Congo’s Ebola jumped borders …and that is a ‘good’ thing


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The current Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-worst after the 2014-2016 West Africa epidemic in which more than 11,000 people died.

More than 2,000 cases and 1,300 deaths have been recorded since August. There have been warnings that the disease could “jump” borders into DRC’s neighbours, but the virus seemed to keep to Congolese territory — until it didn’t.

In the past few days, two Ugandans died of Ebola. The deaths occurred after a family of Congolese-Ugandans travelled to DRC to care for an elder suffering from the disease and returned home with the disease.

Kenya also had a short-lived Ebola scare. A Kenyan woman who had travelled to Uganda to see her husband was befallen by headaches, fever and vomiting when she returned to Kericho. She was rushed to hospital on Sunday and isolated on suspicion of having picked up Ebola. Blood tests showed she was negative.

Inevitably, there have followed stories headlined “Porous border could hinder efforts to stem spread of Ebola”, or “Why it’s hard to stop Ebola spreading — between people and across borders”. All these stories make the point that there are so many informal crossing points at Africa’s borders, and such deep cross-border social, cultural and economic connections between borders, that our states are just unable to totally control the flow.

One of my favourite statistics on this came from Nigeria some years ago. Four countries neighbour Nigeria, and at that point it had just over 30 official border crossings with them. However, it had over 3,000 small border crossings used by petty traders and families to get in and out of these countries.

In the case of the Uganda-DRC border, especially given how much the eastern part of Congo is removed from Kinshasa and integrated into the wider East African economy, on market days the “panya” routes overflow with thousands of people crossing to do business.

The ease with which they can cross also partly explains why Ebola crossed the border. There is really no gentle way to say it, but the fact that Ebola is able to make its way across the borders is actually a good thing. It’s proof of the concept that the much sought-after “borderless” Africa exists — although not in the form immigration and security bureaucrats in the capitals conceive of it.

The way Ebola got across in West Africa, and now with the latest DRC outbreak, is also a reminder of a (fortunate) limitation of the colonial state. While the European colonialists drew most of Africa’s modern borders following the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, purist sovereignty and, certainly, immigration, was not a priority for them.

After World War II, Britain was the colonial overlord in all of East Africa. Though it had separate governors in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, it didn’t need immigration controls because the region was theirs. And the Europeans didn’t need strict border controls between British, French or Belgian colonial states; they were in bed together.

The security infrastructure they built was the police stations and military barracks protecting the towns where European colonial officials and, sometimes, the Asian merchant class, lived. In settler countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe, they built police and military posts to protect settler farms. Thus, you could have the King’s African Rifles (KAR) barracks in Nanyuki and no barracks of significance in Kisumu, where there were no settlers.

The colonialists were generally for open borders because they needed mobility of labour — including for their wars, as we saw in both World Wars.

Sovereignty and the flag, and borders, became more fetishised after Independence. However, the colonial DNA remained deeply embedded in the new nations in one way: They still concentrated most of the security apparatus in the capital and the big towns to protect the new African political and economic elite from the restless masses, and upcountry, where the favourite sons and daughters of Independence took over settler farms and colonial businesses.

They doubled down on enforcing borders primarily as tax collections for the post-Independence regimes and slow the free movement of labour to protect jobs at home since people who lost jobs to foreigners would vote — or rebel — against them.

The new political class reinforced the only tool you can use to control borders from a capital far away: Visas. Outside the airports, to use our earlier Nigerian example, these visas can be enforced at the 30 or so official crossings it has with its neighbours but don’t apply at the other 3,000 points the majority use.

Our post-Independence states don’t have the DNA to control every point of their borders. We should be thankful for that handicap.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer site @cobbo3