Visiting Assafa Endeshaw's "revisit" of Nationalism in Ethiopia
By Tilahun Afessa
May 1, 2017
A friend recently forwarded to me a paper written by Assafa Endeshaw: “Nationalism in Ethiopia Revisited.” Assafa wrote the paper for a presentation at the 19th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies held at Warsaw University in August, 2015. Knowing Assafa by name since my H.S.I.U student days in the early 70s when he was a prominent student activist and the “national question” was the hottest issue of the time as it has been ever since, I read the paper with added curiosity. A few days later, Assafa made the paper available to the general public by posting it on some Ethiopian websites (such as Ethiomedia)
“Revisiting” such controversial topic by a scholar for presentation in an international forum, I believe, signifies an intention to make a fresh appraisal of the issue. This is especially true when the conference calls for presentations on an ambitious subject matter, “Ethiopia – Diversity and Interconnections through Space and Time.” Reading the short introduction in which Assafa tells his readers that the paper “aims to re-examine the theoretical and political basis of current notions of the ‘national question’ in Ethiopia” reinforced my expectation that I would get a noble appraisal of the topic from his paper. Unfortunately, I have found the paper to be far short of my expectation. In fact, in my opinion, the paper exhibits at best intellectual laziness and at worst intellectual dishonesty. Hence, the urge on my part to say something about it, and this article is the result of that yearning. My aim is, by critically reviewing Assafa’s paper, to provoke more thoughtful discussion on this cardinal issue that has been shadowing the Ethiopian political climate for more than five decades now. To make my points as clear as possible, I will go over Assafa’s paper section by section with more detail on his, in my opinion, unfounded criticism of writings of two prominent Ethiopian scholars.
Assafa divided his paper in seven sections - the introduction, which I mentioned above, being the first one. In the next three sections, Assafa made an effort to define “the conceptual frame work for the national question.” In section two, he attempted to specify the theoretical underpinning to the general concept of “Ethnic Groups and Nations” as articulated by various well-known western intellectuals. I thought this section serves as a good jump-start and makes its readers anticipate pertinent analysis of the topic yet to come.
In section three, Assafa provides a sketch of the historical and conceptual background to that grandiose idea - “The Right to Self- Determination.” Starting with Kant’s principle of self-determination for the individual, touching on the principle of the French revolution that sovereignty resides in the nation and acknowledging the emergence of nationalist movements in response to the Napoleonic war of expansion, Assafa swiftly landed at the turn of the 20th century where “the Russian revolutionaries as well as US President Wilson transformed self-determination into a formal right.” It is here Assafa talked about the pertinent articles in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and the UN Charter which incorporated the principle of self-determination. So far so good!
I believe this section gives a good outline of the historical and conceptual background of the topic Assafa set out to discuss in his paper. I am in fact surprised that he managed to do this without mentioning even once in his entire paper the name of that well-known scarecrow—Stalin. These days, it is unimaginable in Ethiopian nationalist circles to put together a paragraph or two about the “national-question” without inserting at least one damning sentence about Stalin and his role in “infecting” the minds of the “ethno-nationalists” in Ethiopia. Assafa went even further in this section to let us know more about the impact of President Wilson’s “espousal of the principle” of self-determination than Lenin’s advocacy for it. Let me digress a bit here to explain why I happen to share this understanding with Assafa as I believe that this well documented historical fact is less acknowledged in our discourse relating to this principle.
It is actually true that President Wilson was the one who declared that “every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live” (speech in May, 1916) and “self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action” (address to U.S. Congress in 1918). Soon after the collapse of the USSR, the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan– a celebrated scholar on his own-right who wrote numerous books on ethnicity and nationalism – stated the following about President Wilson and the principle of self-determination:
Wilson did not create nationalism, nothing of the sort. But did respond to it with the doctrine of self-determination. At the level of statecraft, that is his. Absent him, the “principle” of self-determination would not be ratified by the United Nations Charter; it was he who put it on the agenda of international order. It is a monument in more than one sense. (Pnadaemonium, Ethnicity in International Politics, Oxford University Press, 1993, p.81)
It is to be noted here that the Senator was not an admirer of President Wilson nor a supporter of the principle of self-determination as espoused by the President. To this effect, Senator Moynihan told a story that even the President’s own Secretary of State at the time, Robert Lansing, thought the phrase “self-determination” was “simply loaded with dynamite” and “presciently foretold the trouble to come.” He quoted the following from Lansing’s note written in December 1918:
When the President talks of “self-determination” what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area or a community? Without a definite unit, which is practical, application of this principle is dangerous to peace and stability. (Ibid, p82).
