Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:

The Coup Against Gowon – Part 2

How did General Yakubu Gowon lose grip?

To understand how Gowon lost grip in 1975, we must consider many factors.  His pre-military background, personal character, military training and experience, the crisis circumstances under which power was placed in his hands, the dynamic evolving nature of Nigerian society and its Armed Forces over a period of unprecedented challenges and his reaction to those changes and challenges are all important.

General Yakubu Cinwa Gowon was the fifth child of his father – a Christian evangelist who had to take up farming (once again) after relocating from Pankshin in modern day Plateau State to Wusasa near Zaria. He was born in October 1934 and grew up in humble and sometimes difficult circumstances occasioned by difficulties his father had trying to settle down as an evangelist in his new home – appropriately described as an island in an otherwise predominantly Islamic environment.  Gowon’s family miraculously survived the hardships of those difficult years – sometimes unsure of the next meal – simply by having faith.  His father was a highly principled moralist whose missionary imprint would deeply influence his son’s future career.  His mother was reportedly very strict.

Gowon attended then Government (now Barewa) College Zaria.  Thus, he shared the same alma mater with some of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) leaders and senior northern Army officers of his day.  As is well known, these leaders were assassinated on January 15, 1966.  Gowon himself narrowly escaped being killed. One of the students who was four years his junior at the same school was later to emerge as his political and military rival.  The name of the student (at that time) was Murtala Rufai Mohammed.

Although his eldest brother died on active service during the Second World War and another brother survived the conflict, how Yakubu Gowon decided to enter the Army is quite interesting.  Encouraged by his British Principal and Vice-Principal to go military, he was nevertheless torn between a career in the Army and competing options as a teacher, engineer, or physician.   So he wrote out the options on little pieces of paper placed them inside a Bible and prayed.  Then, with his eyes closed, he opened the Bible and picked one at random.  It was the Army. 

Throughout his military career he would repeatedly approach issues with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.  Years later he would come to be regarded by most as a model of a “kinder, gentler” soldier.  Some have nicknamed him “The Preacher”.

In 1954, after passing an entrance examination, he attended several interviews before being sent to the Regular Officers Cadet School at Teshie in Ghana – along with Patrick Anwuna, Alexander Madiebo, Michael Okwechime and Arthur Unegbe.  This was followed by a course at Eton Hall in Chester, UK, followed by formal cadet training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS). He was a Cadet Sergeant at the RMAS and was commissioned 2/Lt in December 1956. It was at the RMAS that he acquired the nickname “Jack,” the closest sound to “Yakubu” his British instructors could think of.

Gowon then attended the Young Officers Course at Hythe and the School of Infantry at Warminster before returning to Nigeria in July 1957. He was initially a platoon commander at the 4QNR, Ibadan before returning to Ghana for training as a Mortar Officer followed by another support weapons course in England. When he came back to Nigeria in September 1959, he was made the adjutant to the 4QNR.

From January to May 1960, Gowon saw action as a Platoon Commander during the Cameroon counter-insurgency campaign. In November he was deployed for ONUC along with the rest of the 4QNR under Lt. Col. Rolo Price to Manono in Katanga, Congo. In Congo he was recommended for the Military Cross but did not get it. Upon his return he was made a Staff Officer at AHQ. In 1962, as a Captain, he attended the Staff College at Camberley, UK.

In January 1963 he was appointed the Brigade Major at the Nigerian Brigade HQ, Luluaborg, Congo. When he returned he was promoted Lt. Col. and appointed the first Nigerian Adjutant General at the AHQ.   It was as the Adjutant General that he spotted a young Lieutenant from the 4th battalion whose height, turnout and ramrod stiff poise convinced Gowon that he was a good material for the ceremonial Federal Guards Company in Lagos.  The name of that officer was Joseph Nanven Garba. 

In May 1965, he was off again, this time to attend the Joint Services Staff College (JSSC) at Lartimer, UK. It was upon his return from the JSSC in January 1966 that Gowon was appointed the Commander of the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja Barracks. 

