All Liberians should seriously ponder why Liberia with a population of only about 4 million should account for more than half of the Ebola deaths. Sierra Leone has a population of about 6 million and Guinea around 12 million. Why did a population of 4 million come to account for more than half of the Ebola deaths than a combined population of around 18 million in Guinea and Sierra Leone?
Let me start by citing the The Liberian Daily Observer editorial of September 17, 2014 http://www.liberianobserver.com/editorials/needed-think-tank-help-liberians-start-doing-things-differently-hence-forth: “When, by God's grace, we overcome this Ebola crisis, Liberia and Liberians will need to start doing everything differently…We need a THINK-TANK … to help us to chart a more constructive and brighter future for ourselves and our posterity”.
The asymmetrical and disproportionate impact of the Ebola on us than on Sierra Leone and Guinea should make us rethink our strategies: the things we should have done but didn't do and the things we should not have done but did.
Let us look at the way Ebola is spread. We are told that we should not be afraid of Ebola because it is not spread through the air but by contact with … bodily fluids like blood, sweat etc of an Ebola infected person. Well, Liberia is in the Tropics and it is a hot country. In addition, most people walk. When you walk in the heat in a hot country, you sweat a lot and most Liberians sweat and sweat is one of the major conduits of Ebola. Thus in a densely populated area, sweaty contacts are easy to come by. Just walk along streets in Monrovia and it will become apparent how easily sweaty contacts can be made.
Let us take a look at some density issues. Guinea occupying an area of about 95,000 square miles has a population of around 12 million. Metro Conakry has a population of about two million or about one-sixth of the population, or roughly 17% . Sierra Leone occupying an area of about 28,000 square miles has a population of around six million. Metro Freetown has a population of around 1.1 million or, again, around 18% of the population. Compare these to Liberia, occupying an area of around 43,000 square miles, with a population of roughly four million. Metro Monrovia has a population of around 1.3 million or about 32%. So, roughly one-third of the population of Liberia is in the Metro Monrovia area. We can see how dense the Monrovia environ is and, therefore, how easily the Ebola virus can spread.
Why did Liberia have more than half of the Ebola deaths? We should remind ourselves that we cannot excuse ourselves because of coups and wars. Both Sierra Leone and Guinea have had the same disruptive issues. Indeed the more gruesome things like lost limbs occurred more in Sierra Leone than in any other place. So we should really and seriously consider the reasons why we should account for more than half of all the deaths from the Ebola virus. Maybe it is the bad things we should not have done but have done and the good things we should have done but have left undone.
Let us take a look at some of these. Liberia cannot develop the way it wants to without a robust and effective devolution of powers and resources to the counties or regions. Dr. Sawyer knows how hard I have insisted on this, way back, even before the 1986 Constitution. We had worked on a pattern of devolution with, at that time, fewer counties. I still wish that, for purposes of development, we had fewer counties but we can not go there now because of political and delimitation issues. I was told, at that time, that the legal advisers of President Doe did not think that that is how a strong man governed and, to put it in colloquial terms, he should be able, and have the power, to appoint the lowest dog catcher in the smallest village. So it was not done. I have been adamant about this issue of devolution and I have come back to it time and time again, this time, recently, even suggesting a formula for revenue reallocation and enduring political structures for the counties. Some have argued that with devolution there will be too much corruption in the counties to which I counter by saying that even now there is a huge volume of corruption in “River City”; that the counties with their own resources can manage their development and even compete with one another; that the counties will be able to attract indigenous people and technically skilled people to increase the population and help the development. I am still insisting on a robust devolution because I am convinced that it will bring about excellent benefits to the Nation and spread the wealth of the country more evenly and more equitably.
