Insights

The coup, Russian influence, popular support: why has the military taken over Burkina Faso?

Causes and consequences of coups in the Sahel. An analysis by Luciano Pollichieni.

The 24 January coup

On 24 January, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) deposed President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré after two days of fighting in the capital Ouagadougou. The putschists (all members of the army) are led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, commander of the third military region, a veteran of the war on terror in the Sahel, and a graduate from the École Militaire in Paris.[1] In the first week after the overthrow of the civilian government, the putsch followed the typical pattern of all coups d'etat: the new military junta closed the borders for some time and tried to reassure the country's main allies,[2] while the international community (regional organisations, key partners such as France and the European Union, and individual countries such as Niger) vocally condemned the coup, threatened sanctions and demanded the immediate release of the deposed president.[3] This kind of back and forth, which was undoubtedly due, looked like a formality, especially considering that the coup in Burkina Faso had been widely expected for months.[4] Indeed, on 12 January the Burkina Faso Government had announced to have foiled a coup attempt by part of the armed forces.[5] The army in Burkina Faso has never been shy about its deep dissatisfaction with the civilian government[6], which in turn proceeded to a robust reshuffle of the army leadership as the worsening of the security crisis affected the country.[7] However, the breaking point of the already fragile relationship between the civil administration and the army was arguably reached in November last year, when some 50 members of the Burkinabe security forces were slaughtered at an outpost near the mining site of Inata, not far from the Liptako-Gourma area, where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge.[8] Inquiries carried out in the aftermath of the massacre brought under the spotlight the difficult situation of the local armed forces, which are facing insurrection in the Sahel and Northern regions of the country. The investigations brought to light the difficulties faced by the army’s counterinsurgency campaign, showing that, in the two weeks preceding the attack, soldiers stationed in Inata had received neither food nor ammunition and were forced to resort to hunting.[9] Moreover, beyond the issue of civilian-military relations, popular dissatisfaction with the Kaboré government had been growing too. In July 2021, the country counted 1,368,164 internally displaced people fleeing violence in the Sahel and Northern regions. The most immediate consequence of this conflict is the "famine" that is currently affecting the country. In fact, the current food insecurity is not due to the unavailability of food per se, but to the impossibility for farmers, who fear for their lives, to cultivate and harvest fields and therefore to satisfy the country’s internal demand.[10] Furthermore, starting from 2020, jihadist and non-jihadist insurgents have carried out attacks on the informal mining activities in the Liptako-Gourma area, on the border with Mali, where part of the gold produced in Burkina Faso – the region’s fourth largest producer – is extracted.[11] The insurrection in this border area has not only destabilized the country from a security perspective but also struck key sectors of its economy. This has weakened its development model (based on agriculture and mining) to the core and led to the economic collapse of a country which, until 2019, had been able to record growth rates of up to 6 percent.[12] In the light of these developments, the 2020 re-election of President Kaboré can be considered as a sort of electoral miracle, due more to the weakness of the opposition than to the merits of the incumbent administration. In this context, the military coup represented the final blow to a government that had lost the trust of its armed forces and, above all, of the rest of the population.

Why is the military back?

The fact that the Ouagadougou coup had been expected for months does not downscale its possible relevant effects on the regional geopolitical balances in the Sahel and, more generally, in West Africa. There are various reasons for this. The coup in Burkina Faso is the third in the region in less than 10 months, after those in Mali (May 2021) and Guinea (September 2021). All of these have been carried out by local armies. In a regional context characterized by the propagation of the jihadist uprising and by a multidimensional crisis affecting the states, the return of the military in the Sahelian political arena highlights how local politics has stalled. Additionally, the spread of military coups in the Sahel reshuffles the cards for various regional organisations, leading to even paradoxical situations. Let’s take the case of the G5 Sahel, the regional organisation created to face the jihadist threat in the region, with the backing of the European Union and France: in the aftermath of the coup, the members of the alliance univocally condemned the coup in Ouagadougou.[13] However, developments over the past few months have meant that out of five member states, only two are currently led by elected governments (Niger and Mauritania). The remaining members of the G5 are ruled by governments dominated by the army (Mali), or born out of a coup (Burkina Faso) or controversial transitions (Chad).

