Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It was a small part of a big story. Easy to miss, yet significant in more ways than one.
At the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)’s Miritini station, there is a bronze statue on a plinth. The statue is of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, who travelled to the Kenyan coast in the 15th century. You’ve heard parts of his story, including how one of the ships in his mighty armada was wrecked. A few people survived and swam ashore to Pate Island, where they settled after killing a snake. But most travellers tend to assume that it’s a statue of Chairman Mao. With good reason. Mao is probably the second most recognisable Chinese man in Kenya after Jackie Chan.
But the story wasn’t even about Zheng He the man, but Zheng He the statue. Like everything about our new railway, this statue was made in China and shipped to the Kenyan coast. It was installed by Chinese sculptors. At the time, a group of Kenyan sculptors wondered why they weren’t considered for the job. Hidden within this labour and material question was a much deeper reality – that the Chinese economic conquest is nothing else but. Although it is radically altering the societies it is involved in, China is refusing to acknowledge the cultural distance it has to close. Not only that, China is also ignoring the histories and cultures of those societies, choosing instead a cultural journey that we’ve already been through (and not with good results) in the belief that everything must be made in China, with Chinese money, by Chinese people.
There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem. You’ve probably already heard the statement “China cannot be racist.” That, or seen the numerous press statements China and her companies have to send out almost every week defending themselves against claims of open racism.
The statue is not the only example of Chinese racism. Another is the signage. Where one could argue that the Zheng He statue was rightly made by China because he is their national hero, there was no such argument for the terrible translations. The notice “Hakuna kipenzi kuruhisiwa” next to the escalator, for example, was translated as “No pets allowed” instead of “No lovers allowed” (when actually it probably intended to say “No petting”). This was clearly a hilarious algorithmic mistranslation that went unnoticed until the signs were mounted. A single Kiswahili speaker, after laughing his or her heart out, would have helped avoid such an embarrassment.
There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem.
The confusion is not surprising. In China’s quest for global dominance, it has adopted a bland, business-like approach to soft power. Through a global network of Confucius Institutes, China tries to encourage the citizens of other countries to admire Chinese values. It doesn’t seek to adapt itself to those societies at all. It instead sees them in the same way Victorian Britain and her contemporaries saw Africa: as a land inhabited by uncivilised people in need of a model to aspire to. Just like the racism that drove European conquest of other continents, the Chinese believe they are the superior race. Somehow, in both contexts, black people form the base of the racial hierarchy.
China’s current soft power model is ignorant of the complexity of the post-colonial societies it is investing in. Any society seeking to impose its culture on the world should have a plan, at the very least. For the British, it was immolation of any preceding cultures or religions, and the imposition of replacements that sustained the racial hierarchies that were required to entrench their domination. We are still here a century later, albeit traumatised. On paper, China’s plan is simple: to loan money to poor countries to help them build things, not for their own prosperity, but for China’s. How this alters those societies, or how the cultural conquest to make the world Chinese is a foolhardy task, are not things that keep the Chinese up at night. Branded as a partnership rather than a conquest, it is thankfully secular, but the absence of a plan will undoubtedly complicate race relations. It already is.
Several recent events epitomise this. Earlier this year, a racist 13-minute skit aired on CCTV during the Lunar New Year. It had an audience of more than 700 million people. The plotline was something one would expect to see in old British movies about Africa in the 1930s. It featured a black actress, dressed as a train stewardess, who asks a Chinese man to pose as her husband so her mother can stop pestering her to marry. The man’s real wife then appears, but the mum has no problem because, as she shouts for all to hear “I love China!” Simple enough, but the actress playing the mum was Chinese. For her role she wore blackface, a fake chest, and an exaggerated fake posterior. She also had a basketful of fruits on her head, and was accompanied by a black man in a monkey suit. That no one saw the many things that were wrong in these choices shows just how little China has learnt about the history of race globally.
In 2017, an exhibition opened in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. Titled “This is Africa”, it featured images of Africans juxtaposed with images of animals. The exhibition was closed after an outcry, but the curator defended it, saying that being compared to animals is a compliment in Chinese culture. What he left out is that in Sinology, the animals one would want to be compared with are very specific. The defence also ignored how black people would react to being compared to animals, given the negative history it triggers. It might as well have been a human zoo.
Another example, from 2016, was a detergent ad. A black man with dark paint on his face hits on a Chinese girl, who pushes detergent into his mouth and then pushes him into a washing machine. When he emerges, he is a fair-skinned Chinese man. Presumably, they live happily ever after. The commercial was copied from an Italian ad, which showed the reverse transformation: a scrawny white man transformed into a muscular black man.
