The Live Aid Musical: Built on Lies, Cynicism, and Self-Congratulatory BS of White Saviors
It’s somehow fitting that in more than 700 words of a BBC article about Live Aid being turned into a stage musical, and in another feature published in The Guardian, the word “Ethiopia” only appears once.
In both articles, you get the word “famine,” but you learn nothing about what really happened in the country that supposedly inspired this pop culture milestone. We’re told that Bob Geldof “harnessed the power of rock and pop to save lives,” and if you feel a gag reflex over this hokum, trust that instinct.
The truth is uglier, much uglier. It’s been sitting out in the open for decades, and it implicates Geldof, the homicidal Marxist Derg regime, and the diplomats of U.S. and Europe.
And the whole myth of pop stars saving skeletal famine victims in distant Africa is part of a much bigger picture of the West lying about famines in Ethiopia.
Because you see, they didn’t just lie to you about the 1984 famine, they’ve tried to con you over the 1973 famine during the last few years of Haile Selassie. And among the top liars for that second one is our familiar piece of walking mold, Alex de Waal.
Let’s see ’em make a musical about all that.
The story that The Guardian and all the other Western media outlets would like to sell you is that Geldof watched a report on the 1984 famine by BBC reporter Michael Buerk and was moved to do something. Presto! Geldof calls up his fellow pop stars, organizes a recording session, and sales of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raises millions for aid. Geldof follows this up with the twin concerts for Band-Aid and then goes over to Ethiopia itself to see his mission through.
Hooray for the white saviors. You’d think if it weren’t for the BBC and Geldof, no one would know this was going on…Which would be a crock.
The truth is that Ethiopia’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which was the government’s organization dealing with the famine, was shouting its lungs out, trying to get help from the world as early as August of 1983. It warned that millions were at risk, hundreds dying every day.
The world didn’t listen.
The head of the RRC at the time was Dawit Wolde Giorgis — yes, that same Dawit Wolde Giorgis who is now a leading figure of the Amhara Popular Front, working with Eskinder Nega and Fano to free Ethiopia from widespread ethnic cleansing.
In his memoir of that era, Red Tears, Dawit explained how he hopscotched to European cities and on to New York to address the UN General Assembly, but “none of these appeals was heeded. No donor government responded with anything like the urgency the situation warranted.” And significantly, “our socialist friends in Eastern Europe completely ignored us.”
The RRC had warned that Ethiopia needed at least 450,000 tons of additional food aid. After the UN sent its own people in, it decided after a month that the country should get only 125,000 tons.
According to its own records, Oxfam didn’t pay proper attention to Ethiopia’s early calls for help. Reporter Robert Keating later got his hands on a secret report dated May 5 that showed how the White House was aware of the famine, “but chose to keep hands off for political reasons.” Ronald Reagan — who once called African UN delegates “monkeys” in a phone call with Richard Nixon — was prepared to let Ethiopians die if the disaster showed how a Marxist regime was failing.
Dawit Wolde Giorgis kept a careful account, more like a vigil, of the tailspin the country was in. His record of the sufferings in July 1984 reads, in fact, like a dirge. As he mentions in Red Tears, in a major district in Wollo “30,000 people were in need of food; 900 tons were needed for the month — they got nothing… In Hararge province along the Somalia border, the highlanders were drifting into the towns and cities, packing them to overflowing, while the lowland nomads crossed over into Somalia. They needed 5,000 tons for the month — and got nothing. Shoa needed 10,000 tons — and got nothing.”
Tigray suffered terribly, and in Eritrea, there were no shelters at all for the starving and sick.
The world’s indifference does not, of course, let the Derg regime off the hook. The Derg’s psychopathic dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, tried to cover up the extent of the famine, and while his regime couldn’t afford to feed Ethiopians, it somehow had millions to throw itself a lavish birthday party on its tenth anniversary that lasted four days.