Isn’t this exactly what we are saying now, almost a century later, about Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution which contains the provision that “Every nation, nationality or people in Ethiopia shall have the unrestricted right to self-determination up to secession”? (Emphasis mine) Strange world!
Senator Moynihan also recited the following remark from an Aug. 14, 1991 NewYork Times article, written by Karl E. Meyer, a U.S. based journalist, entitled “Woodrow Wilson’s Dynamite: The Unabated Power of Self-Determination”:
From the Baltics to the Adriatic, from the Ukraine to the Balkans, oppressed millions have given new life to his imperative – and often troublesome-principle. Indeed, if results are the measure, Wilson has proved a more successful revolutionary than Lenin.” (Ibid; emphasis mine).
When it comes to the principle of self-determination, to those of us who grew up under the sway of Lenin and Stalin in the 70s, the assertion that President Wilson of U.S.A was “a more successful revolutionary” than Comrade Lenin of U.S.S.R may sound an outlandish remark. However, people like Moynihan who spent considerable amount of time studying the subject in the international arena found it to be a verifiable statement of fact. As such, as I make my exit out of this section, I commend Assafa for challenging us to get out of the box whenever we try to deliberate on any salient political principle such as this one. In the Ethiopian context, this challenge applies equally to both supporters as well as opponents of the principle of self-determination as enshrined in Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution.
In section four, Assafa attempts to show us a glimpse of what he called “the current context for Ethnicity and Nationalism (in Africa).” Here, he rushed fast over what he considers to be the main causes for the resurgence of sectarian movements in various multi-ethnic third-world countries of the world, including Africa. According to Assafa, after the cold-war was over, whatever devices these countries are left with in their arsenal to deal with their ethnic problems haven’t worked at all for them. Unless such “conflicts are brought to end as soon as possible,” Assafa concludes, the survival of the people living in these countries is at stake and Ethiopia is “not an exception” to this phenomena. Assafa closed this section with the following attention grabbing remark:
While the solution to the problems in the entire Horn may be generally similar, Ethiopia’s exceptional history, cultural and state formation need to be scrutinized separately to evolve a framework appropriate to its needs.
There is nothing new Assafa told us in this section other than enticing us to march with him to the next section – a section that deals with “The Formation and Evolution of the Ethiopian State”– with much anticipation.
If I dare to sum-up the essence of section five in one compound sentence, it would read like this: Ethiopian modern state formation could and should be traced back to Axumite times, and there is no reason to doubt the perception that the landmass the Axumite Empire controlled extended to the present day southern Ethiopia.
Well, Assafa wrote almost five pages to validate his viewpoint that I took a liberty to sum-up in one sentence. I believe that this section is the core of his paper. It is in this section that Assafa travelled 3000 years, as the conference calls,“through space and time,” to explore the formation and evolution of the Ethiopian state, spanning from the Kingdom of Damat to the present. Here, I would remiss if I don’t air my feeling that it would have been more convincing and appropriate had Assafa provided some authoritative source documents in support of such fabulous journey. Unfortunately, there is not a single citation, authoritative or otherwise, Assafa made available in this section to validate his various assertions about his voyage. Yet, it is in this section that Assafa scolded Teshale Tibebu for his “unsubstantiated declaration” and for “assuming” such declaration “to be self-evident.” Wouldn’t this remark aptly apply to Assafa himself for writing as a matter of fact about a 3000 years uninterrupted evolution of state formation without a single citation of an authoritative source document? This is where my problem with Assafa began and actually continued to the last paragraph of his paper. Since this is the main reason I made a decision to write this piece, I will address this issue in more detail in the pages to come.
In this section, Assafa threw, to use a boxing metaphor, a combination of punches on Teshale, all based on his reading/misreading of Teshale's book, “The Making of Modern Ethiopia: 1896-1974,” written in 1995. These are Assafa's punchlines:
Let’s find out if these charges are justifiable.
