Of “guns, germs and steel”: reflections on the challenge of Ebola and Boko Haram

In recent weeks it has become quite clear that Nigeria has succeeded in stemming the advance of the Ebola virus. The virus, recognised as one of the deadliest in the world, was first reported in 1976. The recent outbreak started in Guinea, and soon spread to Liberia and Seirra Leone, where it has claimed the lives of close to 4,000 people. When it came to Nigeria months ago, there was much panic as the virus claimed the lives of several health workers in Lagos and quickly spread to Port Harcourt. Considering the population of 177 million people, the density, especially in big cities, and the peculiar high level of human contact, there were justifiable fears of a major crisis leaving thousands dead in its wake. The rest, as they say, is history. We can learn a few lessons from the Ebola crisis:

1) The health professionals involved were highly committed professionals and fiercely dedicated patriots. Many of them lost their lives in the line of duty; 2) The Ebola menace was tracked down early, and this was key to eventual containment of the virus. And no, it wasn’t an entirely smooth process, with a few mistakes, but in the circumstances, it was one of the best coordinated disease control effort we have seen in Nigeria.

The microbe is the unseen enemy whose menace can be even more dangerous and far reaching than visible enemies, so it is worth celebrating that Nigeria, at least for now, has managed to keep Ebola at bay.

What, then, about Boko Haram?

In complete contrast to the Ebola story, the Nigerian response to the Boko Haram challenge is a story of monumental failure. From political management, to intelligence gathering, and military strategy, it has been one tale of woe after the other. Before our very eyes, the problem, which started as a minor protest movement of disillusioned youngsters soon developed, in time, to the most vicious terrorist organisation Nigeria has ever seen.

And it gets worse by the day. As we speak, more than two hundred girls remained in captivity. And Boko Haram has moved further from planting bombs and killing people to capturing territories. Soldiers’ lives have been sacrificed in poorly coordinated battles with the Boko Haram. The Army, by all indication, is poorly equipped in terms of hardware, intelligence and strategy.

The Nigerian government, and the army, can learn a few things from professionals in the health service on how to respond to a crisis situation. They can’t go wrong with that, surely.

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