By Bai M. Gbala, Sr.
Recent press report (New Democrat & FrontPageAfrica, April 7, 2014, respectively) that Mr. Benoni Urey, a prominent citizen and presidential hopeful, said that “at at a time when the Ebola virus was (or is) taking away the . . . lives of Liberians, President Johnson-Sirleaf has chosen to board a plane for overseas in the name of seeking development assistance for Liberia. What are the benefits to the country (Liberia) of the President’s travelling spree? She (the President) needs to spend some time here at home and focus on the matters that confront the country and people, rather than trotting around the world”.
The response to this statement was as swift and vicious as it was venomous (FrontPageAfrica, April 7, 2014). From the Minister of Internal Affairs, who has been “Acting President” while the President was out of the country, came this retort, “Ebola is not a political issue; do not politicize it”.
Meanwhile, the Press Secretary to the President charged that “we have followed the lots of loose comments, made by Mr. Benoni Urey, that reflect a serious governance and political ineptitude on the part of a political nobody who has allowed his quest for the presidency to render him mischievous and disingenuous”.
Topping this response was the statement by the President (New Democrat, April 7, 2014) issued from Rome, Italy, that “My trip to Europe was planned well before the Ebola situation . . . Before I left (Liberia), I had proper consultations with the Minister of Health . . . we felt that it was under control. Since I left the country I have been briefed everyday by the Minister of Health . . . I received information through the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs . . . and through the US Embassy whom we have contacted to send representatives from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). We believe that while it is a concern, there is no need for panic. ‘This is not a thing for politicians’”.
What is politics?
The word politics comes from the Greek word politika - "affairs of the cities", a dissertation on governing and governments, and became "politics" in Middle English - meaning, among others, "of, for, or relating to citizens (the people), civil, civic, belonging to the state”. Thus, “Politics”, in our day and according to the Oxford, English Dictionary, “is the art (and science) of government; of public life and (public) affairs”; and of activities concerned with seeking and using political power to attend to and resolve group dynamics - the problems for the well-being of the people – socio-economic and, of course, political.
The Ebola epidemic is a serious, emergency problem affecting the well-being of the nation and people; therefore, Ebola is politics, naturally politicized.
Now, the leader or president of a nation is a political animal in whom the hopes, beliefs, dreams and fears of the people are placed, and as such, he/she is an individual who, so to speak, personifies the Liberian, national personality that may be likened to the “African Personality” of the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. This is a political perception that is stronger than reality. The Liberian people want their president to be on the scene, in Liberia, to take charge during this life-threatening emergency of the Ebola virus, in order to allay their fears of the epidemic.
In our view, it is in this context that the statement by Mr. Benoni Urey, though a presidential contender, must be seen and considered. Moreover, the President’s statement from Europe was not only a PR disaster, but also raises crucial questions about the locus of presidential, political/economic advisory service. It would have been a positive rendering for the citizens to learn from the print and electronic media that their President cancelled an important, prior, foreign engagement in order to take personal charge of the Ebola emergency. Furthermore, the Minister of Internal Affairs is not elected president of the nation, while the Minister of State was only a second-hand conduit through whom briefings from the Health Minister were transmitted, and that the US ambassador is, by duty, bound to seek the vital interests of the United States of America.
National Disasters and Emergencies
Disasters and Emergencies are as political as any other public issue with impact on the citizens. Case in point was the fall-out from the October 29, 2005 Katrina Hurricane that struck and devastated the historic city of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Many analysts/observers of the US elections argue that President George Bush lost to a relatively unknown, young, African-American politician (a “political nobody”) because of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.
President Bush was criticized for appointing Michael D. Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Not only that Mr. Brown was found to be without disaster relief experience, but also that he had even been fired from his position upon closer scrutiny prompted by FEMA's coordination efforts with local officials before Hurricane Katrina.
Therefore, Ebola or any other national emergency with life-threatening, deadly impact is naturally-politicized.