On 29 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa no longer constitutes an international emergency as officials voiced confidence that remaining isolated cases in the affected countries can be contained.
Speaking to journalists, WHO chief Margaret Chan stated that “the Ebola outbreak in West Africa no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” officially ending the emergency, which was first declared in August 2014. While the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has ended, officials have warned that flare-ups are likely to continue, with Chan stressing on Tuesday that all three previously affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – remain vulnerable to these flare-ups, including an ongoing cluster of cases reported in Guinea, which has left five people dead. Last week, health officials in Conakry reported that 961 people who may have come into contact with the victims in the southern region of the country were being monitored. Chan also warned against complacency towards the virus, which remains in “the ecosystem” in West Africa, adding that vigilance is crucial, including reacting quickly to new cases. She noted that “particularly important will be to ensure that communities can rapidly and fully engage in any future response, cases are quickly isolated and managed.”
The deadliest-ever outbreak of the tropical disease emerged in December 2013, and since then it has killed more than 11,300 people mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. At its peak in 2014, the Ebola outbreak sparked anxiety about a possible global pandemic and led some governments to threaten or unilaterally enforce travel bans to and from the worst-affected countries. The WHO consistently pushed back against such calls, with Chan again on Tuesday reiterating that “there should be no restrictions on travel and trade with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and that any such measures should be lifted immediately.” In the wake of the recent cluster of cases reported in southern Guinea, Liberia has closed its border with the country until further notice.
During the outbreak, the United Nation’s public health agency faced criticism over its initial response to the spread of Ebola, including accusations that it took far too long in order to publicise the threat level. In May 2015, the growing criticism forced the WHO to launch a sweeping shake-up of its emergency response systems. These efforts were seen this year, when the WHO was quick to sound the alarm in response to the rapid spread of the Zika virus.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a recent flare-up of Ebola in Sierra Leone is over after no new transmission of the disease were detected in the West African country. The UN health agency however warned that the virus could still resurface at any time.
The WHO has reported that Sierra Leone has had no new cases of the virus for 42 days, twice the length of the virus’s incubation period – the time that elapses between transmission of the disease and the appearance of symptoms. The WHO further indicated that it marked a milestone in the fight against Ebola, which has cost the lives of more than 11,300 people since 2013 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in what was the world’s worst recorded outbreak of the disease. It warned however that more flare-ups are possible because the virus can persist in the eyes, central nervous system and bodily fluids of some survivors. In a statement, the WHO noted that “strong surveillance and emergency response capacity need to be maintained along with rigorous hygiene practices at home and in health facilities and active community participation.”
Sierra Leone was first declared free of Ebola transmissions in November 2015 before tests revealed one woman had died of the disease in January 2016, the same week that the WHO had declared the West African region free of new transmissions of the virus. The case of Mariatu Jalloh, a female student, displayed how easily Ebola can return if precautions are not taken and patients do not seek quick medical attention. Jalloh had travelled across the country and come into contact with dozens of people after contracting the illness. Family members washed her corpse after she died, considered dangerous since the virus is contagious for days after death. Experts say that while residents and authorities remain on edge across the region, in many areas, procedures to combat Ebola remain lax.
At least three people from the same family have died in recent weeks from diarrhea and vomiting in a remote village in southeastern Guinea, raising further concern about the disease spreading again. According to Fode Tass Sylla, spokesman for the National Coordination of the fight against Ebola in Guinea, “there is in the same family a woman who died on 29 February and husband a week later. Their child died yesterday.” Since 23 March, 5 people have died in the town, and over 800 have been placed under quarantine.
The 13 March 2016 shooting rampage on a beach resort in Ivory Coast is the latest in a series of high-profile assaults that have occurred in northern and Western Africa. The attack is also the latest sign in what appears to be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) shift in focus to soft targets that are associated with foreigners in an effort to destabilize economies and to gain the group credibility amongst jihadis in its ongoing rivalry with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
On Sunday, three gunmen targeted the Grand Bassam beach resort, killing 18 people. AQIM has since claimed responsibility of the attack, as the terror group increasingly moving out of its desert stronghold and into urban city centres. IN recent months, AQIM has carried out devastating attacks that have seen militants target luxury hotels frequented by foreigners.
While AQIM was once known for striking military posts in Algeria and neighbouring countries, such attacks made little impact internationally. Since November 2015, AQIM has carried out three major attacks. The first occurred when gunmen targeted a hotel in Mali, and then in January, a similar attack was carried out in Burkina Faso. On Sunday, the moved even farther south, to an Ivorian resort popular with tourists and locals alike. AQIM is effectively moving its strategy from operating in northern Mali and neighbouring states, to city centres, where attacks not only leave high numbers of causalities and cause fear but also strike at the heart of the economy of the affected nation and business confidence of the surrounding region.
