Bono discusses African despots, including Zenawi

Meles - From Tyranny to Fascism
U2 lead singer Bono, 45, discusses African despots, the lack of progress in sub-Saharan Africa and the appropriate standards for development aid. In isolating corrupt politicians, he argues, we must not forget the people.

SPIEGEL: Bono, six months ago you and Bob Geldof pleaded for a debt cancellation for countries like Ethiopia. You did that successfully. But in the meantime, President Meles Zenawi's government rigged the elections, sent thousands of people into prisons and accused journalists and opposition leaders of treason. What went wrong?

Bono: I am gutted about what happened there. I know Meles Zenawi. I have sat with him on more than a few occasions. I know his story. He fought a guerilla war against Mengistu for 17 years. He is a regarded macro-economist, believe it or not.

SPIEGEL: Does that give him the right to put people into prison for publishing their opinion?

Bono: No, no. Of course not. I just want to say that he is a person who deeply cares about the poor in Ethiopia and has done some great things. But he's bipolar. On the other side we see that he's still a military man, who will not give up power, who is closing down civil society and is putting the opposition in prison, behind bars. This is shocking and apalling.

SPIEGEL: Are you surprised by the recent development?

Bono: Meles has just turned sour in the last years. For a while he was doing mostly what was right. The decisions that were made in good faith in the past, you can't hold them ransom for the present.

SPIEGEL: This government has never been democratic. The elections last summer were supposed to be the first democratic ones in the history of the country.

Bono: Aid flows are being withdrawn now. And the movement I belong to is part of the reason why the British government has pulled out of Ethiopia. We have to have a very simple standard of doing business, which is: If you are not tackling corruption, if you are not allowing civil society to do their job, we are not giving you any money. Outside of famine, and outside of those kinds of catastrophes, which need money pumped in no matter who's in charge. We are not marching the streets to redecorate presidential palaces for anyone.

SPIEGEL: But take the example of Rwanda: Sixty-five percent of its budget is paid by donors.

Bono: Of their budget? They have no budget. Sixty-five percent of zero.

SPIEGEL: Would you say the Rwandan government allows civil society to do its job properly? Opposition parties are forbidden, human rights activists were forced to leave the country. Paul Kagame won the last elections with an incredible 95 percent.

Bono: Do you believe that you can only give development assistance to unblemished democracies?

SPIEGEL: Why not? A darling of the west like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni just decided to change the constitution only to stay in power for a third term. As long as we cancel the debts of such a country we will never motivate them to change their undemocratic behaviour.

Bono: The actual monies freed up from debt cancellation have paid for very clearly accounted things. For instance, they have paid for universal primary education in Uganda. So do you think their debts shouldn't have been cancelled and those people shouldn't be in school? Do you think it would be better to leave children out of school? Do you think it would be better that we say: 'Museveni, you'd better bring some democratic elections, and until you bring democratic elections we're not going to help you fight this AIDS epidemic?' Knowing that if you don't fix this AIDS epidemic in Uganda, all its neighboring countries will be affected. Is it not a cliché to suggest that all aid should be denied to anything but the most perfect players in democracy. If that were so, where would Europe have been a hundred years ago? We have to give some chance to the people who are under these despotic regimes to shine. As long as we know where the money is going and as long as we have a sense that these people are in the moment that we give them the money doing right by their people, I think we have to. Once they stop doing right by their people we stop.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, Africa is suffering from two droughts, one in eastern Africa and one in the south. Malawi is one of the most affected countries in the south, Kenya one in the East. Both countries asked for assistance, but both should be able to feed their own people. Kenya's western region had a bumper corn harvest. And Malawi has got this big Lake Malawi to water the soil. As long as we bring corn from the United States or other countries they will never begin to use their resources effectively

Bono: Malawi is landlocked, remember that. It's great having a lake, but for trade you need access to ports. They have no infrastructure of their own and they have to deal with the infrastructure of their neighboring countries and the ports belonging to neighboring countries before they can become effective in trade. I think it's worth remembering that. The lake also has bilharzia disease. They can't exactly use it for tourism. I am watching people queuing up to die: three in a bed, two on top and one underneath. And I don't believe I should have to see that. I don't believe anyone should see that.

