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The Bureaucratic Empire: Serving Emperor Haile Selassie By Seyoum Haregot, The Red Sea Press, 2013

Reviewed by Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD, August 07, 2013

Tigrai Online - This is a well-written and thoughtful book. It is sharp, stimulating and exquisite and I could not stop reading it. The book is full of authentic anecdotes in relation to the author’s private and political life and contains five parts and a total of thirty two chapters. The chapters, incidentally, are not the familiar chapters that one encounters in conventional textbooks in terms of length; some of them are indeed one page or one and half pages, but they are precise, concise, and to the point especially in documenting the overall political scenario in Ethiopia during Emperor Haile Selassie. By contrast, Chapter one runs into 51 pages and chronicles the nature and characteristics of governance and political personalities in detail.

Seyoum Haregot had a distinct advantage in closely examining the inner façade of Ethiopian politics, because he could observe it by virtue of his political career – ranging from a director to a vice minister and ambassador at large, some of which are indeed shocking revelations; others reflect agony and sorrow characterized by climactic combinations; and yet other stories depict the enigmatic but sophisticated diplomatic ventures of the Ethiopian leaders including Prime Minister Aklilu Hbtewold and Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Bureaucratic Empire: Serving Emperor Haile Selassie By Seyoum Haregot
The Bureaucratic Empire: Serving Emperor Haile Selassie By Seyoum Haregot. Reviewed by Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD

With respect to Emperor Haile Selassie, Seyoum Haregot gives us an original evaluation that most Ethiopian students before the 1974 Revolution were not aware of and on the contrary had the impression that Haile Selassie was an absolute monarch, autocrat and obdurate. But, thanks to the author, the other face of the Emperor has been revealed: Haile Selassie was also a more congenial and compromising political persona adept to listening differing opinions, though the author also underscore that the Emperor was omnipresent and dominated Ethiopian politics and also operated not within the framework of the Constitution but within the parameters of the Kebre Neguest (literally, the ‘Glory of Kings’ that fully empowers the king over his subordinates). The author, however, has a grudging admiration to Haile Selassie that, in turn, intermittently reflected his own bewildered amusement through the chapters.

In brief, the book is a historical synopsis of the author’s engagements in Ethiopian politics, mostly as a civil servant. It is also a compilation of the role played by his colleagues and the overall political landscape of Ethiopia during Haile Selassie. This makes the book a hybrid of autobiography and political analysis, and Seyoum Haregot successfully blended his political career and his social life in this interesting to read book.

The book is dedicated to all those murdered by the Derg, but particularly to Emperor Haile Selassie, whom the author calls the “father of the nation”; to his father Dejazmach Haregot Abbai, former mayor of Asmara; to his father-in-law H.E. Abeba Retta; to Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold, whom he affectionately calls “my boss and my mentor”; to his colleagues, members of the Aklilu Cabinet; to His Holiness Abune Theophilos, the “father of the Church”; to Dejazmach Solomon Abraha, whom he addresses as “a father and a friend”; to his two brothers-in-law Rear Admiral Eskender Desta and Dejazmach Kassa Woldemariam; and to Fitaurari Al Amin Idriss, whom he calls “a comrade”.

Seyoum Haregot is an honorable and dignified man. He is full of elementary decency and addresses political figures mentioned in the book by their titles and/or prefixes such as Ras, Dejazmach, His Excellency, His Highness, Dr., and Ato etc. The author is gone now but he left us a wonderful legacy and I am gratified and honored to review his seminal work, The Bureaucratic Empire: Serving Emperor Haile Selassie

Chapter One entitled “Boot Straps Operation at the Executive Branch,” includes interesting sub-titles such as ‘The Origin of the Kebre Neguest’ (Glory of the Kings), ‘The Origin and Composition of the Nobility’, ‘The Resistance Against the Italians’, ‘Tsehafe Teazaz Woldegiorgis’, ‘Tsehafe Teazaz Aklilu’, ‘In Search of Government Models’, ‘The Coup Attempt of December 1960’, ‘Attempts to Establish a Full-Fledged Constitutional Monarchy and Delegation of Imperial Power to the Prime Minister’, and ‘The Council of Ministers: Theory and Practice’.