The recent attacks in the region are generally viewed as targeting France and its allies, after Paris intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who had seized the desert north a year earlier.
Sunday’s attack also raises fears of where they might strike next, and poses serious security questions for former regional colonial power France, which has thousands of citizens and troops in the region. While some 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, over 20,000 reside in Senegal. France also has 3,500 troops in the region, from Senegal in the far west to Chad. A French military base in Abidjan, which is manned by around 800 soldiers, serves as a logistical hub for regional operations against Islamist militancy in the Sahel.
Here is an overview of the worst such attacks that have occurred over the past year, all of which have been claimed by jihadist groups:
- 13 March – At least 15 civilians and three special forces troops are killed when gunmen storm the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. According to the government, one French and one German national are amongst the dead. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claim responsibility for the attack, which is the first to occur in Ivory Coast.
- 15 January – Thirty people, including many foreigners, are killed in at attack on a top Burkina Faso hotel and a nearby restaurant in the capital Ouagadougou. AQIM claims the assault, stating that the gunmen were from the al-Murabitoun group of Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
- 20 November – Gunmen take guests and staff hostage at the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako. The siege leaves at least twenty people, including fourteen foreigners, dead. The attack is later claimed by AQIM, which says it was a joint operation with the al-Murabitoun group. Another jihadist group from central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front, also claims responsibility for the attack.
- 31 October – A Russian passenger jet is downed on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to Saint Petersburg, Russia, killing all 224 people on board. The Egyptian branch of the Islamic State (IS) group claims responsibility. Russia confirms that the crash was caused by a bomb.
- 26 June – Thirty Britons are amongst 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 18 March – Gunmen kill 21 tourists and a policeman at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 7 March – A grenade and gun attack on La Terrasse nightclub in the Malian capital Bamako kills five people – three Malians, a Belgian and a Frenchman. The attack is claimed by al-Murabitoun.
Last week, an African Union (AU) official reported that funding for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram’s deadly Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa remains well short of its target.
In comments made shortly after a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss funding, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council disclosed that so far, including Nigeria, Switzerland and France, have pledged about US $250 million to fund the 8,700-strong regional force. According to Orlando Bama, communications officer for the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, the US $250 million includes both previous pledges and those made during Monday’s conference. That effectively covers just over a third of the US $700 million budget that was announced for the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) last year.
The task force, which is to be made up of regional African militaries, has yet to mobilize. Instead, national armies are tackling Boko Haram individually, however they often cannot follow the insurgency across the region’s long, porous borders. Regional armies from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year, which ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance, however progress has been slow, with Boko Haram continuing to have the capabilities to launch deadly attacks both inside Nigeria, as well as in the Lake Chad Basin.
Monday’s talks come after the militant group’s latest attack, which killed at least 65 people in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday.
On Tuesday, the ambassadors of France and the United States issued separate statements calling for tighter regional and global cooperation to fight the threat of jihadist attacks in Senegal and the broader West Africa region. In the wake of two successive attacks in the past few weeks, which saw the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso being targeted, Senegal’s Interior Minister Abdoulay Daouda Diallo disclosed that “the surge of terrorist groups shows the international community must fight terrorism everywhere with the same combativity.”
Speaking at talks on a four-year French funding plan against terrorism, he added that the only way forward was to “strengthen our cooperation” and “share our means.” France’s ambassador to Senegal, Jean-Felix Paganon, who attended the meeting, stated that cooperation in the fight against the Islamist threat “calls for regional and international cooperation.” Meanwhile in a separate meeting with the media, US ambassador James Zumwalt stated that “the Senegalese are very eager to partner with us and work with us because they obviously are concerned about the possibilities of terrorist incidents and also worried about radical extremism here in Senegal.” He added that “the threat is no greater now than it was before the attack in Burkina Faso, it’s the same thereat. And the Senegalese capability is the same capability that they had before.” The US ambassador also indicated that “there’s more awareness now about those threats and we clearly want to work very closely with Senegal to help them increase their capacity to respond, either pre or post attack, to a terrorist incident.” An upcoming three-week joint military exercise between Africa, US and European troops, known as Flintlock and due to begin in Senegal and Mauritania next week, will aim to help a country respond to an Islamist attack. Senegal, like Mali and Burkina Faso – which were hit by deadly Islamist attacks in November and January respectively – is a majority Muslim nation however it has so far been free of extremist jihadist attacks. However a Senegalese security source has disclosed that in November, around a dozen people, including several Muslim preachers, were arrested in the country for “links to AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Islamic State.”
On 15 January, gunmen launched an attack on two hotels and a café popular with foreigners in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou, leaving thirty, mostly foreigners, dead. In November, militants launched a similar attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. Both attacks were claimed by AQIM.