Ethiopia ready to ring in new Millennium
By Katie Nguy
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Belaynesh Ketama plans to mark Ethiopia's entry into the new Millennium -- more than seven years after the rest of the world -- with an early night.
With a day to go before Ethiopia rings in the 21st century, using an ancient Coptic calendar, the authorities are busy cleaning the streets, hanging flags and planting flowers to welcome what they hope will be a new era.
Faced with a crackdown on rebels in the remote Ogaden region, entanglement in Somalia's war, a border row with Eritrea and fractious ties with the opposition, the government says the celebrations should focus on peace and democracy.
"Our country's transition to the Third Millennium is not only that of crossing another 1,000 years, but also a period of fundamental changes for the better," Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a statement published by local newspapers.
But some Ethiopians are skeptical.
Belaynesh, a retired teacher, said: "It's nothing but a chance for the government to get some dollars and euros for themselves. But nothing will change. We will stay a poor country with little hope for real freedom.
"It means nothing to me."
Organizers are seizing on the Millennium as a chance to showcase Ethiopia's proud reputation as the cradle of humanity and the only African country to resist colonialism.
Critics, however, have dubbed it "Menem Yellum" ("there is nothing" in Amharic) after some events, including the Great Ethiopia Run, were cancelled or postponed at the last minute because of security concerns.
Despite projections that up to 300,000 visitors would flock to Ethiopia to take part in a huge New Year's Eve concert, less than a tenth of that number have traveled to the Horn of Africa country in the past two months, officials say.
U.S. hip hop group Black Eyed Peas is expected to headline the concert in a new $10-million temporary exhibition hall built by Saudi-Ethiopian tycoon Mohammed Al Amoudi, one of the world's richest men.
But the price of the tickets -- $170 each or the equivalent of about two months' salary -- has outraged many who say it would be better spent lifting the country from its ranking of 170 out of 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index.
In Addis Ababa, a campaign by baton-wielding security forces to rid the highland city of some 60,000 beggars has further dampened the party mood although a government-backed charity has promised to help with food, shelter and medicine.
In a gesture of goodwill, the government freed some 10,000 prisoners across the country on Monday -- mainly women, elderly inmates and those who had served a third of their sentences.
Despite the setbacks, some Ethiopians are refusing to let the excitement fizzle out.
"I want the world to see that we are now one. And I want them to see our culture. They've already seen hungry, skinny Ethiopians, now they will see beautiful Ethiopians having a good time and hoping for a better future," said Senait Arefaine, a 27-year-old U.N. information officer.
(Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse and Barry Malone)