THE week could not have gotten off to a worse start for the African Union, as disturbing allegations of the sexual abuse of Somali women by some of its peacekeepers threatened to overshadow an important meeting called to map a regional response to the Ebola epidemic.
AU chiefs held an emergency meeting Monday to hammer out a continent-wide strategy to deal with the epidemic, which has killed over 2,000 people in West Africa.
“Fighting Ebola must be done in a manner that doesn’t fuel isolation or lead to the stigmatisation of victims, communities and countries,” said AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, speaking at the opening of the meeting.
Her comments came as reports of vigilante groups keeping tight vigil at border points in West Africa filtered through the weekend, while Sierra Leone footballers narrated their anguish at their nation’s isolation ahead of Africa Cup of Nations qualifying matches. (Read: Ebola: Footballers tell of Sierra Leone pariah status)
Dlamini-Zuma told the executive council of the 54-member body, meeting at the bloc’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, of the urgent need to “craft a united, comprehensive and collective African response” to the outbreak.
The meeting also aimed to discuss “the suspension of flights, and maritime and border closures,” according to an AU statement.
“We should ensure that Ebola does not spread to other countries by implementing effective procedures to deter, isolate and treat those who may be infected, and protect the rest of the population,” Dlamini-Zuma said.
“At the same time we must be careful not to introduce measures that may have more… social and economic impact than the disease itself.” (See: Getting real—why you should fear stray dogs more than Ebola)
A number of countries have banned flights from and to the hardest hit countries, even as the International Air Transport Association last month warned that stopping air services was contrary to the adoption of recommendations contained in its report on aviation market liberalisation.
Dlamini-Zuma also said that with border restrictions hampering trade, food prices are rising, she said.
The death toll from the Ebola epidemic—which is spreading across west Africa, with Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone the worst hit—has topped 2,000, of nearly 4,000 people who have been infected, according to the World Health Organisation.
Weak health systems
The crisis has highlighted the “weakness of public health systems”, Dlamini-Zuma said, noting “severe shortage” of health workers, and mourning the tragedy of so many who have contracted Ebola while supporting others.
It has also has stirred a fierce debate about how the world should have responded after first reports trickled out from some of the world’s poorest countries with dilapidated medical infrastructure.
“Women bear the brunt of this disease, as they are the one who care for the sick, for children and family members and who prepare bodies for burial,” Dlamini-Zuma said.
“We must face this challenge with determination.”
As the AU fine-tuned its response plan, pressure group Human Rights Watch released a report of abuses by its peacekeeping troops that will have made for uncomfortable reading for most of the gathered leaders.
The report, The Power These Men Have Over Us, documents cases of sexual abuse by African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) soldiers, specifically Ugandan and Burundian troops, against displaced Somali women and children. It contains harrowing accounts of these women being raped, coerced or exploited by the soldiers because of their vulnerable positions.
Amisom troops were sent into Somalia as a peacekeeping force with the approval of the United Nations (UN). They are tasked with assisting and training Somalia’s Federal Government soldiers and, among other roles, creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
These allegations would therefore severely undermine their work as the AU troops are expected to act as a model to Somali soldiers. With the report alleging that the soldiers used a range of tactics to coerce Somali women and girls into sexual activity including humanitarian aid, there were also concerns they could not be relied on to effectively deliver aid.
The African Union was yet to react to the allegations in the report.
The developments come amid a host of positive developments around Ebola, the biggest challenge for integration efforts in Africa, with scientists saying that vaccinated monkeys have developed “long-term” immunity to the Ebola virus, raising a prospect of successful human trials. (See: Thank god for Ebola, Africa is finally doing the right thing)
The WHO says it is optimistic that if these are successful, the drug could be deployed in West Africa by November.
The international fight against the virus has also roped in the US army, with President Barack Obama saying that the country’s military assets would be used to set up isolation units and equipment and provide security for international health workers.
The scale of the crisis was also brought into sharp focus by the possibility that UN special envoy Karin Landgren, who is Tuesday scheduled to outline to the Security Council on the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia which expired last month, might instead report on the Ebola crisis instead.
With the heightened international focus on heading off Ebola, the African Union will hope that the alarming allegations by HRW are handled in a satisfactory and timely and that the bloc can get back to spearheading the continental response to Ebola, which is posing a major threat to regional growth.