One can easily deduce that chapter one of The Bureaucratic Empire is comprehensive and deals with important themes that, in turn, explain the nature of politics in Ethiopia and the contradictions that surfaced from time to time within Haile Selassie’s Government. According to the author, as early as the 1940s, or more specifically when the Emperor was restored to power in 1941, he had to make two important considerations: “The desire to originate a modern administration staffed by individuals with the skill and knowledge and the desire to withstand opposition to Haile Selassie’s Dynasty.” Seyoum says, “It was already decided in Khartoum [when the Haile Selassie was returning from his five-year exile] that the emperor would not exclude educated Ethiopians from the administration because they had worked with the Italians unless, of course, they had committed treason such as siding with the Italians when they invaded Ethiopia in 1935.”

The case of Belai Zelleke, a famous Ethiopian patriot during the Italian brief occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), is also discussed in Chapter One. “Fitaurari Belai Zelleke was one of the outstanding Arebgna on the Gojjam front,” says Seyoum, “and his army was formidable.” Unfortunately, however, after Restoration Ras Hailu Belew was appointed governor of Gojjam and Belai Zelleke as governor of Bichena Awraja (district) and Bitweded Mengesha Gembere as deputy governor of Gojjam. Belai Zelleke was infuriated that his subordinates got a higher rank in the administrative apparatus and took to the jungle and initiated guerrilla warfare, this time, against his own government but after a brief skirmish he surrendered and was imprisoned with a certain Mamo Hailemariam who was an Italian collaborator; both entered a covenant to kill the prison guards and escape and they did. Soon after, they were captured by security forces, tried by a court and sentenced to death by hanging.

“Many Arebegnoch complained about this tragic incident,” states Seyoum, and “They argued that even if Fitaurari Belai Zelleke was guilty, his service to the country were [great] that clemency should have been exercised by the Emperor rather than allowing to be hanged side by side with a traitor who collaborated with the Italians.”

The author characterizes Ethiopian politics of the early 1940s to the 1960s and beyond as “politics of Semna Werk to imply that Ethiopian politics, by and large, is embodied in maneuvering and secret dealings – the Sem (wax) is the superficial and easily detectable façade of Ethiopian politics; the Werk (gold) is the subliminal hidden agenda behind the easily detectable routine politics. Thus, although on January 29, 1943 a Council of Ministers was established by Order No. 1, “the Emperor did not go all the way in adopting the Westminster model.”

Seyoum writes with passion about his colleagues and individuals he admired. For instance, with respect to his boss PM Aklilu Habtewold, he tells us that “he was the youngest of three brothers, the others being Ato Mekonnen and Ato Akalework. He studied law at Sorbonne in Paris…Aklilu was the product of Western civilization with the French touch. …He was suave, debonair, affable and urbane, and immediately put people at ease. He was a man of extreme patience, who never lost his temper. In the most explosive, emotional situation he would remain calm. His patience was extreme that it could make his colleagues important but completely disarmed opponents. Aklilu was soft-spoken and gave those who dealt with him every opportunity to express their views in a relaxed atmosphere. He was masterful at listening to conflicting views and integrating and synthesizing them. At any meeting of many people, he chaired, he had the unmatched capacity (the only Ethiopian who came close was Ras Abebe Aregai) to sum up in lucid language all the views expressed. Like the members of Western bourgeoisie, Aklilu believed in fair-play and the rule of law.”

Another political persona Seyoum admired was Lt. Colonel Workneh Gebeyehu and describes him as “a brilliant officer who hauled from Gondar.” In a similar vein, describing Haddis Alemayehu, he says, “Haddis was one of the radical ministers admired by the young educated elites.”

In regards to the coup attempt of 1960 by Brigadier General Mengistu Neway, Seyoum gives us interesting analysis how the coup attempt impacted Ethiopian society in general and government policy in particular. “The attempted coup was to chart the course of Ethiopian history. It sent contradictory signals to influential strains within the Government. It provided the nobility the determination to maintain the status quo, even if that meant the use of more repressive measures. To those who wanted revolutionary changes under the Monarchy, it signaled the necessity of introducing institutional changes in order to make the government more accountable to the people and responsive to their aspirations and needs. At the same time, the coup attempt taught the reformers that it was necessary to place the Monarchy beyond political attacks so that it could discharge effectively its most important function of promoting national stability and unity. To those who were defeated, the failed coup became a unifying banner for further agitation to overthrow a regime that they believed required radical surgery – revolutionary change in order to introduce radical socio-economic changes.”