This situation has created a paradox: after the coup, two military juntas already present in the G5 group strongly condemned the one that had just conquered power in Burkina Faso. If we look at reactions to the coup within ECOWAS, the picture becomes even more complex. The regional organisation did not hesitate to condemn the new military junta in Ouagadougou, and suspend the membership of Burkina Faso,[14] even though it has not imposed sanctions for the time being. This choice cannot be considered as a simple act of diplomatic prudence, but should be regarded as a signal of the crisis of ECOWAS’ sanctions system. In fact, it should be noted that the coup in Burkina Faso came one week after the imposition of harsh sanctions on Mali, which was punished for its violation of the agreement signed with ECOWAS on democratic transition. Paradoxically, the sanction to Mali has to some extent increased popular support to the transitional government in Bamako.[15] The sanctions imposed by the regional block have historically been a diplomatic tool able of redirecting regional dynamics while preserving a certain unity among the organisation’s members. On the contrary, the case of Mali demonstrates that the deterrence effect of sanctions is compromised and, paradoxically, they can actually deepen internal divisions within ECOWAS.[16] This is demonstrated by the fact that countries like Guinea (also subjected to sanctions) have refused to apply them.[17]

The difficulties and paradoxes characterizing the reaction of regional bodies to this new wave of coups in West Africa highlight a particularly controversial aspect. Indeed, as a further demonstration of how legal and political legitimacy do not always coincide, the new military regimes currently in power enjoy some considerable domestic popular support. Following the announcement of the takeover and the suspension of the constitution by the Burkinabe leader Damiba, a part of the population took to the streets to show their support for the military.[18] In the week following the coup, despite maintaining a cautious stance towards the new junta, civil society,[19] students[20] and NGOs[21] all expressed their support for the new government.

Adopting a paternalistic attitude towards this kind of reactions or, worse, judging them from an ethical or moral point of view, would lead us to lose sight of the general dynamics that are favouring the return of the military to power. The coups that have taken place in the Sahel over the past two years do not lack legitimacy, because they represent a solution to a political impasse that prevents the solving of the crises affecting the states in the region. If we look at the problem from this perspective, the army intervention has become a form of "extra-constitutional" practice to deal with emergencies and, for this reason, it enjoys a certain legitimacy. This is due not only to a substantial impasse of civilian regimes, but to also to the poor representation capacity of local political systems. Furthermore, a large part of the Sahelian elected officials is composed of politicians and public officials who have cooperated with, or have been part of, the previous regimes (Kaboré was linked to former dictator Compaoré, while in Mali the last democratically elected president, Keïta, had already held government posts during the Konaré regime). This substantial inability to represent a young, democratic society is reflected in government policies, which do not manage to provide answers and implement solutions, to people’s requests. When this picture of general dissatisfaction is combined with the inability to resolve structural crises that put the very integrity of the state at risk, coups become an almost physiological result. In this context, any attempt to re-discuss the legitimacy of the coup by external agents or actors becomes the subject of criticism. This kind of dynamic explains, at least in part, how the propagation of the coup has gone hand in hand with the spread of a deep anti-French sentiment in the region,[22] in which the misinformation campaigns orchestrated by Russia through social media certainly play a fundamental role.[23] However, it is important not to forget that these dynamics have not been created by Russia. The Kremlin has only proficiently exploited them. The convergence of these factors causes a substantial stalemate where the condemnations and sanctions imposed by regional bodies reinforce cohesion behind the military juntas. Following the ECOWAS sanctions to Mali, the military-backed Government in Bamako called the local population to demonstrate against the regional block’s decision, convincing millions of citizens all over the country to take to the streets, playing on Pan-African rhetoric.[24] Nothing rules out that a similar scenario may also occur in the future in Burkina Faso, as demonstrated by the fact that in the aftermath of the coup, some demonstrators were seen waving Russian flags.[25]

