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Ethiopians Celebrate 20 Years of Meles Zenawi Rule

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi lifts his cap to salute supporters at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa (2010 file photo)

Meskel Square is empty on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the bloodless coup that brought a band of Marxist Tigrayan rebels to power in Ethiopia. Only a few workers are here setting up the sound system and stage.

In a few hours, throngs of government supporters will pour into the square to celebrate the day in 1991 when the 17-year rule of the dreaded Dergue regime came to an end, and pro-Soviet military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam went into exile in Zimbabwe.

Spokesman Shimeles Kemal says the event will celebrate two decades of achievement under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s leadership.

"Within these two decades Ethiopia has scored a number of achievements in terms of realizing the dreams and aspirations of its people," said Kemal. "The livelihood of the people has been improved a lot in contrast with what happened 20 years back."

Shimeles acknowledged that 20 years on, Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. He says, despite statistics showing double digit economic growth for seven straight years, there is still a long way to go.

"It is not a rosy ground. Building a nation that had been pushed to the brink of disintegration is not a rosy bed, and despite this, the whole majority of the Ethiopian people do have a firm belief that Ethiopia is being led on the right track," Kemal said.

Not all are satisfied

Not everyone in this nation of 90 million is satisfied with the government, however. A group of taxi drivers waiting for fares in Meskel Square said they would stay away Saturday in protest.

32-year old Zerihun Getiye says most Ethiopians have seen no improvement in their lives since Meles Zenawi came to power.

"I am not satisfied," said Getiye. "This government is not good for me."
Q: "Why?
A: "For some people, life is good. For some people, the majority, not good."

Social media opposition

Activists using online social network sites are calling for a counter-demonstration Saturday. The so-called “Enough” protest is planned as the beginning of a North African-style popular uprising. But political analysts say the “Enough” protest has little chance against the expected crowd of a million people at the pro-government demonstration.

Spokesman Shimeles Kemal describes the “Enough” supporters as mostly exiled Ethiopian dissidents.

"These are also some desperate people who claim to have followers here, a local constituency," said Kemal. "What we know for sure is that such exaggerated claims and calls for insurrection were made by a handful of exiled people, mostly fugitives."

An opposition activist sympathetic to the Beka ("Enough") campaign, who asked not to be identified, said the movement has wide support. But the activist said tight government control would make it difficult, if not impossible, to organize an effective demonstration.

An opposition group calling itself the Tinsae Ethiopian Patriots Union said this week it had cut power cables in the western part of the country as part of a campaign of “peaceful civil resistance.”

The group posted pictures of downed cables on its website, but it is impossible to verify the claim, which government officials say is “preposterous.”

Tinsae says it consists of members of the now defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy. The CUD led protests after the disputed 2005 elections, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people. Many of its activists were sentenced to long prison terms but later released. Several have since moved abroad.