As Teshale’s book is one of my favorite books written on modern Ethiopian history, Assefa’s harping on it gave me a good reason to pick the book up again from my book shelf and go over the relevant parts quickly. As I expected, it did not take me long to find out that Assefa’s criticism is actually misplaced and unfounded. As if Teshale had expected such misreading of his book, he addressed these issues head on earlier in the introduction. It is in the first pages of the introduction that Teshale clearly informed his readers that the country he is writing about is that same Ethiopia with a lasting image “as a unique country in Africa, a country that was Christian when the Anglo Saxons were prostrating themselves in front of pagan idols.” It is in these pages that Teshale emphatically told his readers that his book “deals with the problem of a nation that counts its history in thousands of years” and that he “took the longue-duree approach to the study of modern Ethiopian history, for in old civilizations like Ethiopia, one simply cannot start with an absolute date, ignoring the historical continuum bubbling underneath the surface” (Emphasis mine). Again, further in the introduction, Teshale stated:
A detailed comparative study of state formation in nineteenth-century Africa is made, to locate the Ethiopian terrain in the larger African universe. This is in part to help critique the Eurocentric argument made by many Western Ethiopianists (and nationalists from the Horn of Africa) that Emperor Menelik II actively participated in the European Scramble for Africa (Emphasis mine).
In the endnote to the introduction, citing specific pages of their books, Teshale identified five western writers who wrote about such participation by Emperor Menelik. He particularly mentioned Bonnie K. Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa for coming up, in their book –The invention of Ethiopia–“with the strange idea that Ethiopia was ‘invented’ by European powers.” Teshale emphatically expressed his disdain to this “strange idea” by stating that “as an historical undertaking, it is at best misleading and, and at worst mean-spirited. Ethiopia was neither ‘invented’ nor ‘imagined’. Ethiopia was struggled for by its people.” Teshale then posed this question: “How did Ethiopia become the only African legal subject in the drawing of her international boundaries with other European colonial powers?” He followed-up the question with this remark: “There are many answers to this question, but analogy with the European Scramble for Africa is not one of them.”
It is with this elaborate introduction that Teshale proceeded to the first chapter of his book, entitled: “Concepts for the Study of Ethiopian History.” In this chapter, Teshale came up with his own noble concept of “Ge’ez civilization” and say clear and loud for anybody to hear that this “Ethiopia of the Ge’ez civilization, with its church/state/peasant trinity, was remarkably similar to medieval Europe, and yet had no peers in Africa.” (Emphasis mine) He underlined the fact that the Aksumite-Zagwe-Shawa dynastic sequence, moving in a north-south direction, is how Ge’ez civilization matured overtime by building on the original Axumite model. Armed with these concepts, Teshale went on to confer in the 2nd chapter of his book about “The Origins of Modern Statehood” in general and the formation of modern Ethiopian state in particular.
In chapter 2, Teshale pondered on the process of state formation in Ethiopia “in relation to and within the framework of” what he called the “three realms of modern state formation in the nineteenth century: Western Europe, ‘renascent’ old states, and Africa.” When pointing out what the Ethiopian modern state formation shares with the renascent old states, Teshale began with the following statement of fact:
Ethiopia is not like Chad or Burkina Faso, Central African Republic or Malawi – a piece of territory carved out by a European power and given a name. Ethiopia is like Egypt, China, Iran; very old, but also very young (p. 31; Emphasis mine)
To Assafa, there is no question that our beloved country, Ethiopia, is very old like China; but how disrespectful Teshale has to be to this ancient country of ours to declare in the same breath that she is also “very young” just like the rest of African countries!? Oxymoronic? Again, let’s hear what Teshale had to say.
