May 28, 2011 / 2:06 PM / in 7 years

Ethiopia marks Mengistu downfall, celebrates dam

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Ethiopians marked the 20 year anniversary on Saturday of the removal of former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam by celebrating construction of a new dam.

The Horn of Africa nation announced it was building the $4.7 billion project along its Nile waters in March to try to become a leading power exporter in Africa. It has ignored concerns in Egypt and is due to complete the first stages of construction in two years.

“The construction of the Renaissance Dam is just a symbol of our efforts to eradicate poverty and not the beginning nor end of our struggle to develop our country,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, speaking behind bullet-proof glass.

“We will strive to make poverty an issue of the past,” he said, before saluting the crowd by raising his baseball cap.

The 56-year-old came to power in 1991 after his rebel Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front joined other groups and toppled Mengistu’s brutal regime, ending a 17-year guerrilla war.

Meles has received international praise for guiding the country to double-digit economic growth for the past six years, but is criticised by rights groups for cracking down on dissent and weakening opposition parties.

Government detractors also blame state policies for the rising cost of living. Some had called for an Arab-style “day of rage” for Saturday.

“There should be criticism in any country, but I don’t think there’s an appetite in Ethiopia now for an uprising after 2005,” said Tewodros, a 23-year-old university student who gave only his first name.

Street protests erupted in Ethiopia after Meles’ disputed 2005 election win and more than 200 people were killed in clashes between protesters and police.

“I think even most opposition supporters believe a gradual process is the only way now,” he said.

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