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Nearly two dozen women came forward this week to accuse aid workers of sexual exploitation and assault during the international response to the Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that began in 2018, even as evidence has emerged that World Health Organization officials may have ignored abuse allegations against two doctors employed by the agency.
The latest reports follow allegations late last year by more than 50 women of sexual abuse by men who said they worked for aid agencies. The women told reporters that the men, including employees of the WHO and the Congolese Health Ministry, offered them jobs in exchange for sex.
All of the incidents in question allegedly took place as emergency teams and communities struggled for two years to end an Ebola outbreak that ultimately killed nearly 2,300 people, against a backdrop of regional insecurity that hampered the effectiveness of health and humanitarian workers’ efforts on the ground. Taken together, the allegations reveal that the response was also marred by widespread sexual abuse, as aid workers exploited the emergency situation and their positions with little fear of repercussion.
The lack of accountability was underscored by reporting from the Associated Press this week alleging that the WHO official in charge of the agency’s response in Congo was informed in 2019 of sexual abuse claims against two doctors employed by the global health agency, but took no steps to remove the men from their positions or to put them on administrative leave. A WHO staffer and three Ebola experts who raised separate concerns about one of the men, Boubacar Diallo, were told not to pursue the issue. Both Diallo, who has close ties to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the other doctor named in the accusations, Jean-Paul Ngandu, have denied the allegations against them.
The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported the first allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by 51 women in Beni, a trading center in eastern Congo, late last year. Since then, several agencies have announced investigations into their outbreak response. The WHO has established an independent commission, and Oxfam suspended two staff members accused of sexual misconduct.
The new allegations revealed by the two outlets this week, which concern 22 women in Butembo, another regional hub, have fueled calls for answers—and accountability. One woman accused a WHO employee of raping her. Three other women reportedly became pregnant following sexual encounters with aid workers, and one died when she sought an abortion.
“If it weren’t for this Ebola response, my sister would still be alive and fighting for her children,” the woman’s sister told reporters.
Even before the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced, the outbreak response was dogged by allegations of corruption. And within the communities in North Kivu and Ituri provinces where the outbreak was most virulent, “widespread popular mistrust of state institutions, combined with the sudden and highly visible influx of international aid… also left locals suspicious of both the response teams and the medical narrative of Ebola itself,” as Emmanuel Freudenthal reported from Beni for WPR in 2019. That mistrust led to several deadly clashes between communities and aid workers.
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Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:
South Sudan: President Salva Kiir announced the composition of the country’s new parliament on Monday, finally fulfilling a key provision of the fragile 2018 peace deal that ended five years of fighting between the government and rebels led by First Vice President Riek Machar. The deal, which restored Machar to the government, also called for rebel representatives to be integrated into the legislature by February 2020.
The newly installed Transitional National Legislative Assembly expands the legislature from 400 to 550 seats, with the majority of lawmakers drawn from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Machar’s former rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition received 128 seats, while 90 others were reserved for legislators from smaller opposition groups. The new lawmakers were not elected, but nominated by their parties.
Elsewhere, however, Kiir and Machar “have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled,” including the unification of forces and the creation of a transitional court of justice, as Alan Boswell explained in a February WPR briefing.
Military cadets march at a training center in Owiny Ki-Bul, South Sudan, June 27, 2020 (AP photo by Maura Ajak).
Cameroon: A court convicted two transgender women of “attempted homosexuality” and public indecency Tuesday and sentenced them to five years in prison, the maximum term allowed under the law. They were also fined $370. Shakiro, a local social media celebrity, was arrested along with a friend at a restaurant in February. Their conviction is the latest example of Cameroon’s growing crackdown on members of the LGBT community, who face intense scrutiny from the government, security forces and general public. This renders them “vulnerable to arrest, physical and verbal attacks, and myriad other forms of harassment,” as former WPR senior editor Robbie Corey-Boulet explained in a 2019 WPR article. Shakiro has been outspoken on Facebook and YouTube about the persecution that members of the LGBT community face in Cameroon. Her lawyers said her arrest and conviction were an attempt by the government to silence her.
Malawi: Officials ordered refugees and asylum-seekers who have left the country’s only refugee camp, Dzaleka, to return to the facility or face expulsion from the country. Officials estimate the order will affect at least 2,000 people, many of whom left the overcrowded camp years ago and have long been integrated into Malawi’s society and economy. Government officials claim they pose a national security threat, but did offer an opportunity for refugees who have married Malawian citizens to apply for permanent residency. The United Nations Refugee Agency recognized the government’s right to order the refugees and asylum-seekers back to Dzaleka, but warned about the implications, including the risk of additional overcrowding. Nearly 50,000 people currently live in the facility, which was initially built to house up to 15,000 people.
Algeria: The government announced that it will bar demonstrations that have not received prior approval, a move widely seen as the latest attempt to stifle the resurgent Hirak protest movement. U.N. officials also warned this week that security officials have been using disproportionate force against protesters since Hirak activists resumed their activities in February.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has deployed various strategies to undermine the Hirak movement, which emerged more than two years ago when Tebboune’s octogenarian predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his decision to stand for a fifth term despite being physically unfit to carry out the duties of office. After Bouteflika resigned, Hirak transitioned “to demand reforms to the entire entrenched political system,” as Francisco Serrano explained in an August WPR briefing.
Tebboune banned their demonstrations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that they have resumed, his government is attempting to leverage a provision in the new constitution, which his administration forced through in November 2020, requiring advance notice for any demonstrations. It also requires organizers to name specific individuals as being responsible for the protests, which could undercut one of the key strengths of the leaderless movement.
Sierra Leone: Deputy Justice Minister Umaru Napoleon Koroma announced Wednesday the government will move to abolish the death penalty. Though no executions have been carried out in the country since 1998, capital punishment has remained on the books for people convicted of robbery, murder, treason and mutiny, drawing criticism from human rights activists. Koroma said the government will ask Parliament to pass a law abolishing the death penalty and introducing life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for those crimes.
Top Reads From Around the Web
On the Trail of the ADF’s Islamist Militants: The Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which began as an opposition rebel group in western Uganda in 1995, has evolved into one the most fearsome militant groups in Central Africa. Now based in eastern Congo, the group has been linked to the Islamic State and is regularly blamed for deadly raids on civilians and the Congolese military. In 2019, the army began conducting large-scale operations to root out the ADF. Photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, who has been embedded with the soldiers, documents their struggles to contain the ADF in this photo essay for The Guardian.
National Digital ID Initiatives Have a Trust Problem: As governments discuss vaccine passports as one option to ensure safe travel in the time of COVID-19, they would do well to consider the lessons of some recent efforts to introduce digital ID systems, including in Kenya. The Kenyan government announced its plan to issue a digital ID to every citizen over the age of six in February 2019 and then gave citizens only 45 days to register. “Not only was the process conducted under a veil of threats, but it was also conducted in the absence of a legal framework to protect identity information,” as Nanjala Nyabola explains in Rest of World. That ultimately added to popular distrust of and dissatisfaction with the government.
Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about health and human rights issues. You can view more of his work at www.theandrewgreen.com.