Ethiopia ushers in third millennium
by Emmanuel Goujon and Aaron Maasho
Wed Sep 12, 5:49 AM ET
ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - Ethiopia entered the third millennium seven years after the rest of the world Wednesday, amid lavish celebrations, religious fervor and messages of hope from the troubled country's leaders.
As the giant countdown board in central Addis Ababa flashed the year 2000 at midnight (2100 GMT), thousands of faithful from all over Ethiopia -- which follows a unique, slightly modified Julian calendar -- gathered in churches.
"I hope that I get cured permanently from my illness and continue doing the job that I have," said 32-year-old Leul Tesfasellasie, as hundreds lined up to be healed by holy waters at the capital's Entoto Mariam church.
"Everyone here hopes for a cure on the new year," he said.
So does Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who voiced his hope the new millennium would usher in a new era of prosperity for the Horn of Africa nation, which has been mired in conflict and poverty.
"The last few centuries of the millennium have not been as glorious," Meles said at an official ceremony attended by several other heads of state. "Every generation of Ethiopians during those centuries has paid in blood to maintain our independence."
"We have came from being one of the most advanced nations on earth to being one of the poorest," he said, adding nevertheless: "We have begun to fight back the poverty."
The head of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, expressed hope for peace in Africa when congratulating Ethiopians.
"We need peace at home ... We need peace in Somalia, in Darfur, in Eritrea ... The new Ethiopia is advancing. Long live Ethiopia, long live Africa for the Africans," he said.
The African Union has its headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Several heads of state also attended the ceremony, including Sudan's Omar al-Beshir, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Kenya's Mwai Kibaki.
Amid a tight police deployment, tens of thousands of Ethiopians from across the country and the diaspora flocked to the city to take part in the country's biggest ever party.
"I'm very excited, I consider myself lucky to perform at a new year marking a turn of a thousand years," 19-year-old dancer Bethelhem Belay said before going on stage to perform in one of the many events being held across Addis Ababa.
"I hope everyone will be entertained, every Ethopian deserves happiness as the country has had its fair share of troubles. I hope for prosperity, much employment opportunities for people," he said.
The privileged few who could afford tickets costing as much as average annual per capita income of 160 dollars were seated in a venue built for the occasion and financed by Ethiopian-Saudi billionaire Sheikh al-Amoudi.
One of the highlights of the event was a concert by US hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas.
Ethiopia is the only African nation never to have been colonised and is fiercely nationalistic, but the celebrations could not completely conceal the country's divisions.
Ethiopia was one of the first Christian kingdoms in history but around half of its current population of 81 million is Muslim and the millennium buzz was lost on many.
The country's vast southeastern Ogaden region -- populated by Somali-ethnic Muslims -- is engulfed in civil strife and humanitarian crisis.
The Meles administration has been marred by the repression of opposition figures since contested 2005 polls, and entangled in the invasion of Somalia, where its troops rescued a weak interim government fighting Islamists.
Regular Ethiopians also have mixed feelings towards the millennium party, arguing that money used for a temporary concert hall could have been better spent.
But officials were keen to make the year-long celebrations that kicked off Wednesday an opportunity to convey a different image of their country to the rest of the world.
"What Ethiopia is known for abroad, like droughts and famines, doesn't reflect the reality of our country," Tourism Minister Mohammed Dirir said before the celebrations started.
"The millennium is a good opportunity to change the image of Ethiopia, certainly a sub-Saharan country currently struggling against poverty, but with a steady growth and a multi-religious country," he added.
Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis pardoned nearly 18,000 prisoners to mark the arrival of the new millenium, the official Ethiopian news agency (ENA) reported.