China and her defenders were quick to claim that the CCTV skit was not racist. More than one official, including a diplomat in Nairobi, said that the outrage was an attempt by Western media “to drive a wedge between China and African countries”. The implication here is that because China doesn’t have a history of enslaving and colonising black people, it cannot be racist. But China does have a history of enslaving black people, and all its actions in the last two decades smell, walk, and quack like colonialism.
The first black people to enter China were slaves, taken there by Arab traders around the second half of the first millennium. At first, the Chinese saw black people as strange, and added them to folklore as people descended from animals and who possessed magical powers. After these first interactions, black Africans entered Chinese folklore as knights-errant, but as times changed, they became “devil slaves”.
While darker skin Chinese could be “improved” in an economic sense that would raise their social hierarchy and hence, skin colour, these dark Africans could not be. This piece rightly notes that although China has not had as much a history of racism as the Western world, the idea of whiteness is about class rather than mere racial superiority. To the common Chinese, the writer notes, “Africa symbolises poverty; no money.” The Mandarin word for Africa, 非洲 (Feizhou / Fēizhōu) translates to “wrong continent”, or “no state”, or “nothing state”. Its etymology might point to the time when China was closed off to the world, but in a modern world it carries all the connotations of “The Dark Continent”, as reflected in some of the negative responses to the Black Panther movie. These ideas are also shaping Chinese pop culture; one 2017 blockbuster had all the hallmarks of a “white saviour and poor helpless Africans” story.
Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.
In many societies, lighter skin is seen as a sign of material and social affluence. Among the Chinese and most East and South Asian societies, darker skin implies you are not wealthy enough to not work in the fields. It connotes poverty, while light skin is aspirational. For the Chinese, the racial hierarchy has them at the top, Manchuns and Europeans next, and Africans after whoever you want to add between them and Europeans. This view precedes communism and Mao, and defined how empires fostered cohesion and conquest in the centuries before.
Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.
Although there are 56 ethnic groups in China, more than 90 per cent of China’s population is Han Chinese. This homogeneity, combined with cycles of conquest and insular pursuits, has worsened colorism. It has also blinded China to changes in how the rest of the world processes race.
As a people, the Chinese see nothing wrong with treating people they consider poor badly. This wouldn’t be a significant problem if it did not define how we do business together. Deals are unfair, unequal, expensive, destructive, and benefit no one but the Chinese. There’s no appreciation of the unique experiences of a society such as Kenya. The only thing China is worried about is its own survival. After Zheng He’s golden age of exploration, China closed itself off again.
The Ming Dynasty destroyed the entire naval fleet; for centuries, the reason offered was that the empire was distracted by excursions by the Mongols. But recent research shows that although the “barbarian” distraction was blamed, it was actually the social and economic shifts within Chinese society that triggered the fallback. Private wealth was disrupting the social hierarchies. During the Golden Age though, Malindi city-state had sent diplomats and gifts to China for two years, and Zheng He had been to the East African coast.
When China reemerged on the global scene after centuries of being an insular society, racism against black people was rife. The earliest African students in China in the 1960s and ‘70s were discriminated against. There were also widespread demonstrations against African students in late 1988 and early 1989 in Nanjing. The main issues included the contact between African men and Chinese women, similar to the “black peril” fears during the colonial decades. Among the solutions to the demonstration was a raft of policies that placed a race-specific night-time curfew, as well as access limits to Chinese girlfriends. Within modern China, there is a growing xenophobia against black Africans, despite official denials. There have been instances, such as a protest in Guangzhou in 2009 after continued police harassment. Africans living in China have also written about being called things like “hei gui” (black devil) and being assumed to be criminals. There has also been racism in Chinese football.
Societies process colour and race differently. A recent example is the reaction to Albert Einstein’s 1922/3 travel diary where he made what, to the modern reader, are racist observations about the Chinese. To the West, the celebrated genius finally had (another) kink in his shining armour; he was a racist. There was the usual sense of shame and catharsis that comes from people in atonement when they recognise what they believe to be wrong in their heroes, based on the realities today. Einstein describes the Chinese as “spiritless” and “peculiar”, adding that “it would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
For the Chinese though, Einstein wasn’t being racist. For them, he was just recording what he saw, and he kept true to it. That Einstein said he found their “houses very formulaic, balconies like bee-hive cells” wasn’t a racist view. Or when he (rightly, when you think about it) wrote that China was a “peculiar herd-like nation” that would one day take over the world. To the modern Chinese in a period of prosperity, in a driven society that only looks back to learn business lessons and not reflect enough, the past is factual, and if the facts are right, then that’s that.