SPIEGEL: Kenya has got perfect conditions for tourism. Kenya's problem is government corruption.

Bono: We should also talk about the positive examples. What about Benin? What about Mali? What about Mozambique? What about Senegal? We've spent the whole interview speaking about the bad guys. There are some good guys, and we've stuck with the five bad guys.

SPIEGEL:But do the positive examples really need our help? The countries which received the most development aid are performing worst.

Bono: Ghana cannot succeed in its endeavours without our aid. The same with Mozambique, the same with Tanzania, a former German colony. Tanzania used German aid and debt cancellation to make primary education free and get an additional 1.6 million children into school. How great is that?

SPIEGEL: What does Nigeria need our money for? The country is one of the world's biggest oil producers.

Bono: Okay, it's still a corrupt place in so many ways, but most people will admit it has the first honest leader in 40 years. Most people will agree that (President Olusegun) Obasanjo is a good man. Shall we ignore Nigeria and say, 'Stew in your own juice. You've made your bed, now lie in it?' Nigeria is, as you know, home to 120 million Africans; it's an oil-rich nation; it's also another Iran in so many ways. It's a very wealthy country with really high stakes resources like oil. Every week, sharia law is introduced in a different village. So where there is chaos, there are those out there who wish to bring order to it, and some of them are people you should not be encouraging. There are Islamic extremist groups moving in to Nigeria every week, making progress. We must not let Nigeria go. Because the cost of letting Nigeria go, the cost of Nigeria falling into another civil war, with oil in play, is far, far, far more dangerous than the price of trying to encourage the fledgling, stumbling but serious people who are in power now. We know that corruption in Nigeria is endemic, but we can't just walk away. To walk away would be irresponsible.

SPIEGEL: Nigeria needs good governance, not more money. The money is already there, it just needs to be used properly.

Bono: I am not saying that we treat Nigeria the same way as we treat Tanzania. But I am saying you have to really take Nigeria very seriously and you have to make sure that Nigeria succeeds in its present incarnation. Because if it doesn't succeed in its present incarnation we're in big trouble. And I think it's striking that in the war against terror after 9/11 that President Bush tells Obasanjo, 'Thank you very much for your support, your commiseration, we will stand with you.' What did he receive when he was leaving? Nothing. And now they are paying us to loosen up their debt. And now the Nigerian Finance Mnister is doing something extraordinary. Nigeria recently received a financial windfall because of the rise in oil prices. Now you would think that the finance minister would use that to buy a new fleet of ministerial cars, wouldn't you? But she has not. She has used it to buy Nigeria out of its debts. This is extraordinary. This is the finance minister of a country that is the very symbol of corruption, but she is doing something so financially prudent. In the process she is handing over to the United Kingdom, France and others $12 billion. I don't think we should take this money out of Africa. But I do praise the finance minister for this brave step. It shows they are very serious people.

SPIEGEL: There are more and more African intellectuals saying that aid causes more problems than Africa is able to solve. As long as the rich countries push so much money into the continent Africa would never stand on its own feet. This money from donors mostly ends up in the pockets of corrupt leaders.

Bono: There was abuse of aid for 25 years, even longer. I absolutely accept that. It can be argued that aid has propped up dodgy regimes, even recently. But that is getting less and less true, and more people are getting smart as to how aid is spent and distributed. I don't believe that a laissez-faire approach to the problems of Africa will finally sort itself out. We cannot leave the people in their hour of need, let the government fall, let there be chaos. It's very, very heavy. This position is understandable, but it is completely immoral.

(Source: Spiegel online; Interview conducted by Christoph Dallach and Thilo Thielke)