A Potemkin Party

An Ethiopian military marching band

in downtown Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian government threw a $1.6 million party for itself on September 11 to celebrate the Coptic millennium. Good thing the world was not watching. By Amanda Rivkin

A close friend, an Ethiopian journalist, first told me last June of his country’s plans to ring in the year 2000. Until September 12, 2007, it was still 1999 in Ethiopia. One of the world’s most underdeveloped countries, a recipient of high profile Western aid efforts, was throwing a party for itself. The occasion: a unique calendar that places the country seven years behind the rest of the world.

Ethiopia, with a high infant mortality rate and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, ranks near the bottom on almost every development index. An Ethiopian physician with years of experience in the United States told me malnutrition and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, and scabies, all but eradicated in the developed world, are the greatest public health problems facing the country.

Party Favors

What does it take for a country to celebrate being behind the rest of the world? When I arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital, a few weeks ahead of the millennium, there were unmistakable signs that a show was in the works. Banners draped over government buildings declared the country’s renaissance beside signs noting government efforts to weed out corruption. Meanwhile, the easiest way to get a laugh was to wish someone a happy millennium.

From the start, the September 11 millennium gala faced stiff competition on diplomatic calendars from the sixth anniversary commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks. But the Ethiopian Millennium Festival National Council Secretariat pushed on inviting high ranking world leaders and heads of state to join them in celebration at Millennium Hall on New Year’s Eve. For weeks, rumors swirled in Addis Ababa.

A man promotes a medical school

at a cultural bazaar and trade fair

in Addis Ababa.

A Saudi-Ethiopian national, Sheikh Al-Hamoudi, known to most as simply “The Sheikh,” built Millennium Hall at a cost of an estimated $20 million, according to The Associated Press. Inside Millennium Hall, the Sheikh rang in the New Year with 22,000 of his closest friends among Ethiopia’s power brokers, diplomatic community and the elite.

The average monthly salary in Ethiopia falls well below the $150 entrance fee for the event, headlined by the American group the Black Eyed Peas. The facility barely surpassed two-thirds capacity on the occasion of the only semi-public event it was built for. A third of the reported 15,000 people in attendance received complimentary tickets.

Finding Little Gates

The government also sought to make it easier for foreign journalists to get into the country to cover the millennium festivities. The draconian array of permits and permission slips that greeted foreign correspondents and photographers at the gates made it difficult, but not impossible, to get in and generate the favorable coverage the government so desired. Competent bureaucrats faced barriers from their own bureaucracy, but the word “millennium” was a magical, door-opening buzzword.

In Ethiopia, failure to obtain proper accreditation can lead to arrest, imprisonment, and possibly expulsion from the country. Every major news organization, The New York Times, The Associated Press, Reuters, BBC has had at least one correspondent who spent weeks waiting for accreditation, waited so long they got tired of waiting, or had their correspondent arrested or evicted from the country.

Read more about the party, the guests and the political background in part II.

Lesen Sie auch bei /e-politik.de/:

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Neuerliches Chaos am Horn von Afrika

Zum Dossier: „Vergessene Konflike“

Die Bildrechte liegen bei Amanda Rivkin.

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