One of the effects of devolution, I submit to you, is the even distribution of the population, easing the population pressure on Monrovia and its environs. I am always puzzled why most of the Ministries do not have full functioning branches in all the counties —Agriculture, Youth & Sports, Commerce, Finance, Information, Transport, Public Works, Labor, Gender, Posts & Telecom, Health and Human Services, etc and agencies like EPA, Forestry, GSA. Indeed, these regional or county branch offices can make effective local data collectors for the central government, thereby making it possible for the government to have more accurate and reliable national data. With a functioning devolution and regional or county branches of Central ministries, we will have these regions developing robustly and fast, while, at the same time, reducing the pressure on Monrovia and its environs. I am sure that Monrovia is not able now and will be far less able in the future to sustain the influx and growth of its population. It does not now and will not have the amenities nor the basic infrastructure to sustain a larger and growing population.
There is also another growth effect. As the counties have their own resources to develop, other businesses like banks, restaurants, barber shops, tailors and seamstresses and other shops will spring up thereby attracting more people and, again, reducing the pressure on Monrovia. Monrovia will not be the only center of government and population growth and that will be good for the entire Nation.
There is also an additional benefit that accrues from this. We may not know it or we may know it and look away, but as the “up country” pours into Monrovia, foreigners (you know who they are) pour in to fill the vacant spaces. There are now many towns in Liberia that have “plenty” of foreigners, good neither for our growth and development nor for loyalty to the Motherland. A robust devolution will help us solve some of these issues and problems. If more and more indigenous Liberians stayed behind “up country”, it will be more difficult for foreigners to invade and occupy our towns and villages.
One of the arguments when Ebola first showed its ugly head from Guinea into Liberia was that we could not close the border because of the food coming in from Guinea. We have a very fertile land, why have we so neglected our agriculture? Agriculture should be a major priority and with it and many road arteries to bring the food to the market we can have food sufficiency. There is, for example, a 1970 extensive study on the problems and prospects of rice production in Liberia that is still relevant today. If the recommendations were followed, we may be self-sufficient in rice production today and less reliant on imports. It is important to note here that the concentration of the population in the urban area has constrained governments to advocate and make policies that are urban-friendly and appease the urban dwellers to the detriment of the whole country. The importation of rice and its heavy subsidization has blunted the domestic rice production. No well-meaning farmer will make an input of, say, seven dollars in producing a hundred-pound bag of rice and sell it for six dollars while at the same time giving away, free, a couple of bags to politicians, soldiers, police officers and the like. Local farmers are not stupid. They are experienced and are economically savvy.
Why did all those who took the entrance examination to the University of Liberia fail? Why are more and more students taking the West Africa examinations failing? Why do we not have enough seats in schools even at the university? Why are there not enough, some times no, books for students? Why aren’t there enough qualified teachers in the schools? There is also an earlier study on teacher retention in Liberia done with Dr. Jabaru Carlon. We cannot continue to blame all our social, economic and development problems on the civil war. We are more than ten years from the war and more than eight years into a democratically elected government. As the editorial said, we need to start doing things differently. Maybe this ugly Ebola has come to open our eyes to the fact that we should figure out new and creatively novel ways of approaching and solving our problems. We need to ask ourselves very serious questions about the way forward.
Our health and road infrastructures need to be attended to urgently. I am not unaware of the flow directions of Liberian rivers, from north to south, and therefore the engineering difficulties in road and bridge construction. But I am told that this can be overcome by long north south roads and short east west roads. We need good roads all over the country and not just in the Monrovia area. The road system will facilitate agriculture, health delivery and even education. It will facilitate trade and communication.
As I see it, devolution will help us solve a lot of our problems and we will not be in a position where a catastrophe like Ebola will impact us far more than it impacted countries much larger than we are. Let us get our priorities straight. Let us provide the leadership to significantly curb, abate and reduce CORRUPTION (notice that I did not say ERADICATE because, for all practical reasons, that is an impossibility). Let us go out and resolve to make a better Liberia. Let us chart a new course and apply new ideas, even organize a THINK-TANK to help us chart new and novel territories. We have abundant resources. Let us use them wisely, prudently and equitably for the benefit of all Liberians.
Dr. Igolima T. D. Amachree is a professor of Sociology emeritus. He can be reached at [email protected]