "Everybody does what they can," he says. "But it's true that the people aren't very happy."

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