By Martin Plaut

Africa editor, BBC World Service

Millions of dollars in Western aid for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 was siphoned off by rebels to buy weapons, a BBC investigation finds.

Former rebel leaders told the BBC that they posed as merchants in meetings with charity workers to get aid money.

They used the cash to fund attempts to overthrow the government of the time.

One rebel leader estimated $95m (£63m) – from Western governments and charities including Band Aid – was channelled into the rebel fight.

The CIA, in a 1985 assessment entitled Ethiopia: Political and Security Impact of the Drought, also alleged aid money was being misused.

Its report concluded: “Some funds that insurgent organisations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes.”

Multiple rebellions

The crisis in 1984 prompted a huge Western relief effort, spearheaded by pop star Bob Geldof’s Band Aid campaign and Live Aid concerts.


Live Aid concert

Roughly one million Ethiopians died from results of famine

Disaster exacerbated by civil war

Huge Western relief effort led by pop star Bob Geldof

Live Aid concerts raise more than $60m (£40m)

Although millions of people were saved by the aid that poured into the country, evidence suggests not all of the aid went to the most needy.

At the time, the Ethiopian government was fighting rebellions in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray.

Much of the countryside was outside of government control, so relief agencies brought aid in from neighbouring Sudan.

Some was in the form of food, some as cash, to buy grain from Ethiopian farmers in areas that were still in surplus.

Max Peberdy, an aid worker from Christian Aid, carried nearly $500,000 in Ethiopian currency across the border in 1984.

He used it to buy grain from merchants and believes that none of the aid was diverted.

“It’s 25 years since this happened, and in the 25 years it’s the first time anybody has claimed such a thing,” he says.

He insists that to the best of his knowledge, the food went to feed the starving.


CIA report into Ethiopia aid crisis

Some funds that insurgent organisations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes

But the merchant Mr Peberdy dealt with in that transaction claims he was, in fact, a senior member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

“I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. This was a trick for the NGOs,” says Gebremedhin Araya.

Underneath the sacks of grain he sold, he says, were sacks filled with sand.

He says he handed over the money he received to TPLF leaders, including Meles Zenawi – the man who went on to become Ethiopia’s prime minister in 1991.

Mr Meles, who is still in office, has declined to comment on the allegations.

But Mr Gebremedhin’s version of events is supported by the TPLF’s former commander, Aregawi Berhe.

Now living in exile in the Netherlands, he says the rebels put on what he describes as a “drama” to get the money.

“The aid workers were fooled,” he says.

He says that some $100m went through the hands of the TPLF and affiliated groups.

Some 95% of it was allocated to buying weapons and building up a hard-line Marxist political party within the rebel movement.

Both Mr Aregawi and Mr Gebremedhin fell out with the TPLF leadership and fled the country.