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?

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.