Ebola outbreak in violence-plagued DRC a worst-case scenario
Recently, several rebel militia members fighting over the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) died of Ebola. Rebels dying from Ebola is a development that merits deeper examination.
The fact that Ebola, which has killed more than 500 people in this outbreak, is now truly mixing with the country’s violent landscape is a complicating factor, as international health care officials are developing an inoculation ring in Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan that began in mid-January. In effect, a program of spatial containment is being instituted.
This Ebola outbreak is the second worst case so far. Luckily, experimental vaccination programs are working, but administering these programs in violence-prone areas is difficult at best. DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga said that the vaccination program had been administered to 76,425 people and had prevented “thousands” of deaths by stopping the spread of Ebola to “big cities.” The vaccine is not 100 percent effective as it is still experimental. International health authorities are concerned that the disease can still spread.
The DRC security situation is most problematic in the east of the country, where dozens of armed militias struggle over resources such as gold, diamonds, copper and coltan for profit and power. The area is home to the vast majority of the country’s 70 armed groups, all pursuing shifting local and national agendas. Most of them are small, numbering less than 200 fighters, but the havoc they have wreaked over decades, especially in North and South Kivu, have made eastern DRC the epicenter of deadly violence and humanitarian crises. This mix makes treating Ebola problematic, as this is the first time that an Ebola outbreak is occurring in an area with daily violence. The DRC’s ongoing instability caused by militia activity is creating mistrust in the population toward health workers.
For international aid organizations, this is a worst-case scenario, where victims carrying a deadly disease are unable to be treated because of attacks by machete-carrying rebels with heavy caliber weaponry. An attack by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) late last year killed 18 people in the town of Beni, halting local efforts to contain the spread of Ebola through this unstable area.
The DRC’s ongoing instability caused by militia activity is creating mistrust in the population toward health workers.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Armed militias that target DRC civilians and foreign aid workers make it difficult, if not impossible, for response teams to reach and work in the nation’s most isolated areas — a serious issue since the beginning of this outbreak. The ADF militia was initially created by rebels to oppose Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but the rebel group has also focused operations on the DRC’s North Kivu province.
This part of Central Africa is where 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, were killed between 1998 and 2002, especially involving ethnic hatred between the Hutu and the Tutsi people, which had formed the basis of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. One cannot overstate the complex landscape of ethnic identities and shifting alliances that occur between these groups. Throwing a deadly disease on top of this rebel instability makes for a combustible situation. An attack by any one of the dozen or so militias in an Ebola outbreak area collapses the ability to conduct safe practices. In the chaos, village mobs are known to try to bury their dead who died from Ebola by trying to steal the corpse, in a complete break of protocol.
The implementation of a set of spatial protocols that, from the start of the current Ebola outbreak, quickly identified areas of disease activity with the goal of preventing diffusion is now expanding instead of shrinking. Disease infection rates among the militia groups are unknown and, given their population, these groups could act as not only an incubator but also a transmitter into more distant areas. The number of fighters and their supporting infrastructure is likely to number in the tens of thousands. These rebels fall outside any international Ebola protocols, unless they are capable of stealing the medicine and then administering it themselves in highly unstable conditions, which would lay the foundation for further infections. These militias have access to medical facilities and possess a particular level of capability and capacity, yet are clearly unprepared for a disease such as Ebola.
Other military actors on the ground matter too. Naturally, the DRC’s military is actively engaged against the militias. The DRC military’s role in the Ebola crisis is focused on securing supply lines, but it frequently needs to concentrate on other internal issues. The Congolese army receives support from the UN’s Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which has helped in the Ebola response since the beginning of the outbreak through the provision of logistical support, office facilities, transportation, communication and security.
Meanwhile, the DRC’s military engagement with these militias is now also being influenced by Russian advisers. Let us also recall that Russia’s private military company, Wagner Group, is involved across several sectors of the country. Finally, the US is nearby in Gabon. How these actors respond to the next chapter of this outbreak of Ebola in a violent, rebel-infested zone will most likely be determined by a highly uncoordinated effort among security actors.
A deadly disease such as Ebola being carried through rebel communities and their networks is an issue that needs urgent attention from government authorities, in addition to a communication plan to educate those who may be assisting such networks. Add in the terrain, corruption and crime and the ability for authorities to address the spread of the disease is severely weakened. The ability for militias to transmit Ebola unchecked is a public health and national security concern.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a non-resident senior fellow at the Lexington Institute and a national security expert, specializing in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East. He worked for the RAND Corporation and publishes widely in the US and international media. Twitter: @tkarasik