Furious: Bob Geldof has hit out at claims that Live Aid money was used for military purposes

Bob Geldof has never been a man to mince his words. But even by his own colourful standards he went absolutely ball-istic last week over claims that some of the money he raised through Live Aid in the Eighties might have been diverted to buy guns.

What made his vitriolic outburst even more remarkable was that it was aimed at the BBC, which famously alerted to the crisis, inspired Geldof to rage against the world’s failure to act and backed his unprecedented effort to save millions from starvation in Ethiopia.

And which continued its uncritical support right up to his more controversial Live8 concert in 2005.

Now he has launched a bitter, personal attack on Martin Plaut, the BBC World Service’s Africa Editor, who reported that some of the Live Aid cash had been used to buy weapons, rather than food.

The subterfuge, he said, was carried out by rebel forces in Tigray without the knowledge of the aid agencies.

Geldof scornfully replied that not a shred of evidence had been produced to show that any Band Aid or Live Aid money had been diverted.

He has threatened to sue over the report which, he said, was proof that the BBC World Service had become rotten. ‘I am as bereft as a jilted lover,’ he wrote of his new-found estrangement.

The BBC stands by its story. But they can’t both be right.

Bob Geldof’s outburst at the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 served a noble purpose. Who can forget those BBC images of the time: vast encampments of starving people, heart-rending pictures of parents scratching the rock-hard ground to dig graves for their children?

Michael Buerk’s sonorous report of a ‘biblical famine… the closest thing to Hell on Earth’ gave Ethiopia a sense of cataclysm.

Then came Geldof’s shrill, enraged demand: ‘Don’t go to the pub tonight. Give me the money – NOW!’ The money poured in and the Live Aid concert eventually raised £150million.

But Geldof’s fury continued. Where was the UN’s World Food Programme that was supposed to feed the starving?

He bought grain and hired a bulk carrier to take it by sea. The RAF was called in to air-drop food to the starving. Suddenly the whole world cared about Ethiopia.

Since then, I’ve asked many outsiders working in Africa what first inspired them to go there. Most say: ‘The reports of the 1984 Ethiopian famine and Live Aid.’

But surely there is a time for anger and a time for adult, sober assessment. Most people with any experience of Africa, famine, aid and civil war realise it would be impossible to deliver aid to those who most need it without some being lost as an undeclared ‘tax’ to local warlords.

Did we even understand why this famine was happening? Buerk and some of the other journalists did mention the war but this was not the time for a lesson in Ethiopian history and politics.

The impression was made that nature had caused the great hunger, a terrible Biblical plague, an act of God. All the poor Ethiopians needed was food.

They did need food but they also needed peace. Rebel movements were driving the government and its army out of two mountainous regions, Tigray and Eritrea.

The government, headed by the military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba and had the biggest army in Africa.

Mengistu ruled with brutal Soviet-style-policies of forced migration and starvation. Traditional trade routes and the movement of much-needed food was impossible.

The well-organised rebels rec-eived almost no help from anyone. They lived off the land, captured weapons from their enemy and taxed the people to buy more guns and ammunition.

Although some areas of Tigray were hard hit by hunger, there was food in others.

]There was also food across the border in Sudan. Some aid agencies, notably the Catholic aid agency Cafod, saw it would be better to buy food locally rather than bring it from overseas. They also worked with a local partner.

Cafod’s local partner was the Relief Society of Tigray, known as REST, the aid department of the rebel movement, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, the TPLF.

This is the organisation the BBC claims diverted money meant to buy food and bought arms and military equipment instead.

I remember REST well. It had an office in Highbury, North London, and was staffed partly by British volunteers but led by Tigrayans. I was based in London at that time and if you wanted to know how the war was going, you called REST.

Its chairman was Dr Solomon Inquai, who went on to be speaker of the regional parliament in Tigray. When the boss of the TPLF, Meles Zenawi, came to London, REST staff hosted him.

It was part of the rebel movement and everyone knew it. In 1991 the TPLF defeated Mengistu and took over the whole country. Meles is now the Prime Minister.

Two disaffected TPLF leaders, Gebremedhin Araya, a former treasurer, and a co-founder, Dr Aregawi Berhe, told the BBC that their fighters posed as grain merchants and aid money handed over to them by REST officials was actually used to buy guns, not food.

Dr Aregawi says that out of the £65million given to REST, £62million bought weapons.
No hard evidence has emerged and that seems an unlikely figure. Food was definitely supplied in those areas.

Most aid agencies in war emergencies estimate that between 20 and 30 per cent of their aid will be hijacked or stolen.

In Somalia, the UN reported last week, up to 50 per cent of food aid is being stolen. Some would argue that is the price of getting the rest of the food through. Others say that aid is wasted or used to fund the war and should be stopped.

Both Gebremedhin and Aregawi have left Ethiopia and hold grudges against Prime Minister Meles. Their uncorroborated testimony should not be relied on. But the United States’ evidence for stolen aid is more credible.

The Americans had not given any substantial help to the Tigrayan rebels or their Eritrean allies, as the Soviet Union began to collapse and stopped supplying Mengistu with weapons, Washington tried to woo him.

Bob Houdek, a former US amb-assador to Addis Ababa, revealed that former rebels now in government had admitted to him that some of the food aid was ‘monetarised’ – ie sold for money to buy weapons’.

It is an eternal dilemma in places like Africa. There are some wars – Somalia is a good current example – where stolen food aid might be funding warlords or, even worse, Al Qaeda supporters.

But the wars the Eritreans and Tigrayans fought against a Soviet-backed military dictator in the Seventies and Eighties had justification.

The ultimate cause of the famine that hit Ethiopia in 1984 was not a localised drought, but a dictatorship that led to war. War disrupted trade, prevented food being moved in and caused famine.

Ending the famine meant ending the war and that meant the defeat of the vile Mengistu regime.

Any thought of buying weapons was probably the last thing on the minds of generous people as they signed a cheque or phoned in a contribution for aid to Ethiopia.

But the irony that escapes Geldof is that guns and getting rid of the Mengistu regime may have been Live Aid’s greatest contribution to preventing a new famine. That’s the reality of aid and politics in Africa.