Sub-Saharan Africa

About this Episode

Guests
Ousman Kobo, Amy Pate, Amanda Robinson

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world's fastest-growing and most diverse regions—and also one of the most misunderstood. On this episode of History Talk, scholars Ousman Kobo, Amy Pate, and Amanda Robinson discuss ethnicity, nationality, and religion in contemporary African societies. Putting the emergence of religious extremism in a broader perspective, these experts highlight regional variations, historical developments, and the social and economic trends that are rapidly changing the face of the continent.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Mark Sokolsky , "Sub-Saharan Africa" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
May, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/sub-saharan-africa?language_content_entity=en.
May, 2016

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy  
Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy. 

Mark Sokolsky  
And I'm your other host, Mark Sokolsky. Today, we're discussing religious, national, and ethnic identities in contemporary Africa. What unites Africa's peoples, states, societies, and what divides them? How have historical experiences influenced the formation of national, ethnic, and religious identities? And how have they changed over time? What do overlapping identities and competing loyalties mean for security, state-building, and governance in this extraordinarily diverse part of the world? With us to discuss these and other questions are three scholars of Africa: Ousman Kobo, Amanda Robinson, and Amy Pate.

Professor Amanda Robinson  
My name is Amanda Robinson. I'm an assistant professor of political science at The Ohio State University and my research focuses on the intersection of culture and politics. In the past, I've studied the relationship between nationalism and ethnic group segregation on inner-group relations and currently, I'm working on a project around political mobilization of ethnic groups and how that affects cultural change.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
My name is Ousman Kobo, associate professor of history at the history department here at OSU.

Amy Pate  
I'm Amy Pate. I am the research director at START at the University of Maryland, which is a terrorism research center. My personal research focuses on identity-based groups who engage in political violence and the relationship with political instability, and my region of focus is West Africa.

Patrick Potyondy  
Well, thank you all for joining us today. We'd like to start off by giving listeners a sense of the lay of the land here. This is part of the world that tends to get lumped together despite its really great diversity. So what do we see as the main divisions within the continent, if we were to kind of outline this broadly? And maybe, Amy, if you'd like to start us off?

Amy Pate  
Sure. I think one of the things that we frequently see in the media, especially in reports about African countries, besides the fact that they tend to be grouped together in ways that other continents are not, is that they're presented as characterized by a lot of conflict and extreme poverty. However, most of the countries in Africa have actually made enormous strides since 2000, in terms of human development, in terms of economic growth, and in terms of governance. So I think that there are pockets within Africa that hold a lot of innovation. So places, cities, and mega cities even, like Lagos in Nigeria, yes, there are persistent problems there, but there are also wells of innovation that we don't frequently see in the West. I think some of the divides or key regions in Africa, I think the regional organizations, governance organizations, things like the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] which is an economic and political union in West Africa, are actually quite important in the region, not to the level of the EU in Europe, but still pretty significant in shaping how countries view each other.

Patrick Potyondy  
Ousman and Amanda, what might you add to that? 