Furthermore, the abortive coup may have indirectly inspired “attempts to establish a full-fledged constitutional monarchy”. “To this end, the Emperor established a commission to advise him on areas requiring reform, nominate members of the committees to study the designated areas, and define the terms of reference for such committees.”

Ministers and members of the nobility who remained loyal to the Emperor during the Mengistu Neway coup, however, dominated the commission established in the aftermath of the abortive coup. Nevertheless, “on the basis of the commission’s studies, five committees were created: a constitutional reform, an administrative reform, a local administration reform, a judiciary reform and a land reform. Each committee was provided with written terms of reference defining the scope and content of its functions.”

Members of the various committees including Seyoum Haregot further argued “that the attempted coup of 1960 was a warning and that its failure should not lull the government into misguided complacency.”  Despite the warning signal, however, the nobility and the neat circle around the Emperor were unable to forecast a revolution in Ethiopia, which actually happened in just a decade and half after the abortive coup. Therefore, an attempt to establish full-fledged constitutional monarchy was not easy, let alone empowering the PM and delegating power to the respective ministries. As Seyoum succinctly put it, “Even after the appointment of the first Aklilu cabinet, the Emperor sometimes appointed ministers and other high-ranking government officials without bothering to consult Aklilu.” In light of this problem, thus, the author says, “I explained to the Emperor that in order to implement the letter and spirit of the new organic administrative reform, it was necessary that all orders and directives emanate from the Office of the Prime Minister.” His Imperial Majesty, angrily replied, “we did not enact the law to exclude our self from the affairs of our Government and the people.”

Despite the angry response by the Emperor to Seyoum’s proposal, however, the author tells us that one should not conclude that everything was decided by the Emperor…The day-to-day directives, control, supervision and coordination of the Government was carried out at the level of the Prime Minister’s office. In point of fact, “Aklilu succeed in becoming the Prime Minister with power to designate ministers responsible to him,” but “the triumph of Aklilu was primarily personal – he was the confidante of the Emperor and the most influential person in the country.”

In Chapter Two, the author discusses the Ethiopian parliament and its attempt to exercise democracy in the context of the first electorate in Ethiopia in 1957. This event coincided with the author’s arrival at Asmara back from the United States and he witnessed citizens electing their representatives. “The election was held at the beginning of September 1957. Within a few days after that, the Election Board, which at the time was headed by Dejazmatch Amha Aberra, finalized the counting of the votes and declared the winners. This was a historic moment, in the sense that it was the first time that the Ethiopian people elected on the basis of universal suffrage, their representatives to parliament.”

One interesting thing that the author mentioned in regards to challenges to the Emperor coming from the Parliament when the former planned to make an official visit to Italy was that the patriots in the Senate opposed but the Emperor “refused to bow to such pressures.” Then the patriots in the Senate, based on Article 88 of the Constitution, passed a resolution to block the Emperor’s visit to Italy and sent a copy of the resolution to the Prime Minister. Interestingly, “the resolution went so far as to state if the visit should be carried out at all, it should not take place as long as the Axum obelisk remains in Rome.”

The parliament under Haile Selassie, though theoretically empowered by Article 86-92 of the Constitution, was far from enacting laws and/or drafting legislation, but according to Seyoum, it “was far from a rubber stamp. A substantial amount of legislation passed through Parliament and the legislative houses kept busy scrutinizing and debating the proposals.” “In many occasions, the Government was successful but also suffered major defeats and often had to compromise or retreat, abandoning plans, programs, and projects. Examples include the Building Materials Tax Decree and the Italian Loan that was rejected and the land reform and local-self administration laws that remained tabled in Parliament without action because of opposition by the propertied classes.”