A big part of how China is experiencing blackness (as a concept) now is that which is filtered by the West, especially by Hollywood, or by its own government. In the Black Panther case, marketers were afraid a movie with a majority black cast wouldn’t do well in the second biggest movie market. But they were wrong, which might point more towards the curiosity of a culturally insular people to people different from them than to an appreciation of black people. The social interactions are already shaping China’s inevitable diversity explosion. An example is the marriage between a Chinese man and a Cameroonian woman, which has become an online sensation within the Chinese corner of the web.
In much the same way that black skin connotes poverty to the common Chinese, fair skin connotes wealth to the common Kenyan. One example was a photograph of a Chinese man selling roasted maize in Nairobi. The image went viral in 2012, and often had captions, such as the “Chinese invasion” of the informal economy. That same year, there was a protest in Nairobi on the same issue, where one protester said, “The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads.” It was a response to the increasing number not just of cheap Chinese products in the market, but Chinese businessmen in the informal economy. This has happened before, but when it did, Kenya didn’t exist as an independent country. The Indian labourers who first came to build the railway at the end of the 19th century set up dukas and businesses, and became the middle race in the British colonial hierarchy. As loosely connected networks of related cultures, even Indians today are accused of racism against black people.
China cannot ignore that while they went through centuries of being insular, Africa went through radical transformation. It went through slavery, civil wars, colonial conquest, liberation wars, independence, coups, and democratic revolutions. Its sons and daughters were shackled and taken across seas. They were kept in human zoos and others sent to the cotton fields. At home, millions were caged in concentration camps by people with lighter skin, and killing a black person was considered pretty much the same as killing an animal. When the first white man was being hanged in Kenya, the white community here couldn’t believe one of their own was dying for killing a black man who had thrown stones at his dog. That was in the 1950s, and I am not sure Kenya hanged any other white man until it unofficially suspended executions in 1987.
This history is conveniently forgotten, at least officially. Perhaps the hope is that it will fade into the background, which is impossible. Ignoring the issues of race is essentially also ignoring the issues of class that colonialism built. Even worse, it is downplaying the fact that the debt model China is using is worsening, not helping, the glaring inequality in African countries. As China seeks to transfer its surplus capacity to Africa, it has not only skewed competition and stifled formal markets, but it is also seeking dominance over the informal sector as well. There are small-scale Chinese businesspeople even in agriculture, raising the chances of a new xenophobia.
Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future. But in its months of operations, and even before, it’s become clear that the railway is a white elephant – a white elephant that barely grows the Kenyan economy because it was made for China. The Chinese built it for the same reason slavers scoured the landscape in caravans, and the British built a railway – to steal from people who they believed to be lesser than them.
Unlike the 19th century conquests, when our ancestors were caught mostly unaware of the global order, we are living in a time when we can see it in motion. The Kenyans alive from 1895 all the way to the mid-1960s experienced institutionalized racism. It was ingrained in their psyche that lighter skin was better than darker skin. Our cultural experience has been with the West, hence even a significant part of how we process cultural problems like racism is influenced by the Western catharsis on race issues. For China, as a society united on the basis of being superior to everyone else, this presents an opportunity – one that has become roads and bridges and railways. Buildings and disappearing ports. An opportunity driven by debt, the promise of a future built, funded, and owned by the Chinese.
Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future.
China’s claims that the Western media is trying to drive a wedge (which it is) between Sino-African relations portray blackness as a point of contention only between white people and Asians. It feels as if black people are kids being discussed, or fought over, in a room by adults. It’s clear in the one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure projects, where instead of adopting cultural elements to infrastructure projects, China prefers its own model. When it has to translate signage to local languages, it chooses algorithmic translations to human interaction. It also prefers its own professionals and, in most instances, blue-collar workers. With little leverage, economies such as Kenya have acquiesced, choosing to ignore the damage this is doing to the same societies it should be uplifting.
For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary. And for a business society built to work like the parts of a factory, what matters are emotions based on facts.
The blindness of the Chinese to their own racism presents a chance to the West to reconnect with us – to shift us back from “facing East”, which we only viewed through the lens of economic prosperity, not the cultural challenges. This 2013 study epitomises the Western perspective of Chinese racism and African experience with anti-racism. In this global chess match, we are the piece, the pawns and the merchandise. And that presents itself as a challenge when we have mortgaged our economies and, therefore, the basis of our cultural cohesion as a nation-state. Instances of racism that belong to a time long past are back in the news, but we are processing them differently from those who are racist against us.
