By Andrew Whitehead
A quarter of a century ago, the BBC’s Michael Buerk achieved something very rare – he not only reported the world, but changed it a little bit.
His vivid on-the-spot coverage of a famine “of biblical proportions” in Tigray in northern Ethiopia pricked the conscience of the richer part of the world.
The money came pouring in. Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and Live Aid led the way in galvanising public attention, raising cash and mobilising a huge relief effort.
As a result, many thousands of lives were saved – and tens of thousands of those facing starvation received food.
In the past week, the BBC World Service has broadcast an Assignment documentary you can listen to it here – based on the testimony of key figures on the ground in and around Tigray in the mid-1980s.
It presents evidence, compelling evidence, that some of the famine relief donations were diverted by a powerful rebel group to buy weapons.
The documentary has revealed some uncomfortable facts and provoked a strong response. This morning a British newspaper, The Independent, gives over its front-page to complaints from Sir Bob Geldof and several leading charities. They accuse the BBC of “disgracefully poor reporting”.
The suggestion of aid money being to diverted to buy arms is “palpable nonsense”, in the words of Phil Bloomer, director of Oxfam’s campaigns and policy division.
Sir Bob goes further. “This is a Ross/Brand moment in BBC standards for me”, he told The Independent. “It is a disgrace”.
Ok, so let’s stand back a moment. This documentary was put together by Martin Plaut, Africa Editor at BBC World Service News.
He has a particular expertise in the Horn of Africa, and indeed reported from there on the famine back in the 1980s. He has spent almost a year gathering material and doing research for this documentary – and the BBC stands by his journalism.
As so often is the case, the famine that afflicted northern Ethiopia was compounded by war. Much of Tigray was controlled by a hard left-wing rebel group, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. They were fighting the Ethiopian army, then the largest in Africa.
This was also the era of the cold war – and the Americans were seeking to undermine the Soviet-aligned Ethiopian government.
It is not in dispute that millions of dollars of relief aid was channelled through the Relief Society of Tigray (Rest), which was a part of the TPLF rebel movement. It was the only way of reaching those in desperate need in rebel-held areas. What Martin Plaut’s documentary uncovers is the systematic diversion of aid received by Rest to buy arms for the TPLF.
— Full Story (BBC News)
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