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Questions Relief Commitment, Military Spending : Geldof Returns to Ethiopia, Stirs Up a Storm

December 02, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Bob Geldof, the Irish pop star who raised millions in the West for famine relief here, returned to Ethiopia on Tuesday and managed to stir up a political tempest within minutes of his arrival by questioning the government's commitment to feeding its people and by criticizing its military spending.

The Ethiopian government, which had welcomed Geldof's eight-day visit to assess the current drought in the north, returned fire: A senior relief official accused Geldof of being biased and premature in his criticism.

The denim-clad musician, sporting his trademark long hair and few days' growth of beard, was greeted at the airport by senior Ethiopian government officials. He promptly told a press conference that the government's agricultural policy and "tendency toward collectivization of farming (is) stupid." Ethiopia's battles with secessionist rebels in the Tigre and Eritrea provinces are examples of "political systems fighting over the heads of dying people," he said.

"There aren't really any goodies in this situation. Most of the people are baddies in my view," he added.

Less than two hours later, Geldof exploded in anger during a private meeting with Berhanu Jembere, head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission and director of the country's food operation.

Berhanu later described those talks as "full and frank." But, he added, "it seems there is some bias in his attitude," and the commissioner called Geldof's remarks at the airport "disturbing, unbalanced and . . . pretty premature."

Although known for shooting from the hip--sometimes in very raw language--Geldof and his Band Aid organization have raised $140 million for famine relief since 1985. About $20 million of that remains.

Government officials had hoped that Geldof would issue a new appeal for money to help avert the country's latest starvation crisis. Ethiopia has appealed for 1.05 million tons of relief grain; 200,000 tons have been pledged so far by foreign governments and relief agencies.

His remarks, though, seemed to politicize the relief effort--something most relief officials here have taken pains to avoid. During the 1984-85 famine, there was much criticism of the Marxist government's commitment to the relief effort.

Most of this year's harvest in northern Ethiopia was ruined by a drought, and relief officials say the country could be faced with a crisis as catastrophic as the famine three years ago that claimed an estimated 1 million lives.

About 5 million Ethiopians will be wholly dependent on international food assistance during 1988, relief officials estimate, and a major feeding operation already has begun. An airlift of food to Tigre province began this week in an attempt to build up food stocks.

Ethiopia has been fighting a 25-year war against rebels in Eritrea, its northernmost province, and although the country receives substantial military support from the Soviet Union, it uses about one-third of its annual budget to keep the largest standing army in Africa. Geldof made his remarks before beginning a tour of the northern drought areas.

"He is most welcome in Ethiopia," Berhanu said. "We expect there will be a fair judgment after he has seen what we are doing."

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