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Ethiopia Scales Back Unique Millennium Celebration

Ethiopia is set to celebrate the arrival of the third millennium more than seven years after it was celebrated in the west. Events are planned, across the country, as well as in several American cities, where there are large concentrations of Ethiopian expatriates. But, as VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein reports from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the celebrations in the capital have been sharply scaled back because of security fears and factional squabbles.

Traffic grinds to a halt on one of Addis Ababa's busiest thoroughfares, as young boys snapping their homemade whips hurry a herd of goats across the road on their way to slaughter. It is the final journey for these animals, most of whom will find their way to dinner tables as families across Ethiopia gather to celebrate the dawn of the third millennium.

Ethiopians proudly follow the Julian calendar, which puts the birth of Christ seven and a half years later than the more commonly followed Gregorian calendar. Ethiopia's Christian Orthodox leaders note that it was the Roman church that amended the calendar, about 15 centuries ago, while they stuck with the original calculation.

Addis is decked out in its finest for the occasion. The government has strung kilometers of colorful lights along Bole Road. Ethiopia's wealthiest man is building a concert hall at one end of the street for the occasion. He is planning to open it New Year's Eve, with a grand concert featuring the American hip hop group, the Black Eyed Peas.

Days before the opening, construction crews are working feverishly, day and night, to finish the job.

But political disputes and high costs have put a damper on many of the observances.

Many citizens complain the cost of a ticket to the concert is nearly twice the average worker's monthly salary.

And, a 10-kilometer Millennium Run that had attracted 35,000 entrants was canceled, because of security concerns. Ethiopian Culture Minister Mohammed Dirir notes the tense relations with neighboring Eritrea. He says the government is worried about the threat of terrorism.

"We know that there is the government of Eritrea, which has, in the past, been sending disruptors and arming them with bombs and what have you," said Dirir. "These have been apprehended and it has been all over the media. I think security is tight."

A schedule of free events, including an open-air concert and a Taste of Africa food festival, had been planned at the city's Meskel Square, but most of them died in the planning stage. Culture Minister Dirir says the events were stopped because the organizers failed to coordinate plans with the government's Millennium Secretariat.

"Let me tell you about the noise of the Taste of Africa, or the lack of taste of Africa," said Dirir. "They have been working with the Millennium Council and, if they do not work with the concerned body and take an independent course of their own, that is a failure. The Millennium Council has advised them to make it as part of the overall events, but they wanted to go the wrong way. They have failed."

The confusion and political wrangling have led many who can afford it to go elsewhere for celebrations. Several leaders of Ethiopia's main political opposition party have made a point of flying to American cities, where communities of Ethiopian expatriates are planning elaborate parties.

And, with the many of the planned events in Addis canceled, many ordinary citizens are planning to be out of town for the holiday. The owner of the Meskel Square cinema, movie producer Theodros Teshome, told VOA he is closing up the theater on New Year's Eve and sponsoring a rival celebration in his hometown, Jimma, 200 kilometers away. That event will feature Ethiopia's biggest homegrown music star, Teddy Afro.

"I will be celebrating the millennium in Jimma," said Teshome. "I will have the first fireworks ever made out of Addis Ababa, in Jimma. And, I'm taking the king of music in Ethiopia, Teddy Afro to Jimma, so my millennium is going to be the best millennium in Ethiopia.

But Teshome says, despite people's frustration with their government, Ethiopians are united in their hope that this new millennium will bring with it the promise of prosperity and a better life for the common people.

"The millennium is bringing hope that we will no more be a poor country; that we will no more be thought of as one of the countries that's not yet developed; and we are seeing a lot of development with the arrival of this government, so we are really excited," said Teshome.

But, on the streets of Addis, that excitement is somewhat muted. Many people -- perhaps following the government's security concerns -- say they are planning quiet celebrations at home with their family and, perhaps, the traditional Ethiopian lamb dinner.