For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary.
By this point, you must be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the most recent cases. I don’t think I need to. At least not about Liu Jiaqi, who confidently and without flinching said, “I don’t belong to here. I don’t like here, like monkey people, I don’t like talk with them, it smells bad, and poor, and foolish, and black. I don’t like them. Why not [like] the white people, like the American?” Or the many other instances, such as the restaurant in Nairobi that refused service to blacks after 5pm. Or the racism, discrimination, and emotional abuse experienced by those not just working at the SGR, but at almost every Chinese-owned or run business in the country. We can’t deport all our Chinese visitors (because we owe them money), but we must remind them that if nothing else, we will not sit and become second-class citizens simply because we happen to be born black.
How should we experience this, as African societies who have been at the bottom of almost every global socio-political hierarchy in recent history? Do we think of ourselves as a global force? Are we proud to be black because we are beautiful, or because we are reacting to those who say we are not? We see ourselves through how others see us, and thus accept this reality unless it directly affects us. Or we have learnt to acknowledge that it is wrong and untenable.
If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan. It is not the work of the oppressed to understand the oppressor, but because we still don’t see China as a new conqueror, and we live in a time of forced self-reflection, we might need to. How many more Chinese people can we deport for racism, insults, and being uncouth before we realise the problem is not just with individuals involved? The other side does actually see as stupid, pliable, poor, animal-like lesser beings.
If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan.
When we turned East, we should have restarted a conversation we’d already had. That we Kenyans, as a diverse country of mostly dark-skinned people, are deserving of respect as human beings. That we are proud to be black, and we will not accept to be enslaved again or to be made to feel like lesser human beings. There’s enough to worry about as a Kenyan in 2018 without having to deal with yet another group of people who think that because we have less than they do, we can’t think for ourselves. But this conversation needs to start from within, by acknowledging that we are a proud society with diverse cultures, a colourful history, and world-class artisans who are capable of making a statue.
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The Axis-of-Evil Coalition in the Horn of Africa
The “Tripartite Agreement” signed between Ahmed Abiy of Ethiopia, Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo of Somalia, and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea is a “Trojan Horse” deal that could eventually destabilise the entire Horn of Africa region.
The political dynamics in the Horn of Africa have always been tense and volatile. Being a geographically strategic region, it has historically attracted competition among the big powers, with the region’s diversity in terms of population, norms, politics, and history rendering it susceptible to proxy politics emanating mainly from Western countries.
The countries of the Horn of Africa are Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, and by extension, Kenya, and Uganda. In this article, we focus on Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. More specifically, we shall examine how the incumbent leaders in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea have created a coalition to extend their terms of office under the pretence of “Horn of Africa Integration”.
The Horn of Africa region has been vulnerable to multipolar politics ever since, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, 13 European countries laid claim to Africa’s territories: Britain signed the Rodd Treaty with Menelik II of Ethiopia in 1897 that dominated the country’s administration, Djibouti came under French control while Italy took Somalia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea. By 1914, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all other African countries were under colonial rule.
Russia joined the race during the Cold War and supported the regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia, with President Siad Barre of Somalia and Prime Minister Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia becoming close allies of Russia. But despite their allegiance to the former Soviet Union, the two countries fought a vicious war from 1977 to 1978.
From 1960 to 1969, Somalia was a fledgling democracy led by civilian governments established through peaceful transfer power. The military seized power in 1969, led by Siad Barre who ruled with an iron fist until he was ousted in 1991, leaving in his wake a civil war that killed thousands of Somalis, and pushed thousands more into exile. In 2000, Djibouti called a reconciliation conference that brought together civil society groups and culminated in the formation of the first government since the beginning of the civilian war. The new government was short-lived, however, as the warlords who controlled most of the south-central regions resisted and revolted. In 2004, the second government was formed under the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia under the leadership of the late President Abdullahi Yusuf.
However, this government made the same mistakes as its predecessor, calling on the African Union to send troops to support President Yusuf’s government and escort him to the capital, Mogadishu. The new government and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)—which controlled most of the south-central region—held several meetings in Sudan to try to reach an agreement, but the talks failed. A military confrontation between troops of the Islamic Courts Union the Transitional Federal Government backed by Ethiopian forces ensued and, after a bitter fight and great loss of life, the TFG entered Mogadishu. Following a political fallout between the president and his prime minister, President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned, and the leader of the ICU, Sheekh Sharif, succeed Yusuf after negotiations between the leader of the ICU and the international community.