One of the Derg’s cruelest reactions to the famine was its resettlement program. Given that for centuries, victims of war and famine had migrated on their own, the idea of offering resettlement was not in itself bad. But the authorities outright lied to those willing to move. As word got out of poor conditions at the final stops, fewer people were willing to go. Whole villages found themselves being forced onto vehicles and aircraft, people given little chance to pack. Those caught trying to escape were shot, and concentration camps were built for the most defiant.
The Blind Leading the Band
For the most part, the world learned about this later. In late 1984, the story of Ethiopia’s troubles often got simplified, especially on TV: the rains didn’t fall, hence drought, hence famine. And because white Westerners didn’t like looking at starving Africans, the story morphed into a tale of generosity of hope thanks to pretty, popular rock stars. To raise funds for famine relief, they sang, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
My generation heard the song on the radio around the clock during the 1984 holiday period. The insipid lyrics — so ignorant of Ethiopian culture — annoy Ethiopians to this day. A worse example of good intentions matched with obliviousness was when Band Aid raised $9 million and promptly shipped food and medicine to Massawa, only for the result to be “hundreds of thousands of tons of food rotted on the docks beside the Red Sea.”
It took an excoriating investigative article in Spin magazine in 1986 to get part of the truth out. Geldof “was warned, repeatedly, from the outset by several relief agencies in the field about Mengistu… According to Médecins Sans Frontières, who begged Geldof to not release the money until there was a reliable infrastructure to get it to victims, he simply ignored them, instead infamously replying: ‘I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help.”
While specifics were lacking in how much money the regime diverted, the case was plausibly made that Mengistu poured incoming funds into buying Russian weapons to crush his enemies. Geldof appeared in photos and video “bear hugging and playfully punching Mengistu in the arm as he literally handed over the funding for this slaughter.”
Over time, the Derg became the sole villain in the 1984 famine narrative, and they rightly deserve much condemnation — but not all of it.
When Dawit Wolde Giorgis visited Toronto weeks ago, I asked him in an interview about this, and he told me, “It was extremely difficult to stimulate the Western governments to come up and help. It was difficult because initially they completely ignored it… The facts were there. They didn’t need a BBC correspondent to come and give a twenty-three-minute documentary. They didn’t need that. They had all this information.”
As for Michael Buerk, says Dawit, “there were many other similar recorded videos the world could have watched. It was out in the open. They didn’t listen to us. My office appeared at two General Assembly meetings two years in a row.” What’s most disturbing, he argues, is that the West has portrayed events “as if the Americans or the Europeans discovered the famine when all along the records clearly show we have been shouting to the world. ‘Please come help.’”
And it took more than fifteen years for the truth to come out that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front also stole aid.
Two former senior members of the TPLF, Gebremedhin Araya and Aregawi Berhe, freely confessed in 2010 to BBC Africa editor Martin Plaut how they embezzled millions of dollars from Western aid agencies, replacing bags of grain meant for hungry Ethiopian mouths with bags filled with sand.
Of the $100 million taken in by aid agencies and passed along, much of it coming from Live Aid, Meles Zenawi proposed at the TPLF Congress in July 1985 that only five percent be allocated for famine victims.
As Tekalign Gedamu revealed in his memoir, Republicans on the Throne, while Ethiopians starved, the TPLF spent “huge sums of money” on a massive meeting hall, plus the food and drink for their event.
Keep an Eye on Who’s Telling the Story
But there are still more layers to all this. Because as good a piece as Keating wrote for Spin, you may notice he didn’t talk to a single Ethiopian for it. He relied for quotes several times on anthropologists Jason Clay and Bonnie Holcomb, who together published Politics and the Ethiopian Famine, 1984–1985. Their book offered briefly the same skewed depiction of Ethiopian history that Holcomb refined for her propaganda fairy tale, The Invention of Ethiopia. Keating took Geldof to task for not educating himself about Mengistu, yet he innocently relied on “experts,” one of whom brought an ethnic agenda to her observations of the horror out in the field.
