After a new Ebola case is discovered, no end in sight for Sierra Leone’s state of emergency

Gadi Momoh, a street trader in central Freetown. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

Gadi Momoh sits alone with her children among the abandoned kiosks lining what’s typically Freetown’s busiest market center. She’s noticeably tense, glancing up and down the empty street while briskly slicing the skin off an orange she plans to sell. She knows it’s illegal to conduct business on a Sunday while the state of emergency is still in place, but with three small mouths to feed, she doesn’t feel she has a choice.

“If I don’t sell today I won’t be able to buy tomorrow,” she says. “Police haven’t disturbed me for a long time, but if Ebola is back, I’m afraid of what could happen if they see me.”

She has reason to be nervous. A group of vendors were arrested on the other side of town just a few hours earlier for the same activity. It doesn’t matter that the most recent Ebola death occurred in a town more than 100 miles from Freetown, or that the city hasn’t recorded a positive case in more than six months. Every week petty traders are thrown in jail for violating the ban while police turn a blind eye to the upscale restaurants that continue to operate along the city’s western coastline.

The state of emergency's ban on Sunday trading leaves Freetown's busiest markets abandoned at the end of the week. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

The state of emergency’s ban on Sunday trading leaves Freetown’s
busiest markets abandoned at the end of the week. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

Initially seen as necessary in containing Ebola’s rapid expansion, Sierra Leone’s state of emergency was ratified in August 2014 for one year, granting President Ernest Bai Koroma the power to create and enforce any regulations he deems necessary to preserve peace and order during that period. It was given a one-year extension amid controversy in August 2015 despite a steep decline in cases, and now that Ebola has returned to Sierra Leone after a four-month hiatus, many groups worry the state of emergency could be here to stay.

“At one point we needed the state of emergency, especially for the first six months, but after that, once knowledge levels increased, once we got support from the national community and social mobilization intensified, there was no need for it,” said Ibrahim Tommy, director of the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law. “It had been rendered unnecessary for many months even before the end of transmission declaration. The fact that we still have it in force makes no sense to me.”

Proponents of the state of emergency say that it will continue to be necessary as long as Ebola exists in the country and that without it, Sierra Leone may not be able to respond properly should another outbreak get out of hand. But the WHO has repeatedly maintained that sporadic cases should to be expected, and with the virus now believed to stay in survivors’ systems for up to nine months, some experts are thinking the virus may never leave West Africa without the discovery of a cure.

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“If Ebola is always going to come back, how can we keep calling it an emergency?” asked Depo Turray, a motorbike taxi driver who runs a bar out of the entryway to his home in West Freetown. “We never had anything like this before in our country, but now we know how to behave. Why does the government need to take away everyone’s rights to do its job in one place? I don’t know the answer.”

Depot Kargbo rests on his motorcycle in the entryway to his West Freetown home. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

Depot Kargbo rests on his motorcycle in the entryway to his West
Freetown home. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

No citizen has the right to challenge the state of emergency in court. It could be revoked at any time by a vote from Parliament, but as long as President Koroma’s party, the All People’s Congress (APC), maintains majority control, it’s highly unlikely they will vote to remove the declaration without his approval.

The state of emergency was set to expire in August 2015 after months of receiving flak from human rights groups claiming the policy was disproportionately targeting opposition activists. While announcing an end to the bans on public gatherings, sporting events and nightclubs, President Koroma also declared a one-year state of emergency extension, which was ratified by the APC-controlled Parliament a few weeks later. Although Koroma suggested that the state of emergency would be lifted on Nov. 7 when the country was declared Ebola-free, that deadline came and went with only burial restrictions being eased.

Majority Speaker of Parliament Ibrahim Bundu (APC) said that prior to the most recent Ebola case, the government was considering the possibility of lifting the state of emergency once the country completed a 90-day period of heightened surveillance. Assuming no additional cases are discovered, Sierra Leone’s next surveillance period will expire on May 26, but even then Bundu doesn’t think people should anticipate the state of emergency going with it.

“While that may be their expectation, circumstances alter cases and this is a combination of a lot of different players,” he said. “When we think and deem it safe, we will do what we think is necessary. Whether good or bad, it’s the government’s decision and we must take full responsibility.”

Although Bundu said Parliament unanimously approved the August 2015 state of emergency, Minority Leader Bernadette Lahai of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) said that’s the opposite of the truth. She said that not only did every opposition politician vote against the extension, but many walked out of the session in protest after realizing that no one from the majority APC would be voting against it.

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“Nobody would vote for this from the SLPP side, nobody,” she said. “The normal health management teams have taken over all of the National Ebola Response Center (NERC) work. They immediately know where new cases are and to begin contact tracing. And that preparation is always there now. We have shown we have the expertise and the staff to know what to do.”

Even with the gradual lifting of the state of emergency’s harsher restrictions over the course of 2015, it’s unlikely that the Sunday trading ban will follow suit. There’s no evidence of increased Ebola transmission on Sundays, and Tommy believes that because the ban benefits Freetown’s elite, majority-Christian community, the government is politically inclined to keep it active. Bundu agrees with him.

“As someone who grew up in the city here in Freetown, Sundays were conventional holidays,” Bundu said. “So when the Ebola came we saw Sundays were actually not good working days for people. … We looked at that and put it into perspective and decided to now use that time for people to use the seventh day of the week to clean up their area and go to church.”

He continued: “We all want to respect the freedoms and aspirations of people but everywhere in the world they put people to govern, so you can come up with something that’s good. You have that burden to take the tougher steps. I have a responsibility to make sure that families are together, that their homes are cleaned up. All of that is in the interest of everybody.”

The Sunday trade ban shows that state of emergency can be used to promote agendas unrelated to the Ebola outbreak. Beyond restrictions on personal freedoms, many Sierra Leoneans fear the constitution could be interpreted to allow the president to postpone elections if the state of emergency is still in place, as former president Ahmed Kabbah did during the country’s 11-year civil war. The possibility is sounding progressively less-farfetched as a campaign to give President Koroma additional time continues to gain traction across the country.

If no new cases are discovered, Sierra Leone will once again be declared Ebola-free on Feb. 25, after which they will join Guinea and Liberia in a 90-day period of heightened surveillance. The state of emergency’s most recent extension will expire in August.

“I just want it all to go away but I fear it never will,” said Abass Kargbo, who owns a general supply shop in West Freetown. “It’s like a nightmare that you thought you had woken up from, only to find out you’re still dreaming.”

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About Author

Cooper Inveen

Cooper Inveen is a freelance reporter living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. A Pacific Northwest native and graduate of the University of Washington, he has been featured on Al Jazeera English, NPR's KUOW, the Seattle Globalist and others. You can reach him by email at cinveen@gmail.com or follow him on twitter @cinveen.