In Chapter Three, the author argues the failure to establish a meaningful independent judiciary in Ethiopia under Haile Selassie; but he also tells us that a Judiciary Reform Committee chaired by Dr. Dejazmatch Zewde Gebreselassie had been established by the Emperor following the 1960 coup attempt. “Dr. Dejazmatch Zewde and lawyers with modern legal training wanted to introduce three major reforms: to limit the power of the Emperor to hear appeals from courts of justice and the apex of the administration of justice; to abolish Atbia Dagnas judicial powers; and to provide a law for the appointment, promotion, removal and transfer of judges.”

In Chapter Four, Seyoum gives credit to Emperor Haile Selassie in his contribution to overcome the problem of feudal privileges and ad hoc decision-makings, and more importantly to do away with “a highly decentralized patrimonial Empire.” “Emperor Haile Selassie was determined to change all these. To a great extent, he did, introducing revolutionary changes. He skillfully combined centralization and modernization. He set change into motion by bringing under his control the forces of production and by bureaucratizing the government. During the period under consideration, the task of reforming the management of the central government did not face obstacles. Management was looked at as a scientific process that could be handled only by the educated elites. The Emperor, the nobility and the traditionalists reasoned that only the educated elites had the necessary knowledge and experience.”

Soon after Haile Selassie was restored to power, thus, he promulgated several edicts including Order No. 1 of 1943 to define the competence of ministers and this heralded the beginning of meritocracy, however limited, in Ethiopia. “From 1943 to 1957 several ministries were added to the list of ministries either by separating functions from existing ministries or by the state expanding into activities to view functions necessitated by the modern industrial system of production and exchange.” Moreover, the establishment of the central personnel agency (CPA) in 1961 reinforced the restructured civil service. 

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In Chapter five, Seyoum discusses the “link of state and civil society” as well as “human rights and liberty” in conjunction with freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration. The revised Ethiopian constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and press in accordance to the law, but the author criticizes the Government for acting against the constitutional rights of Ethiopian citizens. He says, “Not only did the Government restrict freedom of expression in violation of the Constitution, it also discouraged its own officials from appearing in public to discuss and even explain government policies.” “Any minister who dare to express his views in public was reprimanded and the Minister of Information was often instructed not to print or broadcast his statement.” “The Government, under the authority of the 1942 printing press act and the 1943 entertainment censorship act, muzzled freedom of expression, particularly with respect to political issues.” “The Government suppression of expression brought forth a flood of underground seditious materials calling for the overthrow of the regime.”

Chapter Six entitled “The Bureaucratic Empire” (the main title of the book) is only two pages but accompanied by nine pages full of pictures. This chapter essentially states how Emperor Haile Selassie “attempted to marry two institutions that were inherently incompatible; the Kebre Neguest and the bureaucratic empire.” At the same time, however, the author contends “Emperor Haile Selassie changed all this, skillfully combining centralization and modernization. He brought the forces of production under his control and bureaucratized the government.” (This was already stated in Chapter Four).

Chapters Seven to Nineteen are comprehensive assessments and analyses as well as critique of Ethiopian foreign policy. The chapters deal with Ethiopian foreign policy toward its neighbors, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya. It examines Ethiopia’s challenge vis-à-vis the idea and movement of “Greater Somaliland” endorsed by the British in the 1940s and adopted by the Somali Youth League first and then by the Somali government after independence in 1960. Ethiopia had no choice but to confront the Somali irredentism at the risk of quarreling with the British because it was determined to preserve Ogaden as an integral part of Ethiopia.

According to the author, Haile Selassie sought US aid for Ethiopia’s economic and social development by inviting investors, but he was not successful. “The only company, that invested in Ethiopia was the Ralph Parsons Company, which took over mining concession in the Dallol area to prospect for potash.”

The Emperor’s state visit to Yugoslavia and his meeting with President Tito would have a far-reaching impact on Ethiopia’s foreign policy. Also, when Tito visited Ethiopia in 1956, he “advised the Emperor not to put his eggs in one basket, i.e. not to depend only on the Western powers but to establish friendly relations with other countries such as the Eastern European countries and the independent states of Asia.”

