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< Announcements and Recent Analysis

Ebola’s Potential Effects on the Risk of Mass Atrocities in Guinea


One of the countries hit hardest by this year's Ebola epidemic, Guinea, is also one of the countries most susceptible to an onset of state-led mass killing, according to our statistical risk assessments. This conjunction is not entirely accidental. And, while the Ebola epidemic almost certainly won’t lead directly to mass atrocities, the effects the epidemic is having on Guinea’s political economy could indirectly increase that risk in coming months.

Guinea is one of three neighboring West African countries in which the current Ebola epidemic is concentrated; Liberia and Sierra Leone are the other two (see the map from the Economist below). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as of October 12 (here), Guinea has seen nearly 1,500 cases of Ebola infection, and 843 of those infected have died. Worrisome, the WHO also stated in a mid-October situation report that “there is evidence of an increase in the intensity of transmission in Guinea.” The number of new confirmed cases in the capital, Conakry, had declined from the previous week, but outlying districts continue to record higher and sometimes increasing transmission rates, and the disease is still spreading to new areas.

The Early Warning Project’s statistical assessments for 2014 (here) rank Guinea tenth in the world on the risk of a new episode of state-led mass killing, on par with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. In Guinea’s case, that high ranking stems mostly from its high susceptibility to coup attempts. Coup attempts may spur incumbent rulers to use any available means to quash threats to their power, and rulers who seize office through successful coups sometimes use mass violence against their ousted rivals in an effort to consolidate their power.

Guinea’s risk profile is also increased by the political salience of ruling elites’ ethnicity, and by its recent history of state-perpetrated mass atrocities. The historical data set we use to train our statistical models identifies an episode of state-led mass killing in Guinea that ran from soon after independence until the early 1980s, in the form of political repression under Sekou Toure (see here for more on those data and here for more on state repression under Toure). In 2009, Guinea also saw another incident that was not lethal enough to represent a “mass killing” under our coding rules but certainly qualified as a mass atrocity. As Human Right Watch described in a September 2013 report,

On September 28, 2009, several hundred members of Guinea’s security forces burst into a stadium in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, and opened fire on tens of thousands of opposition supporters peacefully gathered there. By late afternoon, at least 150 Guineans lay dead or dying, and dozens of women had suffered brutal sexual violence, including individual and gang rape.

Guinea is a coup-prone country, in part, because it is a very poor country with a hollow state. Those same characteristics also make it more vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases, including Ebola. As Anita Schroven describes in a recent post on Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots blog, in Guinea,

Central government agents are often seen as foreign elements all over the countryside, not only in the Forest Region. They rarely leave administrative centers, and if they do, it is to accompany an NGO campaign or police mission. Beyond the increase of ethnicized rhetoric in national politics (which dramatically increased during the 2010 and 2013 national elections) the general population perceives these agents as foreign elements because government agents are so rarely present and are largely associated with the remote governing elite in Conakry…

This ever-weakening everyday state capacity (according to a Weberian notion of state) reveals itself in public service provisions, or rather the lack thereof. Public (health) infrastructure is barely on working levels and is currently not only under pressure from the Ebola virus disease but also from outbreaks of measles and meningitis—two of the many periodically reoccurring and deadly illnesses that have been met with comparatively swift and routine responses by a collaboration of respective line ministries and NGOs.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Ebola epidemic leads directly to a spate of deliberate civilian killings by state agents or groups acting at their behest. It is much easier to imagine the Ebola epidemic contributing to an economic crisis that exacerbates the risk of coup attempts and other forms of open political conflict. In an early-October report, the World Bank estimated that the Ebola epidemic would shrink Guinea’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 by about 2 percent, and that those costs would rise in 2015 if the epidemic is not quickly contained.

In fact, this economic damage seems to be occurring already. According to Schroven,

Economic consequences [of the Ebola epidemic] on the macro-economic level are beginning to be felt. Projections for economic growth are slumping with mining companies slowing or closing their operations, therefore limiting the government elite's revenues. The fear of Guineans traveling to neighboring countries can be felt on all levels, including the hampering of vital cross-border trade in staple food stuffs that affects people’s subsistence and their national pride. Upset Guinean voices are calling the government into further action to both intervene in the negative image Guinea has been gaining from being identified as the origin of the amorphous threat and to protect the precarious economic situation most citizens find themselves in.

This crisis finally gives the impression that it cannot be as easily weathered by the Guinean government as other political, economic or health upheavals, which have in the past so often run their course without necessitating changes in state performance.

Earlier this week, WHO director Margaret Chan spoke ominously of the potential knock-on effects of the West African Ebola outbreak. "I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries," the BBC reported her as saying. "I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure."

As political scientist Laura Seay argued in a recent pair of tweets (here and here), the Guinean state is unlikely to collapse under the weight of Ebola, but crises short of state collapse could be significant enough. Even though it is a relatively high-risk case, a new episode of state-led mass killing probably won’t happen in Guinea soon. Still, our statistical assessments show that Guinea’s risk is not negligible, and the Ebola epidemic is damaging the country’s political economy in ways that are only likely to increase it.

Tags:   early warning project

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