Sir Bob Geldof may not wish to believe recent BBC reports alleging the misuse of famine relief funds in Ethopia in 1984, but, writes Alemayehu G. Mariam, he needs to ‘face the truth’ that ‘aid is stolen and diverted for…corrupt purposes in Africa everyday’. The famine that needs to be cured, argues Mariam, is the ‘famine of democracy, justice, accountability, transparency, rule of law and human rights.’
Sir Bob Geldof told Meles Zenawi to ‘Grow up!’ when he found out that security forces directly under the control and command of Zenawi had massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters following the 2005 elections. It looks like Sir Bob may have to take his own advice and do a little growing up. In the days after the BBC reported its findings some ten days ago on a scam that diverted US$95 million from famine relief to weapons purchases by Zenawi’s rebel group in Ethiopia in 1984, Sir Bob has been throwing temper tantrums on the talk show circuits.
Before Bob became ‘Sir’ Bob in 1986, and ‘Saint Bob’ before that for his work in famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984/5, he was well known (as a vocalist in the Irish group Boomtown Rats) for his brash and abrasive personality in the British and Irish rock music scene. When he toured the talk show circuit last week in the brewing Live Aid-gate scandal in Ethiopia, he showed his true colours once again. He tongue-lashed, chewed out and raked over the coals the BBC, its investigative reporters and editors and the two former high-level rebel group leaders-turned-whistleblowers who brought international attention to the scandal. Sir Bob was literally frothing at the mouth. He was furious, combative, huffy and testy. He was affronted, exasperated and totally rattled by the BBC report. Sir Bob was pissed off big time, not at the fingered criminals but at the journalists who dug up the evidence and the whistleblowers who spilled the secret beans. In his interviews, Sir Bob confused the issues and mischaracterised the report.
Sir Bob was categorical in his claim that no Live/Band Aid money went to purchase weapons for the rebels at any time:
‘Not a single penny went on armaments. Not one. Not a pound; not a penny. Let me be clear on that. And I've also spoken to some of the others, including the Red Cross, who say it is absolute rubbish that any of their money could have possibly gone on arms.’
He said the two individuals who were interviewed for the report by the BBC have an axe to grind, and should be disbelieved because their intention was to embarrass Zenawi as the so-called May election draws near:
‘The Ethiopians say that he [Aregawi] wasn't even in the country at the time. This is a dissident political exile whose specific enemy, of which he has a track record of spinning against, is Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, who has a general election coming up. He is not a credible voice whatsoever.’
Sir Bob challenged the BBC or anyone else to come up with a ‘shred’ of evidence of misuse of any of the money he raised, and offered to personally investigate and initiate a lawsuit to recoup any stolen money:
‘Produce, produce one shred of evidence, one iota of evidence – not some dissident exile malcontent in Holland. Produce me one shred of evidence and I promise you I will professionally investigate it, I will professionally report it; and if there is any money missing I will sue the Ethiopian government who are the rebels who were fighting the war in Tigray for that money back now and I will spend it again on aid. There is not… a single shred of evidence that Band Aid or Live Aid money was diverted in any sense. It could not have been.
However, beneath the veneer of public outrage, Sir Bob was downright aghast and forlorn about what the scandal could do to his image and legacy in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa:
‘[Live Aid] did influence the entire debate about Africa and development and poverty. It really did have a huge political impact that resonates to today… Twenty-five … I was in Tigray just before Christmas and I saw what we began twenty-five years ago. Valleys, which were moonscapes, now verdant and lush and giving life and jobs and eighteen thousand Birr a year to the farmers of that neighbourhood. That's what we started. We built dams. There's our names on them. Not in armaments. We started that. Today, according to the Economist, Ethiopia is the fifth fastest growing economy in the planet in the year of the African World Cup. Isn't that the story, or part of the story?’
In short, Saint Bob saved Ethiopia! The Live/Band Aid-gate 2010 could seriously endanger his divine mission to save the rest of Africa! Right now, it is time for Sir Bob to save Sir Bob.
But why so much sound and fury from Sir Bob?
One wonders. Could it be that he finally got a definitive answer to the question he posed in his trademark song (one of the best selling singles of all time) in 1984: ‘Do they know it is Christmas?’
Sir Bob seems to be having great difficulty handling the truth now that he knows it. Whatever failings the two former high ranking members of Zenawi’s rebel group may have, they are telling it like it was:
Yep! We knew it was Christmas! It was the best Christmas ever. Thank you, Sir Bob (or should we say Saint Bob [Santa Claus?]) for stuffing the stockings with goodies and for the millions of dollars under the Christmas tree. Tell ya what Bobby? Since them good old days back in ’84, for some of the big boys in the gang, every day has been Christmas day!
The fact of the matter is that despite Sir Bob’s histrionics and temper tantrums, famine relief and aid is stolen and diverted for weapons purchases and other corrupt purposes in Africa everyday.
