We would be guilty as hell as a nation and the world if we let the Ebola virus continue to consume thousands of lives in the African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leon and Guinea, just as the 1994 Rwandan genocide claimed 900,000 lives in the face of an international community that played spectator to a genocide signaling that the lives of those in Rwanda did not matter enough to warrant the kind of intervention that would have halted the genocide.
What we got out of the Rwandan genocide, sadly and regrettably, was a President Bill Clinton, under whose watch the genocide took place, apologizing profusely as he was exiting office that he dropped the ball on Rwanda. The 1994 Rwandan genocide entered record history as one of the greatest crimes ever against humanity and it happened before the eyes of powerful world leaders with the resources to do something about it but they did not. They failed to act.
Almost 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, another Rwanda-like moment, this time a medical catastrophe, is knocking on our doors with the Ebola virus which has already taken hundreds of lives away and is bound to take as many as 20,000 lives if the United States and the international community does not take the necessary and immediate scientific and relief measures to halt what is clearly becoming a medical genocide.
“We are completely amazed by the lack of willingness and professionalism and coordination to tackle this epidemic,” Brice de le Vingne, the operations director of Doctors Without Borders, told the Financial Times. “We have been screaming for months. Now the situation is even worse. We are today on the verge of seeing an entire country collapsing.”
Clearly, the global response to the deadly virus has been almost non-existent and it appeared as if the world was babysitting the Ebola epidemic until it became obvious that the virus is here to stay only if it is not tackled.
President Obama, who has rightly and boldly dispatched 3,000 troops to Liberia to help curtail the spread of the virus, admitted in his speech at the just-ended United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York that the global response to the Ebola virus has been slow.
“But I want us to be clear,” Obama told world leaders at the UN. “We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough. There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be.”
More needs to be done to arrest Ebola. The fact that we now see traces of the virus here, as evidenced in the Dallas case with Eric Duncan, the man who boarded a plane from Liberia to the U.S. a couple of days ago and tested positive, shows that we can’t ignore the virus as just something bad taking place on another continent.
The United States has always taken the lead in matters of global crisis, though sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons. This time around President Obama has acted swiftly to the emerging Ebola nightmare by sending thousands of troops, including engineers and medical practitioners, to set up clinics in Liberia.
Speaking from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the nation’s first Black president said of the Ebola outbreak, “The reality is that this epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better. But, right now, the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives. Right now, the world has the responsibility to act, to step up and to do more. The United States of America intends to do more.”
It appears that Obama is determined that the U.S. doesn’t drop the ball on the Ebola crisis, just as it failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide. Because history will assess how the nation’s first Black president, who is a generation away from Africa, on humanitarian grounds, responded to a crisis that has significantly hit the nation of Liberia, which was founded by freed African American slaves who went to Liberia to establish it as a republic. In fact, the first president of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was an African American born free from Norfolk, Virginia who migrated to the West African nation and got involved in politics there. He would later twice be elected head of state.
There is a long and deep tie between the United States and Liberia, which underscores the kind of response those in Liberia expect of President Obama beyond just on the basis of humanitarian grounds. Liberia’s political and cultural framework in many ways has long been patterned after that of the United States. It’s capital, Monrovia, for instance, was named after former U.S. President James Monroe. From its currency to the flag epitomizing its national pride, all bear striking similarities with those of the U.S.
That is why Rev. Charles Boayue, senior pastor of Second Grace United Methodist Church in Detroit, aptly described Liberia as “America’s experiment in Africa,” and that experiment has been the lens through which many observers have looked at the history of the nations and how their relationships have evolved even and after it recovered from a decade-long civil war. During the Cold War, Liberia was basically the satellite station for the U.S. and perhaps its strongest ally in West Africa, rebuffing those African nations that did not approve of such a relationship.
Because Liberia has gone to bat for the U.S. in the past, it is important to see the current response to the Ebola crisis in that context. We have a moral and political obligation to help a nation that has seen hardship, neglect and desolation numerous times in its history. We have a responsibility to demonstrate that a nation such as Liberia, the cradle of the African American experience in Africa, should not stand alone to fight Ebola.
