Rebels with a grudge and the anatomy of a damning smear

The BBC's claim this week that $95m of aid to Ethiopia had in fact been spent on weapons was incendiary, threatening to undermine future aid efforts. But, says Paul Vallely, it does not stand up to scrutiny

Live Aid millions spent on arms," headlines have said all over the world in the past few days after a year-long BBC investigation announced it had found evidence that millions of dollars earmarked for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 went to buy weapons.

It was, on the face of it, a highly damaging story which could undermine the extraordinary generosity of the public to give to the appeals launched whenever a major disaster strikes, as it has in Chile and Haiti in recent weeks. But examine the BBC report and it slips like sand through the fingers. What follows is the anatomy of a slur.

The story, by the BBC World Service's Africa analyst, Martin Plaut, said that in 1985 the rebels of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front diverted 95 per cent of the aid sent to the north of Ethiopia into its fight to overthrow the government of the time. He quoted two senior rebel soldiers as saying that rebels had dressed up as merchants to trick aid agencies into handing over large amounts of cash, purportedly to buy food. To back up the claims he cited recently released CIA documents and quoted a senior US diplomat as saying that at the time they had believed that aid was "almost certainly being diverted for military purposes". It all sounds incredibly damning – until you ask who is making these allegations.

The most senior rebel is Aregawi Berhe, once a commander in the rebel army. Or at least he was until the mid-80s when he fell out with the other leaders of the TPLF, most particularly with Meles Zenawi, the rebel who went on to become the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and who – revealingly enough – is facing a general election in Ethiopia next month.

Aregawi fled to Holland, from where he has for years conducted vehement attacks on his erstwhile colleagues, Meles Zenawi in particular. "Not only did he defect under very political circumstances," said one Western aid monitor who spent years in Tigray at that time, "but he was in a different part of the country during much of this time." Indeed one partisan Ethiopian website has claimed, Aregawi left the TPLF before the clandestine cross-border import of food from Sudan even began.

There are doubts about the good faith of the other rebel official quoted in the BBC story. Gebremedhin Araya was a senior figure in the TPLF's finance department. He was photographed dressed as a Muslim merchant counting the money after selling sacks of grain which were really, he said, filled with sand. But Gebremedhin too was purged by the TPLF and fled to exile in Australia.

So the core of the BBC story rests on the claims of two individuals with a grievance against the current Ethiopian government and a track-record of attempts to discredit it – and it comes at a time when it might do maximum damage to the Ethiopian prime minister just ahead of elections. That does not mean they are wrong, but it sets up reasonable doubts. Alarm bells ought to have begun ringing at that point.

They ought to have rung louder at some of the discrepancies in detail. Aregawi Berhe claimed that the British aid worker in the photo, Max Peberdy of Christian Aid, had handed over $2m. But the charity insists that Peberdy had only $500,000 for his entire grain-purchasing mission. Yesterday Pederby said that the deal in the photograph involved only $60,000.

"We bought from different merchants each time," said Nick Guttmann, director of emergency relief operations at Christian Aid . "We paid in Ethiopian birr, not dollars, which is what international arms traders demand from those who want to buy guns. We checked the grain – not every bag – but random sampling in the techniques used by professional port surveyors. We went to see the grain distributed. The idea that we just handed the money over and then walked away is preposterous. We had proper systems in place and we always do."

The BBC report gave added credence to the rebels' claims by quoting a recently released CIA document which suggested some aid was "almost certainly being diverted for military purposes". But close scrutiny of the document shows it is dated April 1985 – three months before the Live Aid concert even happened. A later CIA document, dated July 1985, after Live Aid, makes no mention of aid cash going on arms in rebel areas.

Finally the BBC programme quoted Robert Houdek, the most senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in 1988, the year after the TPLF overthrew the Mengistu dictatorship in Addis Ababa, as saying that the former rebels told him that "some of the food coming in through the Sudan was being sold for cash". But, again, Houdek offered hearsay, not evidence. He gave no facts or figures.

So what was the truth?

Ironically, despite the lurid headlines of recent days, the money from the Band Aid Trust was perhaps the best monitored. "We put so many checks in place precisely to stop that kind of thing," said Penny Jenden, who was Band Aid's director, yesterday. "We spent our money mainly on trucks to move food, in the early stages, and then on seeds, tools and oxen. And we didn't give any money directly to REST [the Tigreans' own aid agency] till 1986."

Band Aid spent less than half a per cent of all Live Aid money in Tigray in 1985. In the six years to 1991 Band Aid's total spend there was only $11m of the $100m Live Aid raised. "We knew it was a difficult situation," said Jenden, "so our accounting procedures were doubly strict. As well as Band Aid staff we sent in independent monitors to check, and we shared all our info with the other NGOs."

Oxfam, Christian Aid, Unicef, the Red Cross and Save the Children all insist that they too had robust on-the-ground monitoring in place. They have all made similar statements. "The agencies on the ground did some serious monitoring – from purchase to delivery to distribution," one high-level independent monitor said yesterday. "I saw the grain being loaded on REST trucks and then saw it being distributed," said another.

Only a fool would suggest that it is impossible that some aid may have been subverted by the military. But ironically the most likely source of aid diversion was from the food aid provided by the US government – and it may well have been done with the connivance of the CIA who were happy at the thought of the Marxist dictatorship in Addis being overthrown. The CIA was at that time giving clandestine support to rebels in both Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

"In any aid operation you work on the basis that 10 per cent of aid will go astray," said Myles Wickstead, a former British ambassador to Ethiopia. "It's the price you pay for getting the 90 per cent through. Where lives are at stake you cut corners and take risks. You make judgements. But I'd give no credibility whatsoever to the idea that 95 per cent of aid to Tigray was diverted.

"It was too highly monitored, most particularly that of Live Aid. Some money may well have gone astray in Ethiopia in 1985. But nowhere nearly on the scale which the BBC has alleged."

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker