Welcome to the People’s Republic of Bono

The G8 should be renamed the G9: the pompous U2 singer had a stately presence and an obscene amount of influence at the latest summit.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The G8 should change its name to the G9. Because if this year’s summit in Heiligendamm, Germany was anything to go by, there’s a new member of the pack.

Alongside the eight most industrialised nations on Earth who make up the ‘Group of Eight’ – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US, who between them represent around 65 per cent of the world economy – there was a ninth stately presence at Heiligendamm. It didn’t actually sit at the summit itself, but it did have ‘numerous sources at the negotiating table’, to such an extent that it felt like ‘we have the place bugged, because everybody tells us [what is going on]’, said the ninth power (1). It also held meetings with most of the world leaders, and severely chastised those who refused to meet it. When Canadian PM Stephen Harper said he was too busy to meet with the ninth power he was accused of ‘blocking progress’. ‘Canada has become a laggard’, the ninth power declared (2). It also passed judgement on the proceedings: its ‘satisfaction’, ‘relief’, ‘fury’ or ‘disappointment’ with the G8’s decisions hogged the newspaper headlines during the three-day summit (3). It effectively played the role of a second chamber to the G8, keeping a Lord-like watchful eye on what the Group of Eight Commoners came up with.

Who or what was this stately presence at Heiligendamm? It wasn’t a state at all, or even a pseudo-state like the Vatican. It was one Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, the sanctimonious wraparounds-wearing lead singer of a wrinkling Irish rock band that hasn’t made a decent album since 1987 (though I suppose 2000’s All That You Can Leave Behind was okay). He has gone from being the singer of really serious songs for Africa, who gyrated and screamed on the world stages provided by Live Aid in 1985 and Live 8 in 2005 to ‘raise awareness’ about African poverty, to the semi-official representative of the African poor, the widely recognised ‘conscience of Africa’ who is invited to put pressure on world leaders and hold them to account. As one report says, ‘it can only be a matter of time before [Bono] is granted official status along the lines of the Outreach Five group of developing countries that take part in some G8 meetings’ (4). The rockers are no longer warbling at the gates of the G8 – they’re inside them.

Bono and Bush rub shoulders
at the G8

Bono had an extraordinary amount of influence at the summit. And it wasn’t simply a case of greying world leaders wanting to be photographed with ‘rock royalty’ in an attempt to make themselves look with it and cool, as some reports claimed (not realising that Bono is as uncool as it gets) (5). In fact, Bono held serious meetings with US president George W Bush, German chancellor Angela Merkel, new French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian PM Romano Prodi. According to reports, these were ‘tough meetings’ at which Bono and his people ‘rowed’ with world leaders over strategy, aid and their commitment to Africa (6). Apparently the meeting with Merkel was particularly tense. One report says Bono, joined by his fellow singer-turned-spokesman-for-Africa Bob Geldof, was stern with Chancellor Merkel and got into a ‘row with the chancellor’s office about their aid numbers’. Merkel, chair of this year’s G8, and Bono, the ninth power, apparently reached an agreement that ‘aid needed to be increased by 2010’ but they disagreed over the ‘plan for making it happen’ (7).

Reportedly, Bono and ‘his people’ even managed to swing certain states to their way of thinking. At a ‘very, very tense meeting’ with Romano Prodi and the Italian delegation, Bono accused the Italians of ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ on aid for Africa. The singer became so frustrated by Italy that he and his team got up to leave, pompously declaring ‘We’ve got to go and meet the president of France’. The Italians pleaded with Bono to wait, disappeared around the corner, and then came back with a new proposal on aid contributions. Bono was pleased, describing it as a proposal ‘which may turn Italy around’ (8). At another meeting, Bono and Bush discussed increasing American aid for building more schools and defeating AIDS in Africa. They also discussed ‘the strategic importance of [Africa] in the next US presidential race’, with Bono reportedly impressing on Bush the idea that helping Africa can be a vote-winner at home (9). Not content with self-electing himself as a spokesman for Africa, Bono now wants to influence the outcome of American elections, too.

Those who refused to meet with Bono were held up to public ridicule. Canadian PM Stephen Harper, invited to discuss Canada’s aid contributions with Bono, declared: ‘Meeting celebrities isn’t my kind of schtick. That was the schtick of the previous guy.’ (The previous guy being former Canadian PM Paul Martin, who met with Bono several times and struck up something of a friendship with the rocker.) (10) Bono was severely chastened: How dare a leader of a powerful nation refuse to meet me?! His revenge was swift and unforgiving. He declared that his ‘numerous sources’ inside the summit – apparently so many delegation members were passing insider information to Bono that ‘it’s as if we have the place bugged’, Bono said – had told him that Harper was blocking progress on aid for Africa. ‘We know who’s causing the trouble and who isn’t. And we know that Canada blocked progress. We know that Harper blocked it.’ (11)

Bono went so far as to accuse Harper of being ‘out of sync’ with the Canadian people, who ‘enjoy a prosperous economy and surplus public finances and would like to help others’ (12). Bono’s buddy Bob Geldof snottily said: ‘A man called Stephen Harper came to Heiligendamm. But Canada stayed at home.’ (13) Here we have two unelected rock stars who have taken it upon themselves to speak for Africa (Geldof has referred to himself as ‘Mr Africa’) chastising a PM who was elected by millions of Canadians for letting Canada down. Apparently Bono and Bob also know what is best for Canada as well as for Africa. Feeling publicly humiliated by Bono, Harper was forced to deny at a press conference that he had blocked progress, arguing: ‘It’s completely false and the people saying this have no proof to their allegations.’ He also relented somewhat on his anti-celebrity line and said he would be happy to arrange a meeting with Bono at a future date (14). This is what you get if you cross the ninth power that is Bono at a G8 summit: public humiliation, and accusations that you are failing in both your democratic and humanitarian duties.

In some ways, Bono held even more sway over the proceedings at Heiligendamm – or certainly over the public perception of them – than the lowly elected leaders inside the summit. Merkel may have chaired the meetings, and Bush, being the most powerful, may have put pressure on Blair, Sarkozy, Prodi, Harper, Vladimir Putin (of Russia) and Shinzo Abe (of Japan) to go along with his general outlook on aid and climate change. But it was the ninth power – sitting just outside the summit, and thus above it – that passed judgement on the summit’s proposals, ticking off those it agreed with and frowning on those it disliked. Bono’s view of G8 dominated much of the news coverage, with serious media outlets running headlines such as: ‘U2’s Bono: G8 Not Keeping Money Promises To Africa’; ‘G8 Africa Pledge Is A Smokescreen, Says Bono’; ‘G8 Reaffirms Aid To Africa; Bono, Geldof Say It’s Old Money’ (14). Not only did Bono have ‘numerous sources’ reportedly agitating at the summit table; not only did he apparently influence the position of various states during ‘very, very tense meetings’; he also set himself up as the public moral arbiter of the G8’s achievements and failings.

How has this happened? How has the pompous singer of a pompous rock act – who, let’s not forget, were considered painfully square when they first emerged in the post-punkish era of 1979, and who were looked upon as pious popsters in the early Eighties because they kept banging on about God – come to exert so much influence on the world stage? People thought it was bizarre when Queen Elizabeth II gave OBEs (Orders of the British Empire) to John, Paul, George and Ringo in 1964 for contributions to the ‘British Empire’ that mainly consisted of writing nice jangly pop songs and making American girls faint. Yet now we have a pop star who is giving the Queen a run for her money in the international influence stakes, and who effectively oversees his own Empire: poor Africa. Bono has declared: ‘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.’ (15) Once upon a time you might have written off such a statement as the deluded rant of a deluded multi-millionaire, who is only the tousle-haired, leather trouser-wearing equivalent of those rich ladies-who-lunch, who have always filled the time in between manicures and wine-fuelled extramarital affairs by carrying out charitable deeds. Yet judging by his role at the G8 summit, Bono really has been elevated to the semi-official position of Cheeky Representative of A Lot of People in Africa.

Bono has become a one-man state; more than that, he’s a one-man cross-border supranational institution. He presumes to speak for millions, not on the basis of a democratic mandate but on the basis that he – mystically, magically, and because Africans are apparently too poor and destitute to speak for themselves – really, really knows what Africans want. Thus we have the utterly bizarre spectacle of a rock star putting pressure on leaders who were elected by millions of people to do what ‘I WANT’ in Africa. British newspaper columnist Rod Liddle refers to him as ‘the People’s Republic of Bono’, and wonders how long it will be before he is given ‘a seat on the United Nations security council’ or makes an announcement that ‘he is developing nuclear weapons’ (16). Well, at least then he could back up his demands of the G8 with some real firepower. Bono really does see himself as a state-like phenomenon: in the current issue of Vanity Fair he boasts that his (Project) Red charity initiative donated more to the Global Fund for Africa last year than ‘Australia, Switzerland and China…combined’, the implication being that he is at least the equal of, if not even more powerful than, these states in international debates about aid (17). They used to call it colonialism when a white man from over here decided that he represented the interests of the black hordes over there. Now they call it ‘passionate and serious crusading’ (18).

The current Vanity Fair,
guest-edited by Bono

It is easy of course, and jolly good fun, to mock Bono, who is a monumentally self-important ass (‘There is no respite from this man’s megalomania’, says Liddle). And indeed, alongside his rise to a position of considerable international clout there has been a corresponding rise in Bono-bashing. You can now buy t-shirts that say ‘Make Bono History’ on them. There is a young indie rock band called Bono Must Die (apparently Bob Geldof was furious when he discovered that his daughter Peaches is a fan of this blasphemous outfit). The press frequently accuses Bono of being a hypocrite: one minute he is saying ‘let’s save Africa’, the next he is forking out thousands of pounds on taking a former stylist to court because she allegedly stole a pair of his trousers (19). Sometimes it’s just too easy to bop Bono. For example, he guest edits the current Vanity Fair, which is a special on African poverty, and you won’t believe this: it comes with a pull-out supplement on uber-expensive jewellery titled: ‘Fire and Ice: 72 pages of ravishing rocks, ginormous gems and fancy fripperies’ (20). The jokes write themselves.

Yet just slating Bono misses out what has changed in world politics to allow a silly singer to become a spokesperson for Africa and a major player at the G8. First, Bono’s rise shows the role that Africa plays for many people today. For politicians and celebrities alike, Africa has become a stage for moralistic posturing. Campaigning on African poverty is something that ‘gives me a sense of purpose, something to work for’, as a contributor to Bono’s Vanity Fair puts it (21). Or as Paul Theroux bitingly argues: ‘Because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.’ (22) Indeed, we could just as easily ask what earthly right the G8 itself has to discuss and determine what should happen in Africa’s poorest countries. Like Bono, no G8 leader has ever been elected by the nations of Africa. For these leaders, the G8 summits have become a kind of moral spectacle, intended to show that they care and they have a humane and giving side; our leaders find it easier to show ‘moral courage’ on Africa than on divisive issues at home. Never mind the fact that their aid proposals for Africa are spectacularly stingy and often place Africa in a new economic straitjacket – just the act of talking about Africa on an annual basis is intended to send a powerful message about the G8 nations’ moral integrity. Bono is only the most successful of many ‘Mr Africas’ around today.

Second, Bono’s rise has been facilitated by the unholy marriage of politics and celebrity. No political campaign seems complete these days without a celebrity fronting it or even forcing it through. As Mick Hume has argued on spiked: ‘As serious public and political life has withered, so celebrity culture has expanded to fill the gap, often with the encouragement of political leaders desperate for some celebrity cover.’ (See When celebrities rule the Earth, by Mick Hume.) Bono did not smash down the gates of the G8 to gain entry. Rather, he was effectively invited in by G8 leaders who hoped that the celebrity crusader would add a touch of grit and glamour to their shallow and self-serving debates on Africa. Even Bono’s haranguing of the world leaders had its benefits, since it allowed the G8 to present itself as being nail-bitingly responsive to African demands (as represented by Bono of course) and it may have won them a new, potentially younger audience in the shape of celebrity-watchers and the MTV crowd. When even discussions of ‘ending poverty’ require a celebrity to front them, you know that celebrities truly do rule the Earth.

Bono is a celebrity colonialist. His patronising campaign to single-handedly ‘save Africa’ is actually damaging the continent. It is painting Africa as a pathetic place whose wide-eyed, infantile populations need a loudmouth rock star to fight their corner. His disregard for anything resembling an electoral process (‘I represent a lot of people in Africa’) lends weight to the prejudice that African leaders are peculiarly corrupt, and thus it is best to leapfrog straight over them – as does his demand for ‘anti-corruption measures’ to be attached to all forms of aid to Africa (23). Yet having a pop at his pomposity is not enough. Alongside making fun of Bono, let us challenge today’s prostitution of African problems for the purposes of Western self-aggrandisement, which has led to his being crowned King of the Africans. Bono Must Die? Well, that would be a good start – but only a start.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained what happens when celebrities rule the Earth and how Gordon Brown recently tried to distance himself from celebrity culture. Brendan O’Neill attacked the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’ and asked if we should make ‘Make Poverty History’ history. The new Amex card, launched by Bono, made Daniel Ben-Ami see red. Or read more at: spiked issue Celebrity.

(1) Bono, Geldof slam Canada as a ‘laggard’ on African aid, CBC News, 9 June 2007

(2) Bono, Geldof slam Canada as a ‘laggard’ on African aid, CBC News, 9 June 2007

(3) See, for example, G8 reaffirms aid to Africa; Bono, Geldof charge it’s old money, Waterloo Record, Canada, 8 June 2007

(4) Travels through Europe with President Bush, Financial Times, 13 June 2007

(5) Travels through Europe with President Bush, Financial Times, 13 June 2007

(6) Bono, Geldof rock G8 for world’s poor, The Australian, 8 June 2007

(7) Merkel Quarrels With Bono, Geldof Over African Aid, Bloomberg, 7 June 2007

(8) U2 Meets With Bush And Italian PM At G8 Summit, Net Music Countdown, 11 June 2007

(9) Bono, Bob find signs of ‘donor fatigue’, U2 France, 8 June

(10) Harper schtick-in-the-mud on Bono meet, Calgary Sun, 8 June 2007

(11) Harper schtick-in-the-mud on Bono meet, Calgary Sun, 8 June 2007

(12) Harper schtick-in-the-mud on Bono meet, Calgary Sun, 8 June 2007

(13) Harper schtick-in-the-mud on Bono meet, Calgary Sun, 8 June 2007

(14) Harper schtick-in-the-mud on Bono meet, Calgary Sun, 8 June 2007

(15) See What do pop stars know about the world?, Brendan O’Neill, BBC News, 28 June 2005

(16) Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times, 10 June 2007

(17) Vanity Fair, July 2007

(18) Vanity Fair, July 2007

(19) U2 sue over Bono’s trousers, Guardian, 29 June 2005

(20) Vanity Fair, July 2007

(21) Vanity Fair, July 2007

(22) ‘The Rock Star’s Burden’, Paul Theroux, December 2005

(23) See Bono’s One Campaign

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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