A year before Tito visited Ethiopia, i.e. in 1955 the Bandung Conference of non-aligned states took place in Indonesia and the key leaders of this conference, namely, Sukarno, Nehru, Chou En Lai, and Gamal Abdel Nasser “pressured Ethiopia to diminish its commitment to the Western powers.” Following the Bandung Conference and Tito’s advice, thus, “the Emperor continued with a series of official visits to Asian countries including India, Japan, and Burma” in 1956. In the same year, Richard Nixon, then vice president, visited Ethiopia and the Emperor requested more economic aid from the US. Until 1957 US aid to Ethiopia included US Exim Bank’s loan to the Imperial Highway Authority and scholarship to Ethiopian students to study in the US or the American University of Beirut. “But after 1957, economic and social aid increased substantially, including assistance in the study of the Blue Nile Basin and the establishment of the Malaria Eradication Board.”

In 1959, Ethiopia was confronted by another challenge pertaining to the Somali-Ethiopian border demarcation. The British, French, and American embassies in Ethiopia came up with a joint memorandum asking Ethiopia to “hand over the Ogaden to a Somali republic that would obtain independence the next year.” Ethiopia claimed that the 1897 border agreement was legalistic and binding and hence Ogaden would remain part of Ethiopia. At the same time, Ethiopia’s foreign policy shifted from the West to the East in an effort to enjoy diplomatic support from Eastern countries and with the hope that the latter would favor Ethiopia’s interests. “During the summer of 1959, the Emperor made a state visit to the Soviet Union, where he was received by Nikita Khrushchev and other leaders of the Communist Party and Soviet Government. The Soviet authorities agreed to stand by Ethiopia on the question of the Ogaden and gave one hundred million rubles for development projects that would be agreed upon by the two parties.”

In all these new diplomatic overtures, the author argues, “Ethiopia was trying to frighten the Western powers into thinking that, if they did not support her, she would re-align her foreign policy. For the moment the bluff paid off – the United State, Britain, and France stopped insisting that Ethiopia hand over Ogaden to the future independent Somali state.”

In the midst of Ethiopia’s diplomatic pendulum, the country began supporting African countries’ independence movements against colonial powers and this Ethiopian commitment eventually would lead to the establishment of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in 1958 with its headquarters in Addis Ababa and the founding the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 with its headquarters in Addis Ababa. The more Ethiopia was committed to African independence, the more solidarity it showed to Arab countries as well. “Until 1961, Ethiopia did not officially recognize the Israeli Government…and refused to establish an embassy in Israel nor allow Israel an embassy in Addis Ababa.”

Ethiopia’s foreign policy was also challenged, and to some extent shaped, by Djibouti. In 1959 Ethiopia and France amended earlier treaties on the Franco-Ethiopian Railway that runs from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Under the new agreement, “the shareholders of the Railway Company were divided equally among Ethiopia, France, and individual owners. Furthermore, the administration of the Railway Company was to be run by a board of directors half of whose members were to be nominated by the Ethiopian Government and half by the other shareholders; the General Manager was to reside at the Company’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.”

When President De Gaulle visited Ethiopia in 1967, “the Emperor raised the question of the status of French Somaliland and France’s intention concerning the territory.” At the same time, Ethiopia requested the name “French Somaliland” to be changed to the “Territory of Afar and Issas” because 1) the majority of the inhabitants were Afars; and 2) the spiritual leader of all Afars was the Sultan of Awssa in Ethiopia and the spiritual leader of the Issa, the Ugaz, also reside in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. “In addition, Ethiopia’s ruling elites believed that Djibouti was historically part of Ethiopia until the 19th century at which time France, with the agreement of local authorities, got hold of the territory.” 

In regards to the Six-Day War between the Arabs and Israel, the author critically observes Ethiopia’s ambivalent foreign policy. Ethiopia actually was confronted by a major dilemma during the war because, on the one hand, an African country and OAU member, Egypt, had lost the Sinai to Israel, and on the other Israel had good relations with Ethiopia and was providing the country with intelligence while at the same time training a paramilitary force for the country. Seyoum mentions the Fetno Derash (Police Strike Force) of Ethiopia trained by Israel but he forgot to mention the counter-insurgency force (popularly known as ‘commandis’) that were also trained by Israelis at Dekemhare, Eritrea in order to fight the Eritrean liberation fronts.

