Live Aid Famine Cash Bought Guns, Not Grain

LONDON (March 3) — Amid an ongoing global effort to raise funds for earthquake-stricken Haiti, new allegations surfaced today that millions of dollars raised by the 1985 Live Aid concerts for the victims of the Ethiopian famine were actually spent on weapons. The charges offer a timely reminder that collecting money is the easy part of any relief effort; making sure it gets to the right people is often far more complex.

Former Ethiopian rebel leaders have told the BBC that they siphoned off hundreds of millions of aid dollars to buy guns. Some of the diverted funds allegedly came directly from Western governments, and some from money raised in ticket sales at the twin concerts in London and Philadelphia. A 1985 CIA assessment of the country uncovered by the broadcaster also acknowledges that money ending up in militants’ coffers. “Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes,” it said.

Joe Schaber, AP
Live Aid concert organizer Bob Geldof speaks at the start of the blockbuster hunger relief effort on July 13, 1985, in London. Former Ethiopian rebels told the BBC that they used hundreds of millions of donated dollars to buy guns.
At the time of the famine, the Ethiopian government was fighting rebellions in the northern provinces of Eritrea (now an independent country) and Tigray. As it had lost control of much of the countryside in the north, relief agencies brought in aid to those regions from neighboring Sudan. Some was carried across the border in the form of cash, which was used to buy grain from Ethiopian farmers with surplus crops.

Rebels got their hands on this currency by disguising themselves as traders — a trick they were using before Live Aid money flooded into the country. The BBC quoted Christian Aid worker Max Peberdy, who took $500,000 into Ethiopia in 1984 to buy food supplies. A photo from the time shows him counting out money for a grain merchant, who was in fact Gebremedhin Araya, a senior member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). A member of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) — the TPLF’s humanitarian wing, which was supposed to distribute the aid — supervised the transaction.

“I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. This was a trick for the NGOs,” said Araya, who added that most of his grain bags were filled with sand. He said the money was passed to TPLF leaders, including Meles Zenawi, who became Ethiopian prime minister in 1991 and still rules the country. (He has not commented on the allegations.)

“As far as we were concerned and as far as we were told by REST, the people we were dealing with were merchants,” Peberdy told the BBC. “It’s 25 years since this happened, and in the 25 years it’s the first time anybody has claimed such a thing.”

Aregawi Berhe, a former rebel commander now living in exile in the Netherlands, backed up Araya’s story. He said that in 1985 the TPLF and affiliated groups got ahold of $100 million, 95 percent of which was spent on arms. He told the broadcaster that his men would stage a “drama” to get the cash. “The aid workers were fooled,” he said.

How much of the $140 million-plus raised by Live Aid ended up buying guns instead of grain is not clear. According to the BBC, Band Aid’s accounts suggest that it gave almost $11 million to groups linked to the rebels. But one of the event’s organizers, Irish rock star Bob Geldof, told British radio that this figure was wrong, as only 0.45 percent of all Live Aid money spent in 1985 went to Tigray.

He also dismissed evidence given by ex-military chief Berhe. “You’re talking about a disgruntled, exiled army general, someone who was not in any way connected with the relief organization,” said Geldof. He added that while it was possible that some money was mislaid, the scale of the fraud alleged by the BBC would have meant that all of the aid groups operating in Tigray — including Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and Christian Aid — “were somehow all duped. And that’s simply not the case.”

Ultimately, Geldof said, this controversy wouldn’t detract from Live Aid’s achievements. “What [the event] did was superb,” he said. “And there are millions of people alive today because of it.”

originally appeared 3/3/2010