Great powers competing in the Sahel

The Ouagadougou coup provides another example of the rivalry between Russia and France in the Sahel. It must be emphasised that this competition does not focus exclusively on communications, and it involves the highest spheres of the power systems of the two countries. In the hours following the coup in Burkina Faso, the “godfather” of Russia’s Wagner Group, Evgenij Prigožin, hailed Damiba’s takeover as "the beginning of a new wave of decolonisation".[26] The presence and influence of the Wagner Group and its founder in the country remain difficult to quantify, since in this turbulent historical phase the boundary between the real threat and its perception is often blurred. Some journalistic reconstructions showed how Damiba in person would have, unsuccessfully, tried to convince deposed president Kaboré to accept the help of Russian instructors to face the insurgency in the northern regions, and the army would have decided to proceed with the coup following the former president’s refusal to do so.[27] However, whatever the background before the coup, Russia is now eager to exploit the convergence of different factors, from the mistakes made by France in almost 10 years of insurrection to the popular discontent toward democratic regimes, from the worsening of the security situation to the widespread dissatisfaction with the assistance provided by the EU and other key partners. In this context, Moscow offers its services and talks directly to the leadership of the Sahelian countries, selling weapons and training, and above all making available important resources that Western governments usually take longer to provide.[28] In this context, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Paris to impose its line as it did in the past and this translates into a stalemate in relations between France and the countries in the region. On the one hand, local governments would not be able to cope with the worsening of the security crisis in case of a withdrawal of French troops from their soil; but, on the other, the anti-French sentiment continues to grow and to be stirred up by the various military juntas willing to acquire credibility, and this substantially hinders cooperation with France. Although reluctantly, France and the Sahel countries are destined to remain bounded, at least for the short term. However, this situation affects negatively the EU’s presence in the Sahel, including Operation Takuba (in which 250 Italian soldiers are also involved), which could be turned into a first collateral victim. A few weeks ago, the contingent sent by Denmark to participate in the operation was withdrawn, after protests by the Malian government, which labelled the Danish presence on its soil as "illegitimate".[29] Other EU member states are calling for a substantial review of the terms of their participation in the mission in a more restrictive sense, or for the deployment of their troops to other countries. This is the case with Germany, which expressed the will to re-deploy its contingent to Niger,[30] and Sweden, which has announced the withdrawal of its operational forces by the end of the year.[31] The combination of the hostility to France and the EU stirred by the putschist governments and the presence of Russian contractors, coupled with disinformation campaigns, put the EU under pressure as well. Although at the moment there is a substantial disconnection between the competitive dynamics in the Sahel and those in Ukraine, the growing Russian presence in the region could also lead to an indirect retaliation towards Europe as a response to the rising tensions in Ukraine.

What to do? How Europe and regional organisations can put the transition to democracy back on track

In a highly unstable political context, characterized by the propagation of coups and the penetration of Russia as a competing power in the region, the EU and local regional organisations still have the margin to use a series of options to turn the regional diplomatic dynamics in their favor, on the condition that they show a certain level of diplomatic and operational flexibility.

For example, in the current situation, it would be appropriate to continue providing financial support to Burkina Faso, also considering that the uncertainty deriving from the coup places the country under a triple economic risk. Specifically, the sanctions approved by ECOWAS against Mali have compromised a significant portion of the Burkinabe foreign trade,[32] while the ousting of Kaboré jeopardizes the national development plan presented by the overthrown government for the 2021-2025 period, which cannot be implemented without the support of international donors and partners (such as ECOWAS, the IMF and the EU).[33] Moreover, the uncertainty characterising the current transition in Burkina Faso puts at risk the revenues from the mining sector (especially from gold mining), which play a fundamental role in the country’s economy.[34] All these economic dynamics can act as a fulcrum for negotiations with the new government. By applying conditionality clauses to the disbursement of funds, a cooperative dynamic can be implemented with the new rulers of the country, also by taking advantage of the flexibility demonstrated by mining companies in the country.[35] This has been put in evidence by the recent statements by the top management of Red Rock Resources and Endeavor Mining, explaining how they are adapting to political changes.[36] In the current scenario, this economic leverage becomes important not only on a purely financial level but also on a security one. Indeed, economic recovery and growth remain the best tools available to prevent radicalization, especially in light of the "social roots" of the insurrection.[37] The new regime knows that a rapprochement with Russia would not guarantee the same kind of resources that other partners can channel, and would lead the country to diplomatic isolation. In this context, economic support to Burkina Faso becomes an element not only for maintaining dialogue with the authorities, but also for putting the transition to democracy back on track.

