Like those in the rest of the world, Africans were slow to respond to the three countries on the continent struck by an Ebola outbreak. Only in recent weeks have a number of African nations, institutions, and philanthropists sent volunteers or money. Yet it is a special mark of progress that the 54-nation African Union has now sent a humanitarian mission – its first ever – to help end the epidemic.
As a regional body, the AU is closely watched as a measure of affection and consensus among Africa’s 1.1 billion people. Up to now, the regional body has mainly attempted to douse wars with peacekeepers, such as in Somalia, and to prop up democracy with sanctions and the shaming of dictators, with limited success. Humanitarian missions were largely left to the West.
Perhaps the Ebola crisis will push African leaders to create a stronger solidarity of purpose, much like that in Latin America and perhaps someday like the European Union. Despite a globalized world, neighborhoods still matter.
Criticism of the AU’s slow response to Ebola may have helped push it to react swiftly last week to an Army takeover in Burkina Faso. The AU gave the military a two-week deadline to hand power to a civilian ruler or face sanctions.
One weakness of the AU is that many African leaders are like the one in Burkina Faso who was forced to flee, leading to the Army takeover. President Blaise Compaoré had tried to extend his 27-year rule by altering the Constitution, only to trigger a popular uprising. Leaders in Uganda and Chad have “legally” extended their rule while those in Rwanda and Congo may follow suit. Africa needs better models of governance.
With the Ebola crisis, Africa may be forced to find the unity it needs for change. Nigeria, with all its wealth and skills, was able to quickly curb its Ebola outbreak, as did Senegal. And the AU’s chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said this to an international gathering last week: “A few months into this crisis, and based on the experience gained, we know much more and are confident that we must, that we can and that we will, defeat this disease.”