On 10 March 2010, the New York Times citing a UN report stated that US$240 million in famine relief aid was stolen in 2009 by Somali rebel groups and local contractors and UN staff:
As much as half the food aid sent to Somalia is diverted from needy people to a web of corrupt contractors, radical Islamist militants and local United Nations staff members, according to a new Security Council report. The [UN report] outlines a host of problems so grave that it recommends that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon open an independent investigation into the World Food Program’s Somalia operations. It suggests that the program rebuild the food distribution system – which serves at least 2.5 million people and whose aid was worth about $485 million in 2009 – from scratch to break what it describes as a corrupt cartel of Somali distributors… American officials believe that some American aid may have fallen into the hands of Al Shababa, the most militant of Somalia’s insurgent groups.’
For Sir Bob to categorically claim that ‘not a penny’ of the relief money was taken by Zenawi’s rebel group flies in the face of the inescapable African reality of corruption, fraud, waste, abuse and outright theft of not just humanitarian aid, but all kinds of international economic aid and loans. If Somali ‘contractors, radical Islamist militants and local United Nations staff members’ could steal US$240 million in food aid in 2009 with all the sophisticated and ‘best practices’ monitoring and auditing mechanisms of the UN in place, why does Sir Bob tenaciously hold the childish belief that Zenawi’s rebel group could not have taken a ‘penny’ from the aid money he raised in 1984? Sir Bob does not want to face the truth so he has chosen to bury his head, like the proverbial ostrich, in the sands of denial.
Dr Aregawi Berhe, one of the eyewitnesses to the scam, was a commander in the rebel army. Gebremedhin was a senior finance officer of the rebel group. Just because they have been critical of the Zenawi regime does not mean they are fabricating lies. As the Independent newspaper which interviewed Sir Bob noted: ‘That does not mean they are wrong, but it sets up reasonable doubts.’
That is indeed a fair place to begin establishing the truth. Let Gebremedhin, Dr Aregawi and many others with first hand knowledge of the facts (including all the principals implicated in the wrongdoing and the NGO bagmen who carried cash to pay the rebels) be called to testify publicly before an independent international inquiry commission. Regardless, as percipient witnesses any evidence given by Gebremedhin and Dr Aregawi to date is admissible in any court of law in the world, except kangaroo court.
Zenawi, speaking for the first time on the issue last week said he met with Sir Bob in Nairobi who expressed deep disappointment over the BBC report. Amazingly, Zenawi neither confirmed nor denied the central allegation in the report that he and/ or other members of his rebel group diverted relief money in 1984 for military purchases or any other purposes.  It was a brilliant anticipatory legal manoeuvre stonewalling on the central issue as Zenawi leaves no potentially incriminatory statement which could later be used to impeach (show prior inconsistent statement) him. Naturally, one would have expected an impassioned denial and condemnation of the purportedly vile and scurrilous accusations. But not a word. Instead, Zenawi savagely attacked the integrity and professionalism of Martin Plaut, the BBC reporter who broke the story, as a former Eritrean stooge experienced in distortions and lies (elsewhere known as ‘yellow journalism’). He accused others who had commented on the matter as being driven by ‘blind hatred.’
Sir Bob should know better. In fact, he does. After he learned of the shooting of innocent protesters following the May 2005 elections, Sir Bob told Channel 4 News on June 9, 2005 what kind of a man Zenawi really is:
‘Spare me, what are they doing? It is pathetic. I despair, I really despair. No doubt, I'll get a briefing from the Ethiopian embassy: “it wasn't like this, it was like that”. Grow up, they make me puke. I know those people, Meles Zanawi is a seriously clever man, what is he doing? What is he doing closing down radio stations, and journalists and that, it's a disgrace. Behave.’
Whatever disagreements we may have with Sir Bob on the BBC report, we share his despair fully. We really despair with him. We agree with him wholeheartedly that it is a shame and a disgrace to shoot down innocent unarmed protesters in the streets, shut down the independent press, jail opposition political leaders and engage in gross violations of human rights. We share his belief that it is a disgrace and a crime to misuse a single penny earmarked for bread and butter for the hungry to buy guns and bullets for a rebel army. Unfortunately, the fact is that the world is menaced by ‘seriously clever men’ who will stop at nothing – even stealing food from the mouths of babes. That makes all of us puke with disgust, not just Sir Bob. Because one believes in a noble cause, it does not follow that those with whom one comes in contact are also noble.
It is a great thing Sir Bob did in Live Aid back in 1984 and thereafter. But there is new thinking and evidence on the horizon. As Dambisa Moyo’s new book ‘Dead Aid’ shows, the influx of aid, including humanitarian aid, is at great risk of both being corruptly diverted and of exacerbating existing endemic corruption in Africa. It may be hard for Sir Bob and the rest of us naive Ethiopian utopians to open our eyes in Africa’s new Age of Kleptocracy and see ‘seriously clever men’ and con artists lining up to cannibalise their people for their last bowls of rice and handful of pennies.
The fact remains that there is still famine of the worst kind in Ethiopia and Africa that no Live Aid, Band Aid or Dead Aid can cure. It is a famine of democracy, justice, accountability, transparency, rule of law and human rights.
In the final analysis, the BBC report is not about Sir Bob’s reputation or legacy in Ethiopia or his future humanitarian work in Africa. It is about the truth; and if Sir Bob is truly committed to finding out the truth, let’s come together, relentlessly pursue it and let the chips fall where they may. We believe the truth shall make us all free!
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
 Audio: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8554298.stm