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October 11, 2004

Trust Tony, he's a Christian

geldof_landscape1.JPG“Look, the man's not a friend of mine,” says Sir Bob Geldof, leaning back in his chair in the shiny United Nations conference room at the heart of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. “But do I know him... I've heard him speak about Africa."

The man in question is Tony Blair, Geldof's companion at last week's
much-heralded second meeting of their joint project the Commission for
Africa.

They made an unlikely pairing in the bustling capital – Geldof,
foul-mouthed and edgy in pinstripe suit, floral shirt and black trainers, Blair, smooth with New Labour suit and New Labour sound bites.

But the men, who were born just two years apart (Blair is 51, Geldof 53), did form a partnership of sorts, side by side in front of the cameras. Geldof – once the scourge of politicians of all colours - explained why he had decided to hitch his wagon on to Tony's great African adventure.

“I went to Blair after being in Ethiopia last year and I said, look,
something's got to give. And he took the political risk of doing this – because this could turn out to be rubbish,” Geldof's hands wave towards the ceiling of the UN headquarters, the base of the Commission for Africa's deliberations.

“Personally, Blair is passionate about Africa. Listen, I've had long
conversations with him and Brown separately and their level of rhetoric and their level of oratory rises when they talk about this.” His hand gestures become more flamboyant as he warms to his theme.

“I mean, they're Christians, practicing Christians. They're in the Labour party. Their thing is poverty. Their sort of instinct is to alleviate poverty. And whatever else you think about him, and that's your personal point of view and good luck, he really is serious about this. I would tell you immediately if he wasn't. You'll have to take my word for it. This is not an election stunt. He's serious.”

Geldof has had no time for cynicism at this week's Commission exhaustive sessions. He left one panel of African charity leaders and volunteers tittering nervously when he told them: “I don't want to hear one sceptical or cynical voice.... I don't want to be in a boring room listening to people moaning at me. I would rather be on a stage with a guitar earning money. I want to be at home with the kids. I don't want to sit here listening to you whining.”

Geldof has had to spend large chunks of time away from his kids this year including at least two trips to Ethiopia. Last month he toured the country filming a BBC documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of the devastating 1984 Ethiopian famine and the Live Aid concert that he organised to bring it to the world's attention.

This month he is back in Addis as one of the 17 commissioners on the
Commission for Africa – a body set up by Blair to take a fresh look at the multitude of economic and social problems besetting the continent.

The former Boomtown Rats lead singer sat down with the likes of Meles
Zenawi, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, and K. Y. Amoako, Executive Secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa, to chew over everything from trade barriers and HIV/Aids to debt cancellations and the revaluation of IMF gold in a string of closed meetings and working dinners.

“They're really clever people which is a bit intimidating,” says Geldof. “But it's nice to be an ingénue.”

Over the next few months he will be on the road again, visiting countries across the continent for more filming. At the same time he will be doing his bit to prepare the cultural parts of the Commission's final report by Spring 2005, in time for it to be presented to key G8 and European Union meetings.

“It's too much, you know...For the next four months I'll be in Congo,
Uganda, Tanzania, Benin, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Kenya, Somaliland, Somalia and then I'll be holding these seminars. You know it's too much work. I f****ing hate doing it you know. It would be so much nicer just to play with the boys.”

Of course he is lying. Geldof clearly revels in his role as free-thinking, free-speaking development firebrand. In turn, he takes on every aspect of the debate about the relationship between the developed and developing world and wrestles it to the ground.

Take free trade. “We say we live in a free market. We do not. We live in a highly distorted, protectionist economy. The European Union is a protection racket...We say go for free markets and then we distort the markets.

“So forget this crap about partners. Africa asks for aid and we give it. But then we distort everything. We make Africa pay back more. It's rubbish. It's not a partnership. I'd forget all that rubbish.”

Geldof's language jars against the polished surroundings of the UN and the polished rhetoric of his fellow commissioners. But his crudeness comes with a purpose.

“Right now the rhetoric of aid is at such an elevated level that you forget what the hell you were talking about in the first place. The jargon is overwhelming. The acronyms are everywhere.

“You hear the way I speak and what I try to do is just be very direct and not talk on those terms. And I think it takes the emotional pitch of the conversation up a couple of notches. I think people feel freer to say exactly what's in their mind.”

By all accounts that is exactly what happened in Addis last week. The 17 commissioners kept quiet about the exact contents of their discussions during the sessions. But, in a press conference afterwards, Geldof let slip that the deliberations had got “down and dirty”.

That was a good thing, he said, a sign of a real, honest discussion, a sign of hope. But, when the last debate is finished and the last page of the Commission report written, will all that hope actually turn into something concrete? For the first time, just a hint of cynicism breaks through the brash, forceful optimism.

“You know, I don't know. I'm not convinced it will work at all, I just think you have to try, otherwise you go on listening to the same old rhetoric and nothing happens.

“Will it make a difference? I don't know. I don't know. Are we doing wonderful things...maybe not. I'd like to. I'd really like to and I think everyone would like to as well.”

Posted by aheavens at 8:50 AM