Give us some focking answers, Bob

In 2004, Bob Geldof was crowned chief of development in a Ghanaian town. Now the town chief wants to know: where's the development?

Nathalie Rothschild

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When, in 2004, Sir Bob Geldof was crowned chief of development in Ajumako-Bisease, a town of 27,000 in Ghana’s Central Region, he accepted the responsibilities that came with the post. But after using the crowning ceremony as a photo-op for his BBC documentary series Geldof in Africa, made in the run-up to the 2005 Live 8 concerts, Geldof forgot all about the Ghanaian town and its people. They seem to have received little but empty promises from him.

A Letter to Geldof, a documentary premiering in London next week, shows that for all the demands on politicians in developing countries, especially Africa, to demonstrate ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’, Sir Bob Geldof, the pop star turned poverty relief champion, is not exactly leading by example. A year after his crowning in Ajumako-Bisease, a crew from the London-based Chew On It Productions went to Ghana to make a series of short documentaries exploring what people at the receiving end of ‘debt relief’ made of the Live 8 campaign. What did all the white wristband sales, international finger-clicking and star-studded pop concerts amount to? Did Geldof himself fulfil the promises he made while travelling through the African continent, film crew in tow, on his mission to ‘make poverty history’?

While Geldof’s stop in Ajumako-Bisease was presented as spontaneous in his documentary Geldof in Africa, which was filmed in 2004 and shown on the BBC in 2005, the Chew On It crew discovered that members of Geldof’s production team had met with the town’s chief, Nana Okofo Kwakora Gyan III, to discuss the possibility of filming part of the series there. After 12 months of arrangements and scheduling, Geldof and a film crew came to Ajumako-Bisease, stayed for two days, and were taken to the bush to film the town’s kola nut and cocoa pods.

According to the Chew On It researchers, Sir Bob’s documentary seems to have used creative licence when it showed the crew’s car breaking down in the middle of nowhere in the dark continent, after which crew members stumbled into a town where locals were so impressed by the pale raggedy Irishman that they instantly crowned him chief of development. As Ghanaian researcher De Roy Kwesi Andrew says in A Letter to Geldof: ‘Who does he think he is?’

Nana Okofo Kwakora Gyan III, who is second-in-command to the paramount chief of the Ajumako district, believed Geldof would be ideal for the chief of development post, as he had ‘already done a lot for Africa’. He convinced his fellow leaders and citizens that Geldof would do a lot for their region, too. In September 2004 a durbar (a special festival) was organised for the crowning, which took place in front of the whole town. The Ministry of Education even gave schoolchildren the day off to attend the ceremony. After his responsibilities were explained to him, and after being told that he was expected to return every August for the durbar, Geldof made an acceptance speech.

Geldof’s chair was empty at the next durbar. He had promised a number of development initiatives, including financing the building of a covered market and an adjacent lorry parking ground and new roads leading to and from it. The residents hoped this would turn Ajumako-Bisease into a central market town. The 4.5 hectares of land that the townspeople cleared in anticipation of the money promised by Geldof is now overgrown with weeds. The hospital Geldof promised to build is non-existent. There is a health centre, but no qualified resident doctors. There is no college and overall there are very few facilities. Locals have still not been able to expand their kola nut plantation or buy new machinery – Geldof said he would finance this, too. In short, as locals in A Letter to Geldof explain, Ajumako-Bisease has been given ‘nothing’.

When Nana Okofo Kwakora Gyan III travelled to London, he spoke to Geldof and they arranged to meet. But A Letter to Geldof reports that Geldof didn’t show up. The town chief was surprised to see that he and other leaders who had posed for a photograph with Geldof dressed up in traditional garb featured in a book which accompanied the Geldof in Africa TV series. The chief came across the book while browsing a London bookshop. ‘I didn’t know we would be sold in London’, he says. ‘The book is £16 a copy!’

Once back in London, the Chew On It crew tried to fulfil their own promise to contact Geldof. After numerous phone calls and emails, they finally managed to speak to one of his personal assistants, who claimed Geldof’s only promise was to attend a future festival. They then sent his agents early film rushes for a four-minute version of the film, inviting Geldof to reply, but received no comments. Nana Okofo Kwakora Gyan III says he wants to ask Geldof why he has disappointed the people of Ajumako-Bisease, and to ask him: ‘Do you want to be development chief, yes or no?’ Others in the town are still optimistic. One interviewee says that, although no date was given for the completion of Geldof’s development projects, ‘we know he will fulfil his promises’.

While everyone from UK prime minister Tony Blair to Western NGO campaigners and celebrities have no qualms about lecturing Africans on ‘good governance’ and the importance of upholding responsibility towards their electorates, they themselves impose development agendas without seeking legitimacy through democratic means. In 2004, U2’s lead singer Bono said: ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’ He’s right – no one in Africa has asked to be represented by Bono, yet when his fellow self-appointed saviour Geldof is actually honoured with a leadership position to help locals, and is presented with straightforward and fairly low-scale requests for development projects, it seems that he doesn’t even live up to his own promises.

In 1985, during the Live Aid concert, Geldof was famously (if erroneously) credited with the demand ‘Give us the focking money!’ Twenty years later, during the Live 8 appeal, he wasn’t even demanding money from us, but just that we become aware that there is poverty in Africa. How enlightening.

The latest revelations show how bizarre is the notion that celebrities can ‘save’ Africa, or anywhere else. These celebs do nobody any favours when they reduce millions of people into mere objects of pity waiting to be ‘represented’ by guitar-strumming Westerners. Behind much of the recent political and celebrity campaigning to save the developing world from itself there lurks an element of moral posturing, and also ignorance about the complexities of global material inequality and the diversity of African people’s aspirations. Such aspirations become secondary to the celebrities’ goal to feed a few people or, now, to promote the Millenium Development Goals – goals that outline living standards that no celebrity, or anyone else in the developed West, would be happy to live by.

In a speech in Trafalgar Square, which is shown in A Letter to Geldof, Sir Bob says he is tired of the ‘politics of being nice’ and says he wants a new ‘politics of responsibility’. Yet this film is a testament to the fact that, after campaigning against poverty in front of international film crews and crowning themselves the saviours of Africa, Geldof and other celebrities were quite irresponsible themselves during the whole Live 8 jamboree.

Nathalie Rothschild is reviews editor at spiked

A Letter to Geldof is part of the WORLDwrite and Chew on it Productions documentary series Pricking the Missionary Position. It premieres on Monday 26 March along with the film Think Big, which showcases Ghanaians with big aspirations and big plans.

Watch the trailers:

A Letter to Geldof

Think Big

For more information, visit the WORLDwrite website.

Previously on spiked

In an interview with Brendan O’Neill, Ghanaian teacher and filmmaker De Roy Kwesi Andrew said ‘Bob Geldof, you are not our messiah’. Mick Hume argued that Africa has become a stage for political poseurs and, a year after the G8 Gleneagles summit and the Live 8 concerts, David Chandler said it was time to make lecturing Africa history. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

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