And if the United States is to do more, it should heed to the solemn words of one vocal religious leader, the late Archbishop Michael Francis, the former leader of the Catholic Church in Monrovia, who during a visit to Washington, D.C. in 2003 at the Kennedy Center reminded the U.S. that it should not only act on the basis of strategic interests, but under the guidance of a moral and righteous duty to help all human beings wherever they are. I was in Washington, D.C. for a few months at the time participating in a program that helps journalists better understand post-conflict reconstruction processes in Third World nations.
In fact, I had just finished moderating a panel at the Brookings Institute, and I recall rushing to the Robert F. Kennedy Center to hear Archbishop Francis’ well-attended speech where he addressed leaders and advocates in the foreign policy circle in Washington about the need for the U.S. to help stop the war in Liberia. He was stern on the notion that the U.S. should only act based on strategic interests.
The cries of Archbishop Francis, recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1999, reminded me at the time of the international crusades that Archbishop Desmond Tutu led in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, becoming the preeminent moral voice of the anti-apartheid movement. If he were alive, Francis would be personally appealing to Obama to expand the U.S. intervention in the Ebola epidemic and at the same time the Archbishop would be shaming other powerful nations in the international community to follow the example of the U.S. efforts to tackle Ebola.
And the battle against Ebola should not only be waged in Liberia, but also Sierra Leone, another nation that was populated by freed Black slaves from America who went through Nova Scotia to get to Sierra Leone and founded a permanent settlement there called Freetown, which would later become the capital of that nation. The nation of Guinea, known to many as Guinea Conakry, a former French colony, should not be ignored either as Ebola has taken a toll on the lives of its people. Guinea’s struggle to become economically and politically independent bears many similarities with the Civil Rights Movement here.
In fact, Guinea’s sensibility to the African American struggle is reflected in the later years of Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who started to give meaning to the term “Black power” on the campus of Howard University. Carmichael later left the U.S. to settle and retire in Guinea where he died in 1998.
So the U.S. has many linkages with the triangular nations affected by Ebola.
Because of this history that informs our understanding of the nations affected by this deadly disease that has come to our shores by way of Dallas, all is not lost in the war against Ebola.
In Detroit, a city historically known for its generosity when its comes to relief efforts, and home to the World Medical Relief group and the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, there are committed and concerned individuals who are doing all within their power to help those who are thousands of miles away.
One of those is Rev. Boayue, the Methodist minister, who in the longstanding tradition of the church as a beacon of hope, has teamed up with the World Medical Relief organization headed by Dr. George Samson and donated much needed medical supplies, including equipment worth $567,000 to the Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Liberia to help fight the virus. The 40-foot container is expected to arrive in Monrovia this week.
Boayue told me the effort is in collaboration with the Ganta United Methodist Mission School Alumni Association in the U.S.
Another effort over the weekend, a “Walk to Stop Ebola,” held on the RiverWalk, was led by the John and Minnie Wulu Foundation, headed by Detroiter Francois DeMonique which encouraged people to send donations to the Liberian Embassy in Washington.
When I asked Boayue what needs to be done now, his only response was to ask Detroit to pray for Liberia and the other affected nations because they are seeing too many suffering.
We all can make a difference and stop the virus that is committing a carnage. We must not let this be another Rwanda because the culprit is easy to find this time around. It’s called Ebola.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of a forthcoming book on Detroit. His most recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a senior political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.
REV. DR. CHARLES BOAYUE, senior pastor of Second Grace United Methodist Church, on Sunday, Oct. 5, implored his congregation, some of whom are from Liberia, not to be discouraged but to continue to pray for Liberia and help in whatever way they can. Boayue has been relentlessly galvanizing support in metro Detroit to provide medical supplies to Liberia, one of the West African nations stricken by the killer Ebola virus. – Andre Smith photos