Professor Amanda Robinson  
Ousman probably has more to say about this. But I would say that the religious divide in many countries seems to be becoming more salient over time. I should have mentioned earlier, most of my research has been focused within Malawi, which is a country with both Christian and Muslim populations, and historically had very few problems in terms of inter-religious conflict, but based on what's happened in other parts of the continent, there seems to be a rising kind of fear of the possibility of religious-based conflict in Malawi, where there's been no history of it, and so I think moving forward, there's at least the potential for that kind of divide and I think that's something we'll talk more about in a bit.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Well, I would like to add [to] what Amanda and Amy have just mentioned, all of us, not only the media, but even scholars, have the tendency of homogenizing Africa as one territory, one area, to the point that students sometimes think that Africa is a country. I ask in the first quiz that I often provide my students. Now the diversity of the continent, not withstanding, it's also important to emphasize that Africa today, one can essentially talk about religious divisions, mostly between Islam and Christianity. One would not say every African subscribes to either Islam or Christianity, but majority of Africans do, to the point that it is probably evenly split, even within Sub-Saharan Africa between the Muslim population and the Christian population. But this is just one aspect of various forms of identities within the African continent. You mentioned regional divisions and I would like to add to that. These regional divisions are the product of post-colonialism. It was, indeed, the various institutions within the UN, started with the United Nations development programs that sort of created regional, what one might call regional political divisions. So we have the West Africa, we have the East Africa, we have Southern Africa, and so on and so forth, and now Northern Africa, but even the United Nations institutions actually used what the colonialists had initiated during the colonial period, and we had a French West Africa Federation, for example. So the idea of West Africa was not new, but it did not predate the colonial system, even though the Arabs also had their own divisions, where West Africa, for example, was described as Western Sudan, and so on and so forth. But the original divisions have been very, very helpful, as Amy would probably add, often what I'm suggesting now, ECOWAS, for example, had been very, very helpful in promoting conflict resolution in West Africa. We do remember the ECOMOG [Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group] and we can define this as we proceed.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay, great. I was wondering if you could give us a sense of the main divisions within sort of practices of Islam across the continent? Is there a lot of variation here between, say, East and West Africa?

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Well, yet again, it's one of the media confusion, and sometimes scholarly as well. Islam is one religion. One cannot, for example, talk about Islam as various groups within Islam as sects, right, because the central tenets of Islam remains the same wherever one goes. And Islam in Africa is not entirely different, or in any form different, from Islam in any other parts of the world. There are scholars who emphasize the nature or the emphasis on Sufi, that is Islamic mysticism, in Africa, but Islamic mysticism is pervasive. I mean, even though Saudi Arabia would not like to admit because its own national policy is against Sufism, which Saudi scholars, who have inherited the teachings of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, suggested that Sufism is an aquistion, it's an aquistion in Islam, it was not practiced by Prophet Muhammad, but Sufism did not evolve from Africa. Of course, Sufism started in the ninth century in Baghdad, some would say even eighth century in Baghdad, and it is everywhere. We find Sufi brothers everywhere. Now within the context of Africa, in West Africa, or Eastern Africa, one would have almost evenly split, in terms of the population, between those who subscribe to Sufism, Sufi practices, others to the Sufi brotherhood and those who don't, and one would find the same situation in East Africa. Now even when we go to East Africa, and Islam as an identity, and Islam as a cultural practice, in Zanzibar might be a little bit different from that of, let's say, Kenya or even of mainland Tanzania. But I do not want us to begin from the assumption that there is a difference between Muslim practices in Africa compared to other places.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. Yeah. Amy, as I understand it, you've studied extremist organizations in various parts of the world. How would you say groups like Boko Haram or al-Shabaab compare to those elsewhere in the Middle East or Southeast Asia?

Amy Pate  
Well, there are some similarities, but there are also a few differences. I'll start off with just some numbers. So a group like Boko Haram, at least in the last few years, like it didn't start off particularly violent. It started off as a non-violent, reformist movement, anti-corruption, focused more on proselytization than anything else. I'm talking now about the 2012 to 2015 period. It's far more lethal than your average extremist group. I mean, most extremist groups, and terrorist groups, are actually not all that successful at killing people. Some of them don't actually aim to inflict large numbers of deaths, but Boko Haram has been particularly lethal. The average attack that it carries out kills around nine people in the recent past, and this compares to a global average of about two and a half people being killed per terrorist attack. So that's something that sort of distinguishes them from other extremist groups. And with both Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, they both grew out of very local conditions that were unique to northern Nigeria, and especially northeast Nigeria, in the case of Boko Haram, and to Somalia.  However, they have linked up and actively participated in transnational movements as well, and a lot of times this participation has been more rhetorical than anything else, but the sort of active linking up and forming alliances with what we call "global jihadi movement," whether it's al-Qaeda and its affiliates, or now the Islamic State is the hot bandwagon in town in that world. That also makes them somewhat different from many extremist movements who are not just born out of local conditions, but they stay local. They don't reach out and try to link up with transnational movements. So despite the fact that their activity is still largely within their regions of origin, and then slightly over border, so al-Shabaab, most of their attacks are in Somalia, and then they spill over into Kenya. Boko Haram, most of their attacks are in North East Nigeria, but they spill over into Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.

