Gloves and boots used by those treating ebola drying. Photo: Getty
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Will ebola allow the US to increase its military footprint in Africa?

The initiative may be more ambitious than it first appeared.

President Barak Obama’s decision to send 3,000 US troops to fight the ebola epidemic now ravaging West Africa has been widely welcomed. The help is badly needed. Health workers in the affected countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – are stretched to breaking point. At least 208 doctors and nurses have died, while some have abandoned their posts. The scale of the threat is enormous, with worst-case scenarios suggesting that more than 500,000 people could be infected before the epidemic is brought under control.

The Obama plan calls for 17 100-bed hospitals to be established and the first troops are now arriving in Liberia to see that this is implemented.

President Obama made his statement at a meeting attended by Guinean President Alpha Conde, while Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone participated by video-link from their countries. It makes a good deal of sense for the Pentagon to lead the American response. No one else has the capability and aid workers have applauded the plan.

But the initiative may be more ambitious than it first appeared. Little attention has been given to an announcement by the Defence Department, which indicates that something more permanent appears to be being planned.

“US Africa Command will set up a Joint Force Command Headquarters in Liberia to support US military activities and help coordinate expanded US and international relief efforts to fight the West Africa ebola outbreak,” a press statement announced on 16 September. The plan, code-named “Operation United Assistance” is well under way, with a $1bn budget.

The warmth with which the presidential statement was welcomed indicates the severity of the crisis. It is in stark contrast to the reaction most of Africa gave to previous suggestions of an operational headquarters on the continent’s soil. When the US Africa Command – or Africom – was first proposed by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 most Africans were distinctly hostile. A few states – Liberia, Botswana, Mali, and Rwanda – were open to the American proposal. But the continent as a whole, led by Nigeria and South Africa, rejected suggestions that Africom should have an African base.

South Africa’s then-defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota opposed allowing an Africom presence on the continent. Nigerian President Umaru Yar‘adua warned Ellen Johnson Sirleaf against accepting American boots on Liberian soil. As the most powerful state in West Africa the Liberians had little choice but to sit up and take notice.

At the time the suggestion of a US military presence simply ruffled too many African feathers. As a result Africom operates out of the German city of Stuttgart.

The only US base on the continent is Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. This has been enormously useful to the Pentagon. Its 97 acres house more than 3,000 staff, about a third of whom are special forces. The base allows surveillance of the Red Sea and the Gulf, as well as the Horn of Africa. Drones can be flown from Camp Lemonnier, targeting Islamist groups in Yemen and Somalia.

But over the years US operations in Africa have gradually expanded. Today these include:

The Financial Times suggested that the US has operational capacity in 17 African states, from Algeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Admittedly some are rather small, but they are a foothold.

This presence has been established despite the endless repetition of slogans like “African solutions for African Problems”. In part this is because the African Union’s attempts to give this concept teeth have met with so little success. For nearly two decades African leaders have attempted to establish an African Standby Force to respond rapidly to critical situations. The concept was discussed in Harare in 1997 by African Chiefs of Defence Staff and was given the formal go-ahead in July 2002 (pdf). But despite millions having been spent by the US and Britain on planning, logistics and training, there is little to show for the initiative.

Washington already has bases and military agreements across the continent. The ebola epidemic may provide the US with an opportunity to add a permanent base in Liberia to its list of African assets.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here