The use of sanctions as a political tool, on the other hand, must be carefully weighted and applied, bearing in mind the possible effects it could produce in the long term. The military junta currently in power in Ouagadougou has launched a series of messages of détente to the main regional and international partners, including to prevent a suspension of development aid as was the case with funding from the United States.[38] This suggests that sanctions must remain a last resort, to avoid the negative effects already seen in Mali. In Burkina Faso, their application on a national level would increase the legitimacy of the military junta and favor the spread of a xenophobic sentiment which would compromise current cooperation initiatives. As such, a possible application of sanctions should focus on members of the military junta rather than on the population. Finally, the use of sanctions should only be considered after formal (and as public as possible) negotiations with the new government.

Additionally, military cooperation must not be the object of scrutiny or hasty decisions. Following the coup in Mali, the first reaction from the EU and France was to suspend (at least temporarily) partnerships in the defense sector.[39] Given the proliferation of coups in the region, the idea of using the suspension of military cooperation as a deterrent against them did not actually work. In the current scenario of Burkina Faso, freezing supporting initiatives in the defence sector could favour a shift of the country towards Russia’s sphere of influence and, above all, it would worsen the security situation in the region. With or without a military coup, Burkina Faso remains a key country for the stabilisation of the Sahel region, which remains a matter of a vital interest for Europe and the countries of the area, in order to prevent an unprecedented multidimensional crisis. In this context, military cooperation should not be cancelled – an option that should only be considered as last resort. Instead, it should be reformulated, by applying a certain level of conditionality to the application of sanctions. For instance, in the case of ordnance, it would be more proficient to supply non-lethal material rather than cutting supplies altogether.[40]

Finally, in the Sahel region, until now, the approach followed by the EU and its partners in the training field has followed a sectoral logic, focusing on two main categories: the security forces and the judiciary. Although this model may have ensured an improvement of performance on the ground, it has not solved the substantial problem of democracy in Burkina Faso as well as in the rest of the region: lack of leadership. Following the 2014 riots in Ouagadougou, the main levers of power passed into the hands of civilian personalities, who in turn participated in elections, but who were linked to the same power system which had just been overthrown. Hence, there is a need to review the approach to training the new elites, by also prioritising figures not belonging to the security forces. The need for this change of approach must be considered beyond ethical or moral assumptions, but based on its strategic value. Without new leaders, any future election would lead to the creation of an “empty shell”, in terms of political representativeness. Sooner or later, this situation would bring the country back to the starting point, which means that of a dysfunctional state, ready to fall again under a new coup - or even worse - under the blows of the insurgents.


[1]Al-Jazeera Who is Paul-Henri Damiba, leader of the Burkina Faso coup? (2022) https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/25/burkina-faso-coup-leader-paul-henri-sandaogo-damiba

[2]Africa News ECOWAS delegation and UN meet with Burkina Faso's new leader (2022) https://www.africanews.com/2022/02/01/ecowas-delegation-and-un-meet-with-burkina-faso-s-new -leader / #: ~: text = Members% 20of% 20ECOWAS% 20and% 20the, as% 20the% 20country's% 20new% 20president .

[3]France 24 Burkina Faso: Macron "condamne" le putsch, l’ONU demands la "libération immédiate" de Kaboré

(2022) https://www.france24.com/fr/afrique/20220125-burkina-faso-macron-condamne-le-putsch-l-onu-demande-la-lib%C3%A9ration-imm%C3%A9diate -de-kabor% C3% A9

[4]D. Eizenga Another coup has been averted in Burkina Faso: but for how long? The Conversation (2022) https://theconversation.com/another-coup-has-been-averted-in-burkina-faso-but-for-how-long-175074

[5]Voice Of America Eight Burkina Soldiers Accused of Plot to 'Destabilize Institutions' (2022) https://www.voanews.com/a/eight-burkina-soldiers-accused-of-plot-to-destabilize-institutions-/6392754. html