Mark Sokolsky  
And are there precedents for this kind of thing in African history? 

Amy Pate  
I mean, there have been other religiously-based extremist movements. When I was doing fieldwork in Nigeria on Boko Haram, one thing that I found interesting is when I was talking to key informants there, the groups that they tended to compare Boko Haram to was actually the Lord's Resistance Army, which was not a Muslim group. They were a variety that drew on Christian and traditional beliefs. But as far as the tactics and the way leadership worked, that was who the Nigerians were comparing Boko Haram to. Largely because the Lord's Resistance Army also did lots of kidnapping and conscription of young people into their forces, which Boko Haram has started doing. So there are precedents and even in Nigeria, there have been violent movements in the past. I think the difference between things like Boko Haram and more historical precedents is (a) this act of linking up themselves, at least rhetorically, with a global movement, which did not happen so much in the past. And also just, again, and part of this is because of the weaponry that they have access to, the degree of destruction and lethality that they have inflicted in their areas of operations. 

Mark Sokolsky  
Do you guys have anything you'd like to add to that?

Professor Amanda Robinson  
I'd like to throw a question out there if that's okay.

Mark Sokolsky  
Sure. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Yeah, totally.

Professor Amanda Robinson  
I am curious for Amy and Ousman, what they think the kind of strategic value, if that's the way to phrase it, would be of framing these groups around religion, whether its legitimacy, whether it's additional means of recruitment, or why these groups have an interest in framing their movement as a religious one, and in connecting to these larger, religious extremist movements?

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Well, that's a very good question. One of the answers, and I'll try to be brief, one of the responses that I could give to this is the fact that in Africa, religion is very, very important. Religion is central to most Africans, our culture, practices, personal identity, and so on and so forth. But at the same time, when we look at Boko Haram, for example, Boko Haram did not emerge out of a social or political vacuum, correct? Boko Haram emerged in a part of Nigeria that is highly, highly disenfranchised, very poor, and we see this a lot. I mean, any individual, any charismatic individual could use religion as a way of mobilizing the disenfranchised, and they can mobilize the disenfranchised, as long as you provide them with some hope, or an opportunity to wreak havoc, right? On those they blame for their own conditions and this is one of the situations in Nigeria. I mean, we do know that Boko Haram, for example, recruits extensively from among the poor, this might be a little bit different from other societies. So I would say, religion provides the stimulus for mobilization, it provides the avenue for rapid recruitment, and religion is emotional, and as long as you can, and here, I'm not a psychologist by any means, but I believe that as long as one can tap into that kind of emotion, especially those who are not deeply educated in the religion, right, those who are not deeply rooted in religion, but they have an emotional attachment to it, they might believe, yes, they're doing something that God supports.

Amy Pate  
And I'll just build on that a little bit, as far as why religion versus some other ideological or identity construct within the region. So places like Nigeria, and quite frankly, a lot of African countries are extremely ethnically fragmented, and so there is an option that Boko Haram could have gone an ethnic minority route. 

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Yes. 

