Ethiopia: millennium celebrations politicized

Tens of thousands packed Addis Ababa’s main square for millennium festivities Sept. 11 that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said should mark a new beginning for Ethiopia. Meles said the occasion heralded a “glorious new page” in the country’s history. “A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia. They shall say that the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the Ethiopian renaissance.”

Speaking at a new exhibition hall where US hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas performed for dignitaries, Meles admitted “the darkness of poverty and backwardness” had dimmed Ethiopia’s proud reputation. “We cannot but feel deeply insulted that at the dawn of the new Millennium ours is one of the poorest countries in the world,” he said.

Banging drums, Coptic priests sang of the importance of the occasion in Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez language in churches choked with incense and thronged with white-clad worshipers. Ethiopia follows a 13-month calendar long abandoned by the West, under which the year 2000 began at midnight Sept. 11. In the 16th Century, the rest of Christendom revised its estimate of the date of the birth of Christ—but Ethiopia’s Coptic Orthodox Church stuck with the old date, leaving it seven years behind the rest of the world.

Many in Addis Ababa, an opposition stronghold, expressed anger at the government’s campaign to clear the streets of thousands of beggars and homeless, and at the fast-rising cost of food ahead of the celebrations.

Several millennium events were delayed or dropped because of security concerns. Criticized by the international community for an opposition crackdown after disputed 2005 elections, the government released nearly 18,000 prisoners the week of the celebrations. They included 230 political prisoners, including 35 Oromo guerilla fighters. (BBC, Reuters, Sept. 12)

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