The first elections since the outbreak of the civil war were held under President Sheekh Sharif and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a civilian and veteran academic, was elected. Somalia became a federal state with five federal member states under President Hassan who oversaw the implementation of the provisional constitution which had been adopted in August 2012.
Although there were allegations of corruption, President Hassan’s government was relatively stable. One person one vote elections were scheduled to take place in 2016, but they were postponed for various reasons, including the insecurity caused by the Al-Shabaab and disagreement between the federal government and the leaders of the federal member states and others. Despite the challenges, however, President Hassan Sheikh’s administration pioneered indirect parliamentary elections where 51 delegates from each clan would each elect the members of parliament. Although the process was not considered a fair fight, the transition was smooth. In February 2017, Hassan Sheikh lost his re-election bid, and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo became his successor. President Farmajo received a warm welcome from the public and many accolades from the international community and the neighbouring countries. Indeed, many Somalis believed that he would be better than his predecessors and would deliver the one person, one vote in 2021.
The situation turned when the government extradited Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) commander Abdikarim Qalbi Dhagah to Ethiopia, leading to a public backlash, protests, and fierce criticism of the government. It was the first time that a Somali person had been extradited to Ethiopia, a country that many Somalis consider the archenemy. Since then, public support for the government has plummeted. Intimidation, attacks, smear campaigns, extrajudicial actions, and incarceration have become the modus operandi of the current government and the Somali people’s hope in Farmajo’s government has declined dramatically. Meanwhile, Farmajo’s government declared the UN Ambassador to Somalia persona non grata and expelled him, leading to international condemnation of his government. The government of Somalia also cut ties with Kenya, a country which has hosted the largest number of Somali refugees since 1991.
It was the first time that a Somali person had been extradited to Ethiopia, a country that many Somalis consider the archenemy.
The mandate of the sitting president ended on 8 February 2021 without elections being held for a successor government. In March 2021, the Somali parliament unilaterally extended the term of the president for another two years, which resulted in a confrontation and a split within the National army. After two weeks of chaos, the parliament reversed its decision.
The long-awaited one person one vote elections became a pipedream and indirect parliamentary elections were maintained albeit with an increase in the number of the delegates from 51 to 101. The May 2022 parliamentary elections were been mired in fraud, favouritism, rigging, and massive irregularities and the country has been plunged into uncertainty.
Historically, Ethiopia has never held free and fair elections. On the contrary, the country has lived under a political dynasty and patrimonial leadership interspersed with coups. There has always been a power struggle between Ethiopia’s diverse communities. The Amhara, who collaborated with the colonial powers, enjoyed the support of the British Administration under the Rodd Treaty of 1897 agreement, and dominated the country’s politics. Both Menelik II and Haile Selassie marginalized other communities, especially the Oromo, the Somali, and Tigrayans. In 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Haile Selassie in a coup d’état and moved the country’s allegiance away from the West to the Soviet Union, leading to a proxy war in Ethiopia between the US and Russia. Mengistu was ruthless to his critics, especially the Oromo, Tigray, and Somali; he was known as the “Butcher of Addis Ababa” and the “Red Terror.”
Led by Meles Zenawi, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ousted Mengistu’s regime in 1991 and Ethiopia adopted federalism under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition party made up of the TPLF, Amhara, Oromo, and the Southern Nations and Nationalities. The first mistake committed by the Zenawi regime was to disregard other communities, particularly the Somalis, who are the third largest community in terms of population. The second mistake was to nullify the results of the elections in the Somali region where the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) had won by a landslide, resulting in a confrontation between the Zenawi regime and the ONLF. After three years of demonstrations emanating from the Oromo region and spreading to the Amhara region, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned in 2018. It was the first time in Ethiopia that a public office holder had resigned due to pressure from the citizens. Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister in April 2018.
Eritrea was an Italian colony before World War II, but after Italy was defeated in the war in 1952, the United Nations tried to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia to as a compromise for Ethiopia’s claim of sovereignty and Eritrea’s desire for independence. Unfortunately, after nine years, Haile Selassie dissolved the federation annexed and annexed Eritrea.