Amy Pate  
However, that limits them in some way. So in some cases, national identities are not as strong in many of these countries, but religion is a slightly broader identity so that it widens their potential constituency over, say, something that's purely an ethnic mobilizing force, and sometimes you do see sort of fusions of ethnicity and religion at times, like that happened in northern Mali when you see where there's traditionally been a focus on more secular Tuareg identity to fuel insurgency there. It then had a religious component added on to it in the most recent iteration of that.... religion broadens. It broadens beyond the ethnic base, because a lot of these ethnic groups are actually...they're not all that big in absolute terms, or in terms of how their proportion of the population in the state.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
I would like to say something about nationalism, right? Amy and Amanda, with the political scientists here, would agree with me that nationalism, which evolved from nation states, the way it happened in Europe did not happen in Africa. It did not get a chance to evolve to the point that people see the nation as their major identity. When you are within Africa and you ask someone, "Where are you from?" the person will never tell you, "I'm African," right? The person will say, "I am Igbo," let's say use a Nigerian as an example, Igbo, or if they are outside of their country, they might say "I am a Nigerian", but when they are among themselves, they talk about their individual ethnic group. So I think the issue here is more of ethno-nationalism, which has remained persistent. I mean, the resilience of ethno-nationalism cannot be the question. And indeed, I definitely do agree that, in the case of Islam, in particular, and in other religions as well, the idea of reaching out to other ethnic groups, because Islam blends ethnic divisions, at least theoretically, and sometimes in practice. So I definitely do agree with Amy's suggestion here.

Professor Amanda Robinson  
I would push back a little bit on the characterization of weak nationalism, just to say that there's quite a bit of variation and I think in some countries, the national identity is much stronger than sub-national ethnic identities. For example, in Tanzania. And so if you look at public opinion data, for example, across Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania is typically an extreme outlier in terms of strength of Tanzania identity relative to alternative identities. Nigeria is an outlier on the other end, where a sense of Nigerian identity is quite weak relative to religious and ethnic forms of identity, but there's huge variation that I think is sometimes not appreciated fully, because we have this sense that the states were kind of artificially created from the outside, they didn't have meaning in many cases prior to colonialization. But these borders have mattered for long enough now that there is some sense that being born on the Malawian side of the border versus the Zambian side of the border does affect your life chances, and in ways that don't necessarily...being out in the streets and waving the flag and feeling a deep sense of pride, but there is some sense that this identity matters for people in a way that does inform their kind of sense of who they are and what's possible in their lives.

Mark Sokolsky  
What would you say to that, Amy?

Amy Pate  
Yeah, I was just going to add to that. I actually was just looking at the 2014-2015 Afrobarometer data, which is a great source of country-level data and there are countries where, like Guinea, where 75.4% said that their national identity is the most important. Namibia had a majority as well, which kind of makes sense, given that they were struggling for independence against South Africa for so long, that that probably helped forge their national identity as well. And then you do have a...it looks like for most countries, the mode, where there's the highest percentage of respondents, is an equal affinity between whatever the national identity is and their particular ethnic group.

Mark Sokolsky  
How do you think we can explain this sort of variation of why, in Zimbabwe, is national identity stronger than in Nigeria, for instance?

Professor Amanda Robinson  
So some of it is the state policy, depends on how far back you go. So in some cases, like the case of Botswana, the post-colonial state borders are largely similar to pre-colonial understandings of political affiliation, such that there is this kind of consistency that allows for a sense of Botswanan identity, for example. Colonial practices mattered as well, the degree to which colonial policies were instituted or enforced at the national level, rather than at some sub-national unit, or sub-colonial unit, or as larger colonial groupings as a whole, and so there's some sense of being in the Aso land, affecting people in the same way for just some kind of sense of national identity. And then, perhaps most importantly is post-independence policies. So Tanzania, as I mentioned, is typically a large outlier and one of the reasons is that the first president had policies that explicitly sought to encourage national identity. So language hemogenization, and a prioritization of Swahili over other languages that are spoken in the country, equal division of state resources that undermined kind of interstate competition for those state resources, moving personnel around, these were explicit policy choices that were made that help explain why nationalism is stronger there than, say, in neighboring countries like Kenya or Uganda. And so I think there's lots of different reasons, but that all these countries, just with time, will have a stronger sense of national identity since starting out from different levels. But over time, any kind of common experiences, good or bad, tend to forge these identities.

