A lifetime ago, a charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid made the UK recording history. Released on 3 December 1984, by the last day of the year it has sold 3 million copies in Great Britain alone. It had also hit number one in 13 other countries, and sold 2.5 million copies in the US, without even cracking the top 10. “Do They Know” has been re-recorded three more times since, also as a charity single – in 1989, 2004 and 2014 – each time topping the British charts.
Band Aid was a response to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia, which started with bad droughts and soon progressed into a famine, which in the end claimed some 600,000 lives. First brought to the world’s attention by BBC’s Michael Buerk, the 7-minute footage of the tragedy by Kenyan news cameraman Mohamed Amin shook the Western consciences.
Interestingly, the footage is now best remembered for its association with another 1980s song, the Cars’ “Drive”, which was later used by CBC to help open the viewers’ hearts and wallets.
Amongst the original BBC report’s viewers were Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rats frontman, and his then partner, TV presenter, Paula Yeats. Weeks later, Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure were in the studio recording the song they have written to raise money for the emergency food aid, with a constellation of 80s British pop stars, including Simon Le Bon, Boy George, Bono and Bananarama, lending their voices to the cause.
Right from the start, despite Band Aid’s best intentions, there have been many knockers, and not just about the quality of the music (hey, it’s an 1980s New Romantics-inspired pop song, after all). As the ever-helpful Wikipedia recounts, “The song has received criticism for what has been described as a colonial western-centric viewpoint and condescending stereotypical descriptions of Africa. Musician Fuse ODG turned down a request to sing ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ with the group during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, stating that the lyrics of the song do not reflect what Africa truly is. He cited lyrics such as “There is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas”; saying he goes to Ghana yearly for the sole purpose of peace and joy, so singing such lyrics would be a blatant lie.“
I remember in particular the complaints about the self- and Euro-centric concern of the title itself: do they know it’s Christmas time at all? As in, why would they, and why should they?
In reality, there was a very good reason why the Ethiopians who were starving in their millions would have known it’s Christmas; two thirds of the Ethiopian population were Christian, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, though the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
But there was also a very good reason why many of the starving Ethiopians might not have known it’s Christmas – the country itself was in a grip of a militantly atheist, Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.
While the drought was a natural disaster, the famine was very much the work of the communist government. This is the true, if largely unremarked upon, story behind “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
The famine unfolded through both the omission and the commission on the part of Mengistu.
Firstly, Mengistu did not want to be distracted, or indeed having the domestic and the international public distracted, from his grand celebrations of the 10th anniversary of a communist coup d’etat that brought him to power. While his people were starving, the Colonel spent $150 million to commemorate his ascent. Coincidentally, this was roughly the same amount of money that Band Aid, US for Africa, and Live Aid raised for the emergency food supplies for the starving Ethiopians. But priorities are priorities. Mengistu also did not want any bad international publicity for his communist experiment, for over a year denying the existence of a famine and denying foreign access to the famine-affected areas (and of course also denying the need for foreign food aid).
But secondly, for Mengistu, the famine provided a great opportunity to pursue his revolution. The Wollo and Tigray provinces, the epicentres of hunger, also happened to be the settings of long-running anti-government guerrilla resistance. By starving the people, Mengistu was denying the guerrillas the environment in which to move around. The crisis would also be used to further Mengistu’s attempts to transform and collectivise Ethiopian agriculture. All through the run-up to the famine, the government goons kept requisitioning at a gunpoint local grain at a fraction of the market price in order to feed the army and the cities. When there was no more grain to extract, Mengistu had 600,000 peasants forcibly resettled to other parts of the country, causing further 50,000 deaths.
There are strong parallels between Mengistu’s famine of 1983-5 and another man-made famine, in Ukraine in the 1930s. Stalin also used starvation as a weapon to humble his unruly subjects and to speed up collectivisation of agriculture, while at the same time denying the famine was taking place (needless to say, “The New York Times” and many others believed him). As in Ethiopia half a century later, not only was no food aid initially provided to the starving Ukrainians, but on the contrary, all the grain was actively being taken away by the government. Around ten times as many Ukrainians were starved by the communist regime, but there was no one to write pop songs for them then.
Mengistu fled the country in 1990, with rebel forces advancing on the capital, Addis Ababa. He was granted an asylum by Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, where he still lives unmolested, despite having been convicted in absentia of genocide by an Ethiopian court.
In 2004, drought and famine visited Ethiopia again. This time, without Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninists in power, only 300 Ethiopians perished from hunger. Political system makes all the difference.
Thirty-three years on, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” remains a cool 80s song, no matter what the haters say.