According to Teshale, what makes Ethiopia “very young” is the resemblance of the country’s modern state formation with the various attempts at state formation in Africa during the 19th century. This resemblance, Teshale asserts, is related to “two essential processes” that took place at the time – Expansion of territorial claim and possession, and a process of collision with European expansion. In his own words:
In the Menilikan campaign of territorial conquest of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Christian Ethiopian power was revived with indomitable vigor that made the Ethiopian of 1900 larger in size and more heterogeneous in ethnic composition than that it had been just a quarter of a century earlier. (Emphasis mine; P39)
It is this conquest that made modern Ethiopian state formation resemble the formation of the other African states as it was precisely at this time that other African territories were carved out by European powers to create new states with new colonial names. However, Teshale repeatedly warned that, when acknowledging this resemblance, “we should beware of reading Menelik’s expansion to the South as being similar to the European Scramble for Africa” (i.e. colonialism). But, Teshale also explained with vigor that it is not necessary to deny such historical resemblance either to prove that Ethiopia is a very old country like Egypt and Iran or to debunk the perception that Ethiopia participated with Europeans at the time of their scramble for Africa.
Well, speaking about “perception,” I will directly go to Assafa’s other criticism of Teshale’s refusal to accept a popular historical narrative based on perception; to wit, Teshale“vehemently opposed to any perception of the Axumite Empire extending to or covering present day southern Ethiopia” (emphasis mine). Let’s call Teshale to the stand to tell us why he didn’t leave us alone to live peacefully with our “perception” of our glorious past:
Menelik’s territorial expansion was legitimized as being the ‘reunification’ of Ethiopia through the re-conquest of the former tributaries of the Christian kingdom, cut off from the main Christian entity in the aftermath of the Oromo expansion. … The Ethiopian Reconquista was understood and justified in the name of tabot Christianity. Few argued the reunification thesis as strongly as TekleTsadik Mekuoria… Other than justifying the Menelikan expansion, it is ludicrous on TekleTsadik’s part to say that Aksumite civilization … could have in any way included Sidamo and Hararge, far south of Zagwe territory. In the post-‘Solommonic-restoration’ period, regions like Northern Hararge, Arsi, Sidamo, Inarya, and Kaffa were paying intermittent tribute to the Christian kingdom. But to push this back to the Zagwe period, not to mention Aksumite, is fictitious. (In our schooldays, we were told that in antiquity, Ethiopia’s borders extended from Egypt to Madagascar! This was obviously a confusion of the Ethiopia of the Greeks, which referred to people of “burnt faces,” with Aksumite Ethiopia (P41).
Holy Cow!! For sure, Teshale does not mind being politically incorrect when it comes to telling historical facts. Without mincing words, he bluntly told us that the alternative fact Assafa wants us to believe is nothing but historical fiction.
To Assafa, the fact that Teshale didn’t trace back modern Ethiopian state formation to Axumite period proves that Teshale had “been bowled over” by a story European writers continue to peddle to this day. Assefa wants us to perceive that even when “the Axumite Empire had been thwarted by the Ahmed Ibrahim (Adal Islamist) phenomenon and later the influx of the Oromo into the highlands” and, as a result, “the service of the [southern people] to the Axumite Empire was interrupted,” these people were still “in search of reinforcement from their erstwhile base, Axum.” Assafa wants us to believe that it is this long interruption which is the main cause for creation of the sense of remaining independent from Axum and for the mushrooming of national liberation movements in the south. As such, Assafa asserts that “the re-conquest of these groups under Menelik afterward only left grudges and resentments in place of rekindling old alliances and forging kinships, as one would have expected.” However, to Assafa, this still doesn’t negate the fact that what Menelik did was bringing back these people to their base of origin –Axum.
Axum! Axum! Axum! To Assafa, Axum is the beginning and the end – the Alfa and Omega – of Ethiopian history; and to say otherwise is unimaginable. No wonder that Teshale chose to close his book with this perceptive reminder: “Next time we write about Ethiopian history, let us start with Kaffa and end with Aksum.” It seems that he had anticipated such knee jerk reaction from reunification advocates to his historical narrative.
Before I leave this scene, let me bring to the forefront the “venerated Professor” (as he was sarcastically identified by Assefa) Messay Kebede– who is going to be the main character of the next scene for the same reason as Teshale was one in this scene –to let us know his take on Menelik’s Southern expansion.
