Ebola and the Ex-Combatant Community

The current outbreak of Ebola in the West African region is likely to have repercussions on many levels after the epidemic is over. The burdens of war still rest heavily on Liberia, and indeed on many other countries in the region. The region has only recently emerged from the shadows of war and embarked on the road to recovery. It is unmistakably true that the epidemic has hit countries that needed a break. Food shortage, broken economic networks, physical confrontations with law enforcement as quarantines are established, and experiences of disparities in mobility are only some of the impacts heard so far.

At the time of writing, the number of cases (infected and dead) pinpoint Liberia as the country most affected. Having conducted two post-war elections, Liberia has made democratic progress, even if concerns are raised concerning both corruption and the stewardship of the current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. My own research has over the past years dealt with the political engagement among former combatants in Liberia, and this piece considers the potential fallouts of the epidemic in relation to them. The ex-combatants are not a uniform political force, although most are politically concerned and mobilized.

This epidemic has held up a mirror to the Liberian state, and Liberians are confronted with new and enlarged truths about what the state is and can achieve. The ex-combatant community in particular is likely to be sensitive to this. These experiences will play right into the already-existing relationship ex-combatants’ have with the state and politics in Liberia, a relationship characterized by distrust, feelings of abandonment, frustration, and also longing. The ex-combatants have been at the crossroads of social and political tensions in Liberia in the past, and large-scale epidemics tend to underscore social tensions further. The differential impact of the Ebola epidemic is especially liable to intensify such tensions.

Ex-combatants have been concerned with and are sensitive to signals of marginalization. They express antagonism toward both the failure of the political system as a whole with respect to its unresponsiveness and toward the political elite for the failure to care enough for society (and ex-combatants). This underlying disappointment with the political system and its elite is likely to be fueled during this epidemic. Feelings of abandonment are likely to be heightened, and their distrust towards the system’s ability to care for its own is likely to escalate. As such, the Ebola epidemic will only exacerbate their understanding of Liberian society as hierarchical and their own position as peripheral.

At the same time, Liberia's political elites carry a lot of weight with the ex-combatant community, and the behavior and statements by them during this crisis will strongly influence how the ex-combatant community responds. At its best, it means that they can be role models and help shape a positive response among ex-combatants. Unfortunately, recent events seem instead to reinforce the image of a self-serving political elite. The President fired senior officials who failed to return to Liberia when asked to help handle the Ebola outbreak. The politicians who failed to return home to Liberia to help are unlikely to be forgotten. This event underlines the already existing sentiment among ex-combatants that some can chose when to belong to Liberia and for many in the elite Liberia is only one haven among others. Ex-combatants pleading to have politicians in the country all the time rather than just during elections are common. The unfolding of these events only reinforces this animosity.

Questions of who belongs to the political community and who is a rightful and righteous member of the Liberian state have long been central to the political discourse in Liberia and the unfolding of the war. While a malleable construct, these debates have also shaped ex-combatants’ construction of the political community. This epidemic may exacerbate these fault lines, and it is only in the aftermath that we will know how this played out. Who was given support? Were some communities able to pull together, or were ethnic divides used as shortcuts for providing care and excluding others?

The Ebola crisis will also reinforce the ex-combatants’ experience of the state as weak. Ex-combatants were already before the epidemic choosing some channels over others to have their voices heard, based on their evaluation of the efficacy of that particular channel. Sometime this meant non-representational channels such as NGOs or particular individuals with influence, effectively sidestepping representational channels because of their perceived inefficiency. It remains to be seen who is left standing after the crisis. What is clear is that the epidemic has demonstrated the limits of the state’s availability and the difficulties of including ordinary citizens in the management of the crisis. Interestingly, voicing dissent openly is often avoided among ex-combatants, as a way to care for and safeguard the integrity and well being of society. Yet this emergency may be the last straw, resulting in an open and explicit critique being voiced by ex-combatants and others. Ex-combatants are ready to make demands and express disappointment with politicians that do not deliver, perhaps to a greater extent than other elements of society.

Liberians’ and ex-combatants’ recourse to God, even in politics, is pronounced, as is the importance of affection and emotive logic in politics. Parental responsibility is a central lens through which politics is understood and enacted among ex-combatants. This way of relating to politics I term "politics of affection." Caring for your family and your sick is therefore an important political act in Liberia, one which the current Ebola crisis will only underline further. Are there any grounds for hope, or is this crisis going to destroy the political fabric of Liberia? The ex-combatant community is an important factor in Liberian politics and is often and easily mobilized politically (albeit in different ways). This epidemic could be the cause for a more engaged and persistent citizenry, causing ex-combatants and others to demand more from their government. In this way, the epidemic can contribute to a positive growth of the state and deepen citizens’ calls for accountability.

Cover image: Ben Solomon / New York Times