However, “after weighing these various considerations, Ethiopia voted for the draft resolution, incurring the displeasure of Israel.” The Security Council resolution, which was adopted, as Resolution No. 242 would instruct Israel “to withdraw to permanent and secured borders.”

Chapter Nineteen, which is only a page and half, is on Haile Selassie’s visit to the People’s Republic of China, and what I found interesting in this chapter is Ketema Yifru’s advice to the Emperor. Ketema Yifru was one of the most brilliant and astute Ethiopian leaders who also played a vital role on the eve of the OAU Charter signing ceremony in 1963 but it looks his efforts were not acknowledged by Ethiopians in general and the Government in particular.

“In 1970 Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru advised the Emperor and the Prime Minister that Ethiopia should immediately take steps toward recognizing the Peoples Republic of China. The Foreign Minister argued that there were indications that the United States might recognize the communist government of China and, in the event, subsequent recognition by Ethiopia would be interpreted as Ethiopia doing United States bidding. The Emperor and the Prime Minister approved the Foreign Minister’s suggestion.” In 1971 Emperor Haile Selassie visited China and “developmental loan was negotiated and signed. The loan was free of interest and payable in twenty years with the provision that if the Ethiopian Government were not in a position to pay it, China would postpone repayment indefinitely. This loan was virtually a gift.” In the same year Ethiopia sent its ambassador to China.

Chapters Twenty and Twenty-One are on the socio-economic policy of the Ethiopian Government and Chapter Twenty-Two is about “forecasting the disaster”, meaning the impending revolution of 1974 and subsequent incarceration of the entire Aklilu Cabinet, and worse the murder of ministers and dignitaries, followed by the imprisonment and killing of the Emperor, and yet by the bloodletting massacre of Ethiopian youth. For all this disaster some officials had dispatched an early warning omen but the Government did not listen. “Sometime in 1971, Bitweded Zewde Gebrehiwot, Lt. General Kebede Gebre, and also Ketema Yifru agreed among themselves to write memoranda to Emperor Haile Selassie informing him that there was agitation within the armed forces for political changes”. “Ato Ketema’s Memorandum praised the Emperor for many Programs but warned that these achievements could be destroyed unless political changes were introduced to ease agitation within the armed forces.” Following his submission of his memo to the Emperor, “Ato Ketema was removed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and appointed Minster of Trade, Industry, and Tourism.”

Warnings were also coming from other high-ranking officials including from the military, one of which is that of Lt. General Iyasu Mengesha communicated to Prime Minster Aklilu and later confided to Seyoum Haregot. Apparently, the Government ignored all warnings and the beginning of the end of Haile Selassie would be dramatically orchestrated by his own armed forces. The Revolution broke out, ministers resigned, and the disaster ensued. Chapters Twenty-Four to Thirty, thus, deal with the Revolution and its aftermath.  In Chapter Thirty, Seyoum discusses his release from prison on September 11, 1982 after eight years of imprisonment and he was assigned to teach at the Law School of Addis Ababa University, and in Chapters Thirty-One and Thirty-Two he narrates his life in Washington DC and his job at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

Dr. Seyoum Haregot is an extremely lucky man to survive the horrendous crimes perpetrated by the Derg military junta and is fortunate enough to be able to document his own experience and that of his colleagues. His book is posthumously published, but he started scribbling the manuscript while he was still in prison. When he took the risk of collecting data from his fellow inmates, he was driven, I suspect, by the desire and insistence of telling the truth surrounding Haile Selassie’s Government, or he may have been instinctively triggered by the silhouette of death. That he sensed death while he was in prison is not surprising because he could witness first hand some of his inmates disappearing and never coming back to their cells. Under this difficult but governing circumstance, thus, Dr. Seyoum composed himself and was determined to write the manuscript.

We must all extend our gratitude to Dr. Seyoum Haregot for producing such a wonderful, tantalizing, and captivating book, a book that should be read by all who want to know the inner core of Ethiopian politics during Emperor Haile Selassie.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2013. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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