'Activist for Africa Post-Sept.11'

8 Nov 2001
Why was Bono meeting the Algerian President and the Ivory Coast's Prime Minister? Timothy Gardner of Reuters explains.

It's 5:00 p.m. on a Friday and a man looking rather like a motorcyclist from the future is sitting in a hotel lobby soothing a cough with a cup of black coffee.

Over the last two hours, he has met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Ivory Coast's prime minister, Affi N'Guessan, and Ambassador Mamadou Seck of Senegal. Upstairs, a summit on U.S.-African trade upstairs is winding down.

Such is the life of Bono, frontman for rock band U2 and one of the most powerful activists for poor African countries. Bono, 41, has campaigned for Africa since U2 played the 1985 Live Aid relief concert, organized by friend and fellow Irishman Bob Geldof. In 1999, Bono began lobbying world leaders for Jubilee 2000, now Drop the Debt, an umbrella organization of development and religious groups.

Their agenda is debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries. It has 24 million signatories from more than 60 countries.

"Certain types of poverty are structural rather than calamity," Bono told reporters after the meetings with the Africans last week. "There's the calamity of famine, but then there's the structural problem of pushing billions in dollars to African nation states for geopolitical reasons during the Cold War and expecting their grandchildren to pay that money back whilst they can't educate their citizens, feed them, or give them any health care."

Following Live Aid, Bono and his wife Ali worked at an Ethiopian relief camp for a month. Activism helps him remember. "We had experiences there that you could never forget," he said. "But you go back to work and your life and you do forget."

Remembering brings him to lobby world leaders. Pope John Paul II donned the singer's sunglasses during a 1999 meeting. At a gathering of finance ministers in Washington, Bono grabbed the mike and crooned, "Well it's one for the money," the opening of "Blue Suede Shoes," the song Elvis Presley made famous.

In Philadelphia, Bono wore light blue spectacles and black from top to his spongy shoes. "I don't have to be formal, I can just be who I am because I represent a rather informal collective," he said.

Informalities aside, Bono targets the most serious of issues. Drop the Debt calculates that African countries spend around $13.5 billion a year repaying debts to rich countries, more than double what they spend on health care and as much as they need to effectively combat the AIDS (news - web sites) pandemic sweeping the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa owes Western banks more than $200 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund (news - web sites). That's dangerous, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world, Bono said.

"We've just seen in a torturous way what happens when one country, like Afghanistan , is left to implode," Bono said. "God help us if the (sub-Saharan) continent of Africa is left to follow its present trajectory -- which is 40 million AIDS orphans in the next 10 years," he said, citing U.S. Agency for International Development figures.

"Because he's so intellectually brilliant he has a depth of understanding of the issues, and he can enter into arenas with politicians and decision makers and bring his message," said Dr. Paul Zeitz, director of the Global AIDS Alliance, a group allied with Drop the Debt.

Bono pointed out that even in a better-off country like Botswana, 35 percent of the population has HIV , a number confirmed by UNAIDS. "Imagine you're in a crowded room, in a bar, in a hotel lobby and 35 percent of the people are HIV positive. In Africa at the moment, that means a death sentence, because they don't have access to the anti-retro virals that we have."

"Now imagine how they feel with the death sentence on their heads and the knowledge that they don't have access to those drugs. It doesn't take a great leap to imagine they are easy prey to the kind of fanatics and fundamentalist groups like al Qaeda."

He borrowed a line Algeria's Bouteflika used in his luncheon address at the summit earlier that afternoon: "It is no longer possible to be an island of prosperity in a sea of despair."

Check the rest of this feature at dailynews.yahoo.com


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