As a result, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which was created in 1961, revolted against Haile Selassie. When Haile Selassie was dethroned by the Derg regime, former Prime Minister Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had led the revolution, tried to reach a settlement with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) without success and insurgencies against his rule increased. In 1991, when Mengistu was ousted by the rebel movements led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tried to keep Eritrea as part of Ethiopia, leading to renewed conflict with the rebel groups. After two years of fierce fighting Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 but the country has never held an election since; Isaias Afwerki, the first president, is still at the helm. After five years of a territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Badme War erupted in 1998, lasting until 2000 and claiming more than 100,000 lives.
Mengistu was ruthless to his critics, especially the Oromo, Tigray, and Somali; he was known as the “Butcher of Addis Ababa” and the “Red Terror.”
Several peace agreements were brokered, including by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), the Algiers Comprehensive Peace Accord (ACPA), the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), all culminating in deadlock, and Addis Ababa and Asmara remaining at loggerheads.
Horn of Africa Integration Project
With the exception of April 2018, when the former Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned following three years of demonstrations against EPRDF rule, Ethiopia had never experienced a peaceful transition of power. Abiy Ahmed, who was part of the EPRDF rule, succeeded Desalegn.
In the beginning, under Prime Minister Abiy, Ethiopia enjoyed relative press freedom, there was greater inclusion of women in politics, and the 20 years of animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea came to an end, paving the way for Abiy to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy Ahmed visited Mogadishu in June 2018, where he met his counterpart President Farmajo. In a joint statement, the two leaders talked about strengthening diplomatic and trade relations between their two countries, with Ethiopia pledging to invest in Somalia’s port facilities. But apart from that brief statement, nobody knows precisely what the agenda of Abiy’s meeting with Farmajo was. President Farmajo has also visited Addis Ababa several times, but has not informed Somalia’s parliament what has been agreed between the two leaders. In December 2018, Eritrean president Afwerki visited Mogadishu and had talks with president Farmajo; the agenda of the meeting between the two leaders remains unknown. Somalia’s president also paid a visit to Asmara in July 2018.
Eritrea used to supply weapons and ammunition to the ICU during its conflict with the Somali government of the late President Abdullahi Yusuf, leading the Somali government to accuse Eritrea of supporting the extremist Al-Shabaab rebel group and as a result, the United Nations imposed an embargo on Eritrea in 2009. The UN lifted sanctions on Eritrea in November 2018 after the country reconciled with Ethiopia and Somalia. The leaders of the three countries, Abiy, Farmajo, and Afwerki, signed a little-known “Tripartite Agreement”. In hindsight, Abiy’s reconciliation with Afwerki was to enable Ethiopia to ostracize Ethiopia’s Tigrayan community and launch an attack on the Tigray region. Abiy’s secret agenda came out into the open on 4 November 2020 when he attacked the Tigray region backed by Eritrean troops. The coalition forces have committed gross human rights violations in the Tigray region, which has led to international condemnation against the brutality of the coalition troops and calls for Eritrean forces to withdraw from the Tigray region.
In hindsight, Abiy’s reconciliation with Afwerki was to enable Ethiopia to ostracize Ethiopia’s Tigrayan community and launch an attack on the Tigray region.
Meanwhile, although there is no smoking gun, there is a strong possibility that the Somali troops being trained in Eritrea are involved in the Tigray war. The Somali government had denied that Somali soldiers were sent to Eritrea for training but later confirmed this.
Despite the ongoing civil war and the political discontent in Ethiopia resulting from the delayed polls that were supposed to take place in September 2020, Abiy has decided to remain at the helm by hook or by crook.
The regimes in Addis Ababa, Mogadishu, and Asmara that I have called the axis-of-evil coalition have led the region astray through lack of an adequate response to the protracted drought, the unbridled corruption, the instability, and the internecine conflicts. The reasons behind the “Tripartite Agreement” between the three leaders were not and never have been to serve their respective people, enhance the trade relations, or improve security, but to keep a hold on power through their “Trojan horse” deal. This may lead to a revolt by the oppositions in the three countries that could finally destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.
Moving or Changing? Reframing the Migration Debate
The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.
Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?
That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.
A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.
“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.
He moved along quickly.
“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:
Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.
Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.
More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.
The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.
It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.
A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.
We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.
For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.
All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.
In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.
Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.
While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.
The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.
And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.
Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.
European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.
Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.
Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.
This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.
To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.
I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.
There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.
A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.
It starts even with naming.
The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.
With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.
This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.
This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.
And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.
Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.
Human migration was not always like this.
Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.
There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.
Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.
With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.
The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.
Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.
Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.
International Monetary System
Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.
Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).
Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.
Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.
The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”
Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.
In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”
When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”
Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”
Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.
As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”
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