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Bob rocks the boat in Africa

1985 October 22
tags: , ,
by Paul Vallely

It was not clear whether Hissene Habre, the President of the Republic of Chad, noticed Bob Geldof’s peculiar gestures as they sat together on the sofa in the presidential palace. Whenever the head of state turned his attention to another questioner Geldof would shape his hands into a ring and then make them quiver in the pretence of pressure.

The object was to make the questioner laugh in mid-sentence. Everybody in the room but for the unfortunate statesman was in on the schoolboy joke.

For days before the meeting Geldof had been working himself up to ask Habre whether it was true that he had once personally strangled two of his political opponents while they were awaiting execution in the condemned cell. The night before they met he had broached the subject during an all-male Muslim dinner with a member of the Chadian Cabinet. When the minister’s moderately fluent English proved unequal to the task, the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats seized him by the throat and started to throttle him by way of demonstration.

In the event, perhaps fortunately for all, Geldof never actually plucked up the courage to ask the question, though the Chadian president found his alternative opening remark odd in any case: ‘Hello. You’ve got grey hair. It’s brown in the pictures. Do you dye it for the photos?’

The heads of state on this six-nation tour of Africa’s famine belt have taken it all rather well. Habre explained that grey hair was the lot of any ruler of Chad. In Sudan, General Swar al-Dahab merely smiled when, on being presented with the gaudy blue, white and gold insignia of the Order of the Two Niles (Second Class), Geldof asked: ‘Where are the earrings?’ Fortunately he did not know at the time that the singer Harry Belafonte had been given the award with first-class status.

In Niger, President Kountche was scrupulously polite when Geldof did not turn up to see him at an audience attended by the rest of the Band Aid entourage. ‘I can’t be bothered’, Geldof said. ‘Kountche seems quite a sensible chap. I’m only interested in madmen in power.’

There is, for all the deliberate uncouthness, a spiky charm to the man whom Radio Niger, without any trace of irony, dubbed Geldof de l’Afrique. For beneath the punk diplomacy – ‘Can you have a word with Libya about that, then, General?’ – is a compassion which Geldof seems embarrassed even to acknowledge and certainly will not put on show for the protocol men who arrange endless courtesy meetings or the politicians who attend them.

When he is out in the field, however, it is manifested in a powerful sense of moral indignation. ‘What I am saying is this: why is that old man dying of hunger in the village over there when there is all this food here?’

The man he was addressing was the provincial commissioner of the Northern Province of Burkina Faso. The commissioner was standing in a storeroom with piles of USaid sorghum towering above his head. He was sweating profusely beneath the scrutiny of the BBC television crew which dogs Geldof’s every step. He wiped his brow and took a quick breath before launching out again on his long and complex explanation of their system of distribution.

‘I’m not interested in the bloody system’, Geldof shouted. ‘Why has he no food? Why is he starving to death?’

Geldof has spent the past two weeks striding around Africa like a latterday Everyman. In theory he is there to reach decisions on how Live Aid’s pounds 48 million should be spend but in practice he is leaving that detail to a team of administrators and expert consultants in London. Geldof sees his real job out here as asking the obvious questions which the professionals have forgotten how to ask.

‘I ask the questions which the people who gave the money would ask. If professionals say they are naive or ill-informed, fair enough – just so long as they can give a good answer.’

He has the same attitude to the heads of state he meets. In the background the protocol men shuffle. But where they are quick to put an end to unpalatable queries from journalists by shouting ‘No more questions, no more questions’ they are unable to do the same to the honoured guest with the millions in the back pocket of his pink trousers.

‘Is it true that you torture people as Amnesty International says?’ he demands baldly of the President of Burkina Faso. ‘How can you justify requesting 400,000 tons of food aid for Darfour next year when your harvest elsewhere should bring in a million-ton surplus?’ he asked the military leader of Sudan.

Often the answers, from all sources, are more complex than he would like to admit. Usually Geldof then stops listening and starts on one of his tirades about ‘moral imperatives’. Sometimes he responds to complexities by trampling all over them. He discovered the dying old man in the village by being where he was not supposed to be.

He’s just walked all over local etiquette here’, said one frustrated UN worker who had explained to Geldof that he was not being invited into one particularly desolate village because the head man had no hospitality to offer in his house. Not realizing that in this circumstance the house and village were synonymous, Geldof said: ‘OK’ and walked straight in anyway.

Aid workers accused him of being macabre and being a famine tourist but he countered belligerently later: ‘If I hadn’t gone in we wouldn’t have found the dying old man.’

His chronic impatience has not been improved by the lengthy committee meetings he has held in the capitals of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and lastly Ethiopia. In each he gathered together representatives of government departments, the UN, the EEC and voluntary agencies. He asked for a briefing on the local situation, then told them he expected a consensus on what was the best way that Band Aid could spend its cash.

Sometimes he would allow his colleague Kevin Jenden to do the talking (usually when he had a case of African Tummy) and would then interrupt Jenden’s ponderous meanderings with a rumbling crescendo of ‘pompous, pompous, pompous’.

The only official building in which Geldof did not seem too bored was in the wedding-cake palace of Captain Thomas Sankara, the President of Burkina Faso, which before its revolution was called Upper Volta. Aid workers in the country have few doubts that Sankara’s anti-bourgeois, anti-metropolitan, pro-peasant revolution is just what a country as poor as this needs, but there is little doubt either that Sankara himself is a man of some eccentricity.

There was a long wait in a grand ante-room before the sumons came. Outside was a long conservatory, the corridor to the president’s office. At the end of it a little corporal in olive fatigues hopped nervously from one foot to another and leaned out to catch a glimpse of the great pop star as he passed. Then he extended his hand. This was in fact not the sentry at the cabinet door but the President of Burkina Faso.

‘How’s the revolution going?’ asked the well-informed pop singer. Sankara, who spoke nervously and with speed, told him it was well. He had sent his ministers off to work with the peasants in the fields, made his diplomats sleep on floors and eat sandwiches and did not use his air-conditioned office but worked in the hot corridor like his people.

‘Everybody is unhappy with my austerity measures. Even I am’, he said simply, and then requested Geldof to send him some reggae tapes from London because he had banned their import himself.

Trying to be truly independent as a small African country was a bit like trying to be a rebel pop star on a big record label, he said. Geldof nodded knowlingly and offered the dictator a Live Aid T-shirt and a Bob Marley tape which Geldof had pinched from one of the journalists (me).

After much haranguing about Coca-Colonialism, the truth about Northern Ireland, Israel and South Africa, and the lies of Amnesty International, Sankara announced he would like to form a pop group. He would play guitar and Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the President of Ghana, would play drums. Would Bob be interested in joining?

‘I’m not sure I’d have the time’, he responded with uncharacteristic diplomacy. ‘Why not ask the King of Thailand? He plays sax.’

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