Two years ago, Messay wrote an interesting article entitled, “Menelik and Southern Ethiopia: Colonialization, Reunification, or Expansion?” In this article, Messay critically examined what he called “the clash of the theses” which purport to explain “Menelik’s southern march.” After giving a broad analysis discounting the validity of the colonial and reunification theses, Messay explained in depth “why the term expansion is more appropriate than colonization and reunification, not only in terms of historical accuracy, but also for the future survival of Ethiopia.” Messay’s take on Menelik’s southern march is akin to Teshale’s narrative, and I recommend all to read this superb article and learn more about this critical issue; as Messay correctly stated in his article, this issue “pervades the present political situation of Ethiopia, just as it was one of the reasons that led to the revolution of 1974 and the subsequent overthrow of the imperial regime.”
Now, I will proceed directly to my commentary on Assafa’s way off-base criticism of Messay for advancing an “archaic proposal of ‘unconditional unity’ as the foundation for Ethiopia’s future.” I will point first Assafa’s unjustifiable criticism and will follow that up with a discussion of the context under which Messay proposed the concept of “unconditional unity” and his reasoning behind it.
Here is what Assafa’s criticism in a nutshell:
Messay’s article, which is the subject of Assafa’s criticism, was written in 2009 under the title, “On the Right to Self-Determination.” It is in this article Messay contends that the commitment to ‘unconditional unity’ is the best alternative for creating the condition for a lasting union. Messay wrote this article “to propose some general reflections concerning the right to self-determination as a condition of union.” At the time of this writing, according to Messay, some in the Oromo nationalist groups were blaming, for the lack of unity among the opposition groups, the refusal of recognition by Amhara democratic forces of the right to self-determination to the Oromo people. For these Oromo nationalists, it is the recognition of the right to self-determination of each nation that provides the necessary “condition for a voluntary union”.
In this article, Messay articulated his viewpoint that “far from promoting free union, the right to self-determination actually blocks it. It is when union becomes unconditional that it forces peoples to find a form of accommodation that suits them all.” Messay argued that “if the union is conditional, the blackmail of secession seriously jeopardizes the exercise of democratic rules.” This is because the partners of this conditional union “reserve the right to secede” whenever, and for whatever reason, they want to secede. Messay asserts that “union defined as a collection of autonomous nations is a Stalinist aberration and a contradiction in terms.” It is because of this “ideological muddle inherited from the Soviet Union” and enshrined under Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution that “political unity among democratic forces has become impossible in Ethiopia.” As such, Messay implored us to “understand that the political failure of opposition forces emerge from the fact that they want to solve a problem that is made unsolvable.”
What is the alternative? Messay advanced the following proposal:
The best alternative is to renew the commitment to unconditional unity, thereby creating the conditions of a satisfactory solution for all. If the union is abiding, then serious talks can start on how to build the common house. (Emphasis mine)
When the democratic opposition groups are ready to renew their commitment to unconditional unity, Messay recommends a switch from the use of the term “nation,” which “implies by definition the right to self-determination,” to “ethnic groups” for the following reason:
In so doing, we define Ethiopia as a multicultural nation rather than as a multinational state, a feature that requires a federal arrangement with large autonomy and self-rule. In this way, we avoid the present impasse without, however, sacrificing those rights necessary to realize the full equality of Ethiopian’s ethnic groups. (Emphasis mine)
The last time I had read such thought provoking and highly enlightening piece on the same subject by another Ethiopian intellectual was way back in 1993. The writer was Samuel Assefa and the title of his paper was “Of Federalism and Secession.” He wrote the paper for the symposium on the Making of the New Ethiopian Constitution, held in Addis Abeba in 1993. His paper was entirely devoted to delegitimizing Article 2c of the draft constitution which recognizes the right of communities to secession and independence. One has to read the entire paper to appreciate the overwhelming power of Samuel’s argument against the constitutional provision for secession under a federal state structure. Suffice here to state few pointers directly taken from Samuel’s paper to show the similarities of his arguments to that of Messay’s “archaic proposal.”
Samuel’s allusion that “[a] people with the power of legitimate secession is a law unto itself” has the same connotation with Messay’s insistence that “if the union is conditional, the blackmail of secession seriously jeopardizes the exercise of democratic rules.” Samuel’s assertion that “[a] constitutional right to secession would put beyond our reach the kind of political community we might otherwise hope to achieve” means the same thing as Messay’s conviction that “[i]t is when union becomes unconditional that it forces peoples to find a form of accommodation that suits them all.” Samuel’s understanding that “[t]he right of nullification – which subverts the aims of securing a shared framework of basic rights and, therefore, a federal system of government – is a natural corollary of the right to secession” is what Messay acknowledges when he stated that “opposition forces cannot unite because they are faced with the impossible dilemma of uniting elites who claim to represent nations” with the right to complete secession.
