In Ethiopia, big party looms for third millennium

On midnight Wednesday, the country, which uses a modified Julian calendar, will kick off festivities.

After anticipating the event for more than a year, Ethiopians are getting ready to throw their biggest party ever.

The east African country, which uses a slightly modified version of the Julian calendar that the West moved away from centuries ago, will be ushering in their third millennium in style as the clock strikes 12 Wednesday night.

Enormous red, yellow, and green banners flutter from the sides of most major buildings in the capital, Addis Ababa, showing off the country's colors. Women in traditional white embroidered dresses dance through shopping malls while onlookers ululate. And residents are buzzing about which star-studded party they want to be at Wednesday.

Many Ethiopians are in a mood to put the country's domestic political tensions aside in the wake of the recent release of several opposition leaders who were jailed for nearly two years after protesting the 2005 elections, which international observers criticized as flawed.

And despite some concerns that rebel groups both inside and out of the country could try to derail the festivities with attacks, officials are confident that the celebrations will happen without incident.

"Addis Ababa is one of the most secure cities in the region, even the world," says information and tourism minister Mohammed Dirir. "Security has been taken care of, because we know that the government of [neighboring archrival] Eritrea in the past has tried to launch [attacks]."

Concert will no longer be free

The main event on tap for Wednesday night is a musical concert featuring The Black Eyed Peas, a Los Angeles-based pop group, as well as dozens of top Ethiopian artists.

The $1.2 million concert, which was supposed to be free to the public, has been shifted to a new $10-million conference hall that construction workers were working day and night to complete, right up until Wednesday.

Only those able to pay $170 – two months' earnings for the average Ethiopian – will be allowed to enter, but the event will be broadcast live on television and on a big screen at a stadium open to the public.

Over the past year, the government has said it hopes to attract more than 300,000 foreigners and Ethiopians who live abroad. But despite the hype, fewer than 34,000 people have come in the past month, according to immigration figures compiled by the local Fortune magazine.

Also, in a move seen by some as a boycott, several of the country's top opposition leaders are attending millennium festivities in Washington, where there's a large concentration of Ethiopians.

Three smaller concerts in the capital have been canceled, as has an international soccer tournament.

Two weeks ago, the Great Ethiopia Run, a 6.2-mile race organized by distance legend Haile Gebreselassie that has drawn 30,000 runners, was postponed until November.

The government cited a number of logistical reasons for the cancellations, but many here suspect the reasons had more to do with security concerns.

Tight security is in place

Ethiopia is a key US ally in one of the world's most volatile regions, as demonstrated when it invaded neighboring Somalia last December to oust Islamists that had taken over the country. Its troops still occupy Somalia and are now facing an Iraq-style insurgency.

The move has drawn fierce criticism from Eritrea (with whom Ethiopia fought a bitter border war in 1998-2000), and from the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnically Somali separatist group that attacked a Chinese oil installation in eastern Ethiopia months ago killing more than 70 people, including nine Chinese workers.

Any of these groups would love to launch an attack during the millennium for symbolic reasons, but would have trouble doing so, say analysts. Addis Ababa is swarming with armed troops in blue camouflage uniforms checking people's bags as they walk near party venues.

Criticism of lavish spending in poor country

Another damper on the holiday is the fact that it will be the third millennium only for the country's Orthodox Christians, who make up just over half of the population. Many of Ethiopia's nearly 50 percent Muslims – and others who share neither faith – have long felt oppressed by the ruling highland Orthodox Christians.

"For us, it's just another day," says Said Melaku, a Muslim man shopping at a sprawling market just outside the country's biggest mosque in Addis Ababa. "We don't feel anything.

"I feel sorry, because [the millennium celebrations don't] include Muslims," he continues. "It's not fair, but there's no choice. That's their calendar."

Others are criticizing the government for spending lavishly on the festivities in a country that is among the world's poorest.

"I don't feel comfortable, because someone is having a good time and others are suffering," says Araya Abera. Mr. Abera drives a taxi in Calgary, Canada, but timed a visit to his family in Ethiopia for the millennium.

Still, many people are relieved just to have something to celebrate. Several Addis residents this reporter spoke to say that they plan to get married on Wednesday.

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