Amy Pate  
And I already said, there are some examples, and I will focus again on the West African cases, because those are the ones I know best, where processes of democratization early on can actually initially start out with some fragmentation of identity. So because of the nature of how political competition evolved in those countries. So for example, in Nigeria, post-democratization, you see political leaders sort of recklessly using local and ethnic identities or religious identities for their political purposes, and then a side effect of that is that it sort of degrades the national identity. Saw the same thing in Cote d'Ivoire, following democratization, when this whole debate about Ivoritate, why does it have to be Ivorian, was used in such a way that essentially disenfranchised the large portions of the northern half of the country, who happened to be of different ethnic groups and also religiously different. They were Muslim as opposed to Christian or traditional religions. And so I don't have Afrobarometer data going back into the '80s, but I have a feeling if you took national identity measures in 1982, under the authoritarian regime, which actually did try to build narratives of national identity as compared to feelings of national identity in 2000, you would have actually seen a slight degradation and now hopefully, you can see it, post-conflict, maybe reconsolidated around a sense of Ivorianness, that's not as divisive as what had been used in the early to mid-2000s.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
To extend this argument a little bit further, we can also look at Senegal, where Senegal probably is the oldest democracy in West Africa, arguably so. But when one looks at Senegal, for example, politics does not evolve around ethnicity. For example, I think, in the case of Senegal, as Leonardo Villalon and others have argued, the Sufi Brotherhoods tend to be the default side of political negotiation more than the modern ethnic leaders. So practically in every election, one could find individuals moving, crisscrossing political alignments, so Senegal provides an excellent example. Ghana, which should have been perhaps one of the most politically-minded groups, I'm not from Ghana, and I know Ghana's politics quite well, has not really reached that level. Outsiders tend to see Ghana's very stable democracy, yes, indeed it is. But when you look at the details, the nuances, ethnicity is emerging as the foremost alignment for political mobilization.

Mark Sokolsky  
There's been a lot of talk recently, with the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Accord, that those artificial divisions drawn up for the Middle East are now kind of falling apart in the face of religious and ethnic divisions. But what I'm sort of hearing here is that, perhaps in the case of Africa, we're sort of moving the opposite direction, that if anything, these borders are becoming more reified, these identities stronger. Is that fair to say?

Professor Amanda Robinson  
Well, I think you can look at it on a lot of different dimensions. I've done work along several borders, because my work leverages differences in national and ethnic identity, and borders are really nice places where you can get variation among individuals and their sharing of those two identities. And I think on some indicators, you would assume that this border means nothing, the percentage of people that are moving across the border on a daily basis, who have family across the border, who go to the market across the border, is huge. So in that sense, the borders don't matter in a lot of places at all, there's no physical demarcation and often there's not a social demarcation, at least in measuring it in terms of people's movement, and their connection, their social connections. But in others, I have experiences where we cross the border between Malawi and Zambia without realizing it and we ask a woman to help us find a particular community that we were looking for, and she said maybe three words and the Malawian research assistant that I was working with immediately knew that we had crossed into Zambia because of something about her accent, even though we were less than a kilometer from the border. There is this kind of centralization of education, of which radio programs people listened to in a way that was immediately obvious to people that were from across the border. And so in some ways, I think living near the border, you see the differences in currency, you hear these kinds of differences in terminology, perhaps even if people are speaking the same language and so I think it's somewhere in the middle, it's not that these borders are extremely meaningful in every way, but that they are realities, that they're not just kind of figments of imagination in terms of what's on the map.

Amy Pate  
And I think if you look at the immediate post-colonial period with the formation of what was then the OAU and it's now just the AU, the African Union, there seemed to be fairly strong consensus of, among the initial governments after independence, that the borders may not be ideal. But if we start trying to shift borders, we're going to have chaos. So let's just all agree that we're going to keep the borders and work with them. And I think that kind of, at the sort of central government level, between the different countries, actually helps reinforce the sense that even if the borders aren't ideal, it's what we're going to work with, because they just don't want to open that can of worms.

Patrick Potyondy  
And so to start to begin to wrap things up a bit, we kind of want to ask you all kind of where do we go from here? What is one of the kind of takeaways that you think everyone should know about Africa to better understand what they kind of hear in the news? And so kind of like to give us some kind of takeaways here for our listeners, and maybe Amanda, you could start us off?