In my opinion, labeling such seasoned philosophical arguments presented against a constitutional provision for cessation as “archaic” and as looking backward “to the age-old top-down ordering of the state” is simply plain-wrong. Furthermore, divorcing the term “unconditional unity” from the overall context in which Messay used the term and attributing to it, as Assafa did, an ominous meaning is preposterous and childish. How much lazy one could possibly be, especially when one is a learned scholar, not to read carefully a four (4) page article and fail to appreciate the context under which the most important term in that short article is used? On top of that, more than any other Ethiopian scholar that I can think of, Messay has written over the years countless articles and scholarly papers on this particular issue. In most of his writings, Messay has challenged us to question our received wisdom and settled expectations with a sole purpose of, in his own words, “overcome[ing] the present impasse” which has made “political unity among democratic forces [ ] impossible in Ethiopia.” It is precisely for this reason that I stated at the beginning of this article that Assafa’s paper exhibits at best intellectual laziness and at worst intellectual dishonesty. To prove my point, I will add two more examples from Assafa’s paper and call it a day.
Assafa criticized Waleligne Mekonen’s five to six pages article ‘On the question of Nationalities in Ethiopia’, written in 1969, for failing “to examine the nature and evolution of the Ethiopian state and whether the diversity of population groups had transformed themselves into ‘nation’ and therefore measured up to assert their claim.” This is in spite of the fact that Waleligne and the other leaders of the student movement were in their early twenties and were writing for their student journal on an issue that was brand new to them and almost untouchable in the prevailing political climate of the Country? The irony, however, is that almost half a century later in a scholarly paper written on the same topic, the middle-aged scholar Assafa himself actually failed to provide any new appraisal of the issues these students grappled with almost half a century earlier at their tender age.
Assafa lambasted those who champion and celebrate “the virtues of ‘national self-determination’” without providing any meaningful rebuttal of the principle he charged them for championing. What is Assafa’s excuse for his failure to do so? “Space is unavailable to critique all the fabrications and false accounts of proposed paths for ‘national liberation’.” Wow!! In fact, it is immediately after airing such pretentious excuse that Assafa found enough space to unload his vicious attack on Messay’s notion of “unconditional unity” and on the “arrogant” OLF’s peddling “secession” to this day as the only option (like the “hapless Eritreans” imposed on their people years ago). Assafa’s proposed alternative to these two diametrically opposite notions – the notion of unconditional unity and the notion of unconditional secession – is to let the people decide by voting – just like the “people of Quebec have voted repeatedly” without any condition. God knows what this means!! Referendum? May be or may be not; how do we know? Though he found a space for all these hyperboles, he didn’t say a word, let alone explain, how this supposed referendum is going to work in the current Ethiopian context. To use his own words he used to criticize Waleligne, Assafa failed to tell us “whether the diversity of population groups had transformed themselves into ‘nation’ and therefore measured up to assert their claim” by voting just like the “people of Quebec have voted repeatedly” without any condition. In fact, all he had to say after this paragraph is the following high sounding, but, in my opinion, empty remark he used as a closing statement to his paper:
In the end, neither the protagonists for ‘secession’ and ‘self-determination’ at all costs nor those clamoring for ‘unconditional unity’ seem to grasp the necessity of understanding the nature of the social and political phenomenon they seek to base their aspirations on. Far be it for them to investigate the global social and economic order and articulate a political program for democratic change in Ethiopia.
I could go on and on, but I rest my case here. I believe I have said more than enough to serve my purpose. As I clearly stated in the first page, my aim is by critically reviewing Assafa’s paper, to provoke thoughtful discussion on this cardinal issue of the day; and I have tried my best to do that. If I sound harsh and uncompromising in my deliberation, it is a reflection of the level of my frustration, and I kindly ask readers to take it as an honest expression of an emotional plea to the likes of Assafa, our country’s highly educated elites, to be honest, to show us their respect and to give us their best.
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