[6]RFI Burkina Faso: le mécontentement des soldats en première ligne dans la lutte contre les jihadistes (2022) https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20220124-burkina-faso-le-m%C3%A9contentement-des- soldats-en-premi% C3% A8re-ligne-dans-la-lutte-contre-les-jihadistes

[7]Le Faso Burkina Faso: Treize Nouvelle Nominations Au Sein des Forces Armées Nationales (2021) https://lefaso.net/spip.php?page=web-tv-video&id_article=109848&rubrique4#:~:text=Actualit%C3%A9s% 20% 3A% 3A% 20Burkina% 20Faso% 20% 3A% 20Treize, pr% C3% A9c% C3% A9d% C3% A9% 20% C3% A0% 20de% 20nouvelles% 20nominations .

[8]Reuters Death toll soars to 53 after attack on Burkina Faso security post (2021) https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/death-toll-attack-burkina-security-post-soars-53-2021-11-17 /

[9]Reuters Burkina attack death toll rises to 32 in security forces' worst loss yet (2021) https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/death-toll-northern-burkina-faso-attack-rises-32-2021- 11-15 /

[10]The New Humanitarian Can local dialogue with jihadists stem violence in Burkina Faso? (2021) https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2021/12/16/local-dialogues-with-jihadists-violence-Burkina-Faso

[11]Financial Times Instability in the Sahel: how a jihadi gold rush is fueling violence in Africa (2021) https://www.ft.com/content/8ff4c2ca-7ac3-4f3b-96ba-6fb74bbb60d5 'gold in the geopolitics of the Sahel see L. Raineri Gold mining in the Sahara-Sahel: The Political Geography of State-Making and Unmaking The International Spectator (2021)

[12]Data available on World Bank https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=BF

[13] Reuters Burkina Faso crowd celebrates West Africa's latest coup (2022) https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/burkina-faso-crowd-celebrates-west-africas-latest-coup-2022-01-25/

[14]Jeune Afrique Coup d'État au Burkina: la Cedeao suspend le pays, mais ne le sanctionne pas (encore) (2022) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1304287/politique/coup-detat-au-burkina-la- cedeao-suspend-le-pays-mais-ne-le-sanctionne-pas-encore / .

[15]France 24 West African bloc slaps tought new sanctions on Mali over election delay (2022) https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20220109-mali-s-ruling-junta-submits-new-timeframe-for-return -to-civilian-rule

[16]Libération Au Mali, des manifestations massives pour dénoncer les sanctions (2022) https://www.liberation.fr/international/afrique/au-mali-des-manifestations-massives-pour-denoncer-les-sanctions-20220114_FU4TOIZ3YNEBXHS5UR5DILXLRQ/

[17]Bloomberg Landlock Mali Turns to Neighbors to Sidestep Trade Sanctions (2022) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-19/landlocked-mali-turns-to-neighbors-to-sidestep-trade-sanctions

[18]Reuters Burkina Faso crowd… Ibid

[19]Jeune Afrique Coup d'État au Burkina - Smockey: "Il fallait mettre fin au régime de Kaboré"

(2022) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1303390/politique/coup-detat-au-burkina-smockey-il-fallait-mettre-fin-au-regime-de-kabore/

[20] Le Monde Au Burkina Faso, les étudiants , "trahis" par les élites politiques, placent leurs espoirs dans la junte
(2022) https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/01/28/au-burkina- faso-les-etudiants-trahis-par-les-elites-politiques-placent-leurs-espoirs-dans-la-junte_6111439_3212.html

[21]Les Temps "Il faut continuer de soutenir le Burkina Faso malgré le coup d'Etat" (2022) https://www.letemps.ch/monde/faut-continuer-soutenir-burkina-faso-malgre-coup-detat

[22]VOA Pro-Russia Sentiment Grows in Burkina Faso After Coup (2022) https://www.voanews.com/a/pro-russia-sentiment-grows-in-burkina-faso-after-coup/6416363.html