Writer and journalists also still go back occasionally to mine details from Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia, a book-length report put out in 1991 by Africa Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch. And its author was… Alex de Waal, the TPLF’s favorite propagandist.
De Waal was already lying about Ethiopian history back then. Evil Days is disparaging over the responses of Menelik II to the Great Famine in the late 1800s without giving the proper historical context, and it claims, “In 1974, Haile Selassie became notorious for his attempts to conceal the existence of the famine of 1972–73 in Wollo.” Except he didn’t.
There is no denying that the Ethiopian government tried to cover up the 1973 famine, but the reporter who broke the story, Jonathan Dimbleby, revealed exactly who was primarily responsible in a follow-up report months after his first documentary shocked the world.
I once asked the late ambassador Imru Zelleke point blank for his opinion of how much the emperor knew, and he believed that Haile Selassie was aware of the famine but that his court officials deliberately kept him in the dark over its extent.
The emperor did visit Wollo that November and as historian Edmond Keller put it, “came away genuinely appalled at what he saw.” Another account maintains that after the visit by the emperor and his entourage, “the imperial family ate no breakfast, lunch, or supper that day,” and he returned to the capital “in complete disarray.”
Tekalign Gedamu also tells us that when the emperor was finally aware of the situation, he grilled officials and lambasted, among others, his own son since the Crown Prince was the governor of Wollo.
Another person facing his ire was Dejazmach Solomon Abraha, who handled provincial affairs. “And while the famine was decimating the people of the province,” he scolded Solomon, “you were busy carpeting the road from Kombolcha to Dessie with reeds in preparation for Our arrival, uttering not one word about the victims.”
But here’s the kicker. Even for the 1970s horrific famine, international agencies first ignored the pleas of junior Ethiopian officials to help — they didn’t want to rock the boat with the administration.
Then when the famine became too great to ignore, UNICEF, the U.S. Development Program, the World Food Programme, USAID, and the U.S. Peace Corps all helped ship aid in, but on the understanding that it would help the government keep the disaster under wraps in case the news sparked public outrage and exacerbated growing political discontent.
As late as August 1973 when a UNICEF report detailed the full horror of what was unfolding in Wollo, the organization emphasized secrecy in sharing its findings, for which USAID was happy to comply, and according to Jack Sheperd’s The Politics of Starvation, a U.S. embassy official declared, “There was a conspiracy of silence all along the line…”
You will search in vain in the most recent books for any mention of the American and European delays and their complicity in the cover-up. Forgotten is the fact that the slow response and seeming indifference of the U.S. government were at the forefront of Senate hearings in March 1974.
Such amnesia has done wonders for Western hypocrisy, producing a one-size-fits-all back story for both liberal and conservative perspectives on aid, as either side can tell themselves that the poor Africans are either too corrupt or not up to the job and need a white helping hand. Of course, the government back then was chiefly responsible for the deaths, but denying the role played by international organizations has helped perpetuate for decades the Western view of “hopeless Africa.”
Peter Gill, who wrote Famine and Foreigners in 2010, didn’t bother at all to hold Bob Geldof to account for supplying funds to Mengistu, even though he had years to research this issue and reflect. He also called Evil Days “the best study produced” on the 1984 famine. And he ended his book by calling TPLF dictator Meles Zenawi a “brilliant tactician as well as a far-sighted leader.”
One of his most worrisome blind spots is his mention in passing of how the TPLF “created the still-respected relief agency, REST (Relief Society of Tigray)…” His paperback edition had an effusive blurb on a front page, calling Famine and Foreigners “the essential book on Ethiopia,” and it came from none other than… Alex de Waal.
It’s little wonder then that Live Aid can shamble back to life like a Frankenstein monster with a few lights in London’s West End and the smoke of nostalgia. You have to dig deeper to find out the truth of what really happened.
What I find so repulsive is that they dug up this monster while thousands and thousands of Ethiopian famine victims lay in their graves, the facts of their tragedy still mostly buried with them.