Bob Geldof reacted angrily yesterday to claims broadcast on the BBC that millions of dollars raised by Band Aid were diverted to Ethiopian rebels.
The allegations that 95 per cent of aid money donated to help victims of the 1985 Ethiopian famine were siphoned off were made in a BBC radio programme broadcast yesterday.
Geldof told The Times that “it would be a f***ing tragedy” if the British people stopped giving to charity because of allegations made by the same broadcaster that inspired him to fight poverty and hunger in Africa.
His conversion from rock musician to internationally renowned fundraiser began in December 1984 when he and his partner, Paula Yates, watched Michael Buerk’s report on the unfolding famine in Ethiopia.
Yates was moved to tears and the next day Geldof found a note that she had left on the fridge instructing anyone who entered the house to leave £5 in a box. Geldof thought that they could do more and formed Band Aid, which produced a pop single at Christmas. This was followed the next summer by the Live Aid concert. His actions raised $250 million (£170 million) for famine victims in five African countries.
In interviews, however, two former senior commanders in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) told the BBC that the vast majority of the money was stolen by rebels to buy weapons for their fight to overthrow the Ethiopian Government.
The claims sparked controversy, not least because one of the rebel leaders implicated was Meles Zenawi, now the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and still a leading recipient of Western aid. Previous allegations have centred on the role of the Government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which had been accused of stealing aid and diverting food supplies away from rebel areas.
Band Aid officials used networks of aid agencies to deliver relief through Sudan to the epicentre of the famine in rebel-held Tigray. Aregawi Berhe, the former military commander of the TPLF, told the BBC that rebels put on a “drama” to get their hands on the relief money, posing as merchants and handing over bags of sand instead of grain in exchange for cash delivered by naive Western aid workers.
Gebremedhin Araya, another former rebel leader, told the BBC that he was “given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant”. He added: “This was a trick for the NGOs.” Mr Berhe estimated that 95 per cent of the $100 million that went through the rebels’ hands was diverted in this way.
Nick Guttmann, Christian Aid’s director of emergency relief operations, fell short of denying the allegations but said that the story needed to be put into context. “We were working in a major conflict, there was a massive famine and people on all sides were suffering. Both the rebels and the Government were using innocent civilians to further their political ends,” he said.
Geldof dismissed the claims, saying that “the story and the figures just don’t add up”.
“If that percentage of money had been diverted, far more than a million people would have died,” he told The Times. “It’s possible that in one of the worst, longest-running conflicts on the continent some money was mislaid. But to suggest it was on this scale is just b******s.”
Geldof’s stance was supported in a letter to the BBC by former Band Aid officials, including their Ethiopia director, which said that all the money dispensed in Tigray had been accounted for by the organisation. “The public should not think that the money they so generously contributed to one of the poorest countries in the world was misused or given in vain,” it said.
Max Peberdy, a Christian Aid worker whom the rebels claimed to have tricked into handing over $500,000, said he did not believe that the money was diverted. “It’s 25 years since this happened and it’s the first time anybody has claimed such a thing,” he said.
Geldof blamed the story on the grievances nursed by the two former rebel commanders, who had since fallen out with their former compatriots and fled into exile in the Netherlands.
Jamie Drummond, executive director of One, the charity co-founded by Geldof and Bono, said that he had travelled to Tigray with Geldof six weeks ago to see agricultural projects that were funded by Band Aid and Live Aid — which he said could not have been achieved if the BBC’s allegations were true.
There was no comment on the allegations from Mr Meles’s office in Addis Ababa. The BBC stood by its report last night.