[23] For an analysis of Russian disinformation campaigns in West Africa see M. Audinet Le Lion, l’Ours et les Hyènes. Pratiques et récits de l’influence informationnelle Russe en Afrique Subsaharienne Francophone Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l'école Militaire (2021)

[24]The clearest example of the use of this rhetoric is that of Malian Prime Minister Maïga and his speech during protests against ECOWAS sanctions in Bamako see: Africa News Mali leaders join thousands at anti-sanctions rally (2022 ) https://www.africanews.com/2022/01/15/mali-leaders-join-thousands-at-anti-sanctions-rally/

A rhetoric also repeated in the interview released on national television after the protests https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itr2mpcdB7I&t=1s

[25]VOA Pro-Russia Sentiment Grows… Ibid

[26]Le Monde Coup d'Etat au Burkina Faso: le parrain du groupe Wagner salue une "nouvelle ère de décolonisation" (2022) https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/01/26/coup-d- etat-au-burkina-faso-le-parrain-du-groupe-wagner-salue-une-nouvelle-ere-de-decolonisation_6111025_3212.html

[27]Daily Beast African President Was Ousted Just Weeks After Refusing to Pay Russian Paramilitaries (2021) https://www.thedailybeast.com/burkina-faso-president-ousted-after-refusing-to-pay-wagner-mercenaries

[28]Consider for example the recent sale of four assault helicopters delivered to Mali in October 2021. For details see: Andalou Agency La Russie fournit des armes et des hélicoptères au Mali (2021) https://www.aa.com.tr / fr / afrique / la-russie-fournit-des-armes-et-des-h% C3% A9licopt% C3% A8res-au-mali / 2380211

[29]France 24 Mali demands Denmark 'immediately' withdraw its special forces (2022) https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20220124-mali-demands-denmark-immediately-withdraw-its-special-forces

[30]Defense Post Germany Considers Relocating Soldiers in Mali Mission (2021) https://www.thedefensepost.com/2021/12/20/germany-relocating-soldiers-mali/

[31]Andalou Agency Sweden to withdraw troops from Mali (2022) https://www.aa.com.tr/en/world/sweden-to-withdraw-troops-frommali/2474132#:~:text=Sweden%20has%20decided% 20to% 20withdraw, the% 20government% 20announced% 20on% 20Friday. & Text = They% 20condemned% 20the% 20deployment% 20of, security% 20situation% 20in% 20West% 20Africa .

[32]Le Faso Sanctions de la CEDEAO against Mali: «Le Burkina Faso risque de payer le plus gros tribut», prévient Idrissa Ouédraogo (2022) https://lefaso.net/spip.php?article110504

[33]Jeune Afrique Burkina: the coup d'État de Damiba risque-t-il de bloquer le plan de développement? (2022) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1271053/economie/burkina-faso-nouvelles-incertitudes-sur-le-plan-national-de-developpement/

[34]Jeune Afrique Or: au Burkina Faso, trois nouvelles mines vont doper la filière en 2021 (2021) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1131013/economie/burkina-faso-les-promesses-de-lor/

[35]Jeune Afrique Burkina Faso: les producteurs d'or veulent s'adapter au régime Damiba (2022) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1303430/economie/burkina-faso-les-producteurs-dor-veulent-sadapter-au- regime-damiba /

[36]Jeune Afrique Burkina Faso: les producteurs d'or… Ibid

[37]For an analysis of the social roots of the uprisings in the Sahel see A. Thurston Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel Cambridge University Press (2020)

[38]Associated Press US pauses $ 450M aid for Burkina Faso over president's ouster (2022) https://apnews.com/article/ouagadougou-burkina-faso-africa-elections-west-africa-3f9587e1aa2481cef2699ca103f9f325

[39]RFI La France suspend ses opérations militaires conjointes avec les forces maliennes (2022)

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/en-bref/20210603-la-france-suspend-ses-op%C3%A9rations-militaires-conjointes-avec-les-forces-maliennes-minist%C3%A8re- arm% C3% A9es

[40]ABC Burkina Faso at risk for more unrest after coup (2022) https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/ap-explains-burkina-faso-risk-unrest-coup-82534147y


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