Professor Amanda Robinson  
Sure. So I think, taking it back to where we began, in terms of the way in which Sub-Saharan Africa is viewed by outsiders in this kind of very superficial way, would just be to encourage people, as they hear about things that are happening in particular countries, to not generalize beyond that country, and typically not to generalize beyond the locality in which something's happening. So we see these extremely tragic circumstances in a particular place, but typically, life is going on in a normal way everywhere else in that country, and so to not generalize these kinds of news-grabbing headlines to the whole region, country, continent. And I think moving forward, one of the things that's going to be really important and potentially change the nature, my interests are in politics, change the nature of politics, is the rapid urbanization that's happening right now. People are talking a lot about the ways in which this will affect economic growth, but I think there are lots of good reasons to think it's going to very much affect the way in which politics is organized in many of these democracies, as people are less tied to a particular region of the country, and therefore it makes less sense for politics to be organized along ethnic or regional lines.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Well, I will do the same as Amanda did. We need to go back and understand that it is important not to homogenize that huge continent, and assume that everyone speaks the same language, they're from the same culture. My students have the tendency of thinking that when they study Africa, they're studying the culture instead of cultures. I would also move to say something about religion. The Pew Foundation argues that Africa is probably the fastest growing religious continent in the whole world, in terms of both Christianity and Islam, and this is not going to change. On the other hand, when I look at the landscape and I look at the debates, I could also feel the sense that religious tensions might continue to grow and the growth of these religious tensions might not evolve only from local dynamics, but also from external forces. Since the 1970s, especially since the 1980s, I mean, a few scholars have observed this, Africa has become the territory for the competition between American evangelical movements as well as the Salafi-inclined movements in the Middle East. Now, as long as this competition continues, I do sense a degree of religious tension. Having said that, there are also great opportunities for religious coexistence, when one takes the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria, for example, the Yoruba is split between Islam and Christianity and within one household in the Yoruba community, one person would be a Christian, the other would be a Muslim. So there's no points to expect religious war in Africa. But we also have to be aware of the rising tensions and try to look for ways by which we would provide these societies with inter-religious negotiations and resolutions of conflicts.

Amy Pate  
I'll add a couple of things. I think urbanization, and the rapid pace of urbanization, is a key trend to continue to examine and look for, especially since it's also accompanied by youth bulges in many of these countries, and youth bulges and urbanization both have great potential to push countries forward and to drive innovation and economic development. But they're also risk associated with those opportunities as far as not building infrastructure quickly enough, not providing jobs or opportunities for all of those young people. So I think that's going to be an interesting dynamic to see how different countries handle those challenges and opportunities. I think we're also going to see, and this is already happening somewhat in Nigeria, a transition from purely resource-based economy. So where oil used to be the biggest part of Nigeria's portfolio, to more diversified and balanced economies. And there are several countries that are trying to make an investment in the knowledge economy. So I think that will be an interesting trend to watch over the next five, ten, fifteen years as well, as they try to sort of push... This is driven, in part, in some places, by diasporas in places like the United States or the UK who are investing back into their home countries. And then I think, whenever you have economic growth, and there has been pretty good economic growth in many of these countries, although it's slowed a little bit in the last year or so, the benefits of that economic growth are never distributed evenly or equally. And so I think we may see tensions continue, since the distribution of these economic gains are unequally distributed and the distributions they tend to overlap with regional or ethnic divides or religious divides in many of these countries. So where there's a great opportunity, there's also risk involved. 

Mark Sokolsky  
Great. Well, lots of big questions there. Lots to think about moving forward, but I think it's a good place to stop. Our guests today have been Ousman Kobo, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University; Amanda Robinson, assistant professor of political science, also at OSU; and Amy Pate, research director at START, an organization devoted to the study of terrorism and responses to terrorism at the University of Maryland. Thank you all for joining us today. 

Professor Amanda Robinson  
Thank you.

Amy Pate  
Thanks.

Professor Ousman Kobo  
Thank you.

Patrick Potyondy  
This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thanks for listening.
 

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