As incoming Commander of the 2nd Battalion, Gowon, along with some key company commanders like Majors Igboba (from the Midwest) and Anago (from Cameroons), played a key role in putting down the violent weekend January 15 mutiny in Lagos.   All this occurred in spite of an alleged attempt to delay handing over the Ikeja battalion to him by Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku – who was later said by one of the January mutineers (Major Ademoyega) to have had foreknowledge of the plot. After taking power from the rump civilian cabinet – ostensibly to restore law and order – Major General Ironsi later appointed Gowon – the only surviving senior officer of northern origin – Chief of Staff (Army), thus inadvertently denying him his first – and only – career chance to hold a field command.  Njoku became the Commander of the 2nd Brigade.  Igboba took over the 2nd Battalion.  The position of Chief of Staff (Army) was a staff appointment – essentially the “chief clerk” to the Supreme Commander. 

In an interview with the Army Historical Team, Gowon insists that he was not present at the meeting between General Ironsi and the surviving federal cabinet, at which Ironsi was allegedly “requested” to take political power.  He was only told later (at a meeting of Army Officers) that the civilian cabinet had “handed over.”  It was not until much later that he heard alternative accounts of what had actually transpired with the civilian cabinet.  Had he known at the time – he says – that the cabinet did not voluntarily hand over power to Ironsi as he was led to believe, he would not have supported Ironsi’s emergence as Head of State and Supreme Commander.  I suspect that Gowon’s confidence in making this assertion comes from the fact that he was – for just under 48 hours – de facto Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion Ikeja whose troops were in control of the streets of Lagos.

As Chief of Staff (Army), he says he repeatedly advised General Ironsi to court-martial and punish the January mutineers in the interest of Army discipline.   However, when ordered to do so, he dutifully went around Barracks in the country in an effort to pacify troops of northern origin – prior to Ironsi’s nationwide tour.  This was reportedly a very difficult assignment because of his personal relationship with many of the Lagos victims of the January putsch. Aside from being military colleagues, Lt. Col. James Pam, for example, was virtually like a brother to him.  Brigadier Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed and Lt. Col. Abogo Largema were former schoolmates at Barewa (as was Pam).  Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe was his classmate at Sandhurst – and, according to one unconfirmed account – Gowon may have been the Best man at his wedding. 

Gowon and Mohammed

The details of what became known as the “Northern” counter-coup of July 1966 have been discussed in detail elsewhere [].  During the weekend of July 29, 1966, following a violent rolling mutiny, Gowon emerged as the new Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces – even though (by most accounts) he did not plan the mutiny/coup and did not partake in implementing it.  That he emerged over the actual coup leader – then Lt. Col. Murtala Rufai Mohammed – was a function of several factors: 

1.        Gowon was very senior to Mohammed (having joined the Army four years before him) and this factor influenced the leanings of northern officers (and Lt. Col. David Ejoor of the Midwest) who felt that the most senior northern officer should take charge.  Although Murtala Mohammed was a “temporary Lt. Col.” at the time, he was actually only a substantive Captain. He assumed the rank of Acting Major in November 1963 and was appointed Temporary Lt. Col. in 1966 and Inspector of Signals by Major General Ironsi in an effort to placate the far north. Among those who most strongly opposed Mohammed’s precocious ambitions then was his classmate at Sandhurst, Temporary Lt. Col. Shuwa, commander of the 5th battalion in Kano (and later Commander, 1st Brigade), who was also from the “far north” albeit the north-eastern end.  Although both Shuwa and Mohammed (along with IBM Haruna and Iliya Bissalla) were commissioned from Sandhurst in 1961, Mohammed had gained a month’s seniority over Shuwa in late 1963. In Shuwa’s view (supported by Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina), the order of precedence was Maimalari, Kur Mohammed, Largema, Pam, Gowon, Katsina, Akahan, Kyari, Haruna and Bissalla – even before Mohammed and himself.   Since Maimalari, Kur Mohammed, Largema and Pam had been killed, Gowon was next in line (among ‘northern’ officers).  Mohammed never forgave him for this and the personal animosity between both men, which almost brought them to exchange blows during the civil war (when Shuwa criticized Mohammed’s military disaster at Onitsha), was to reveal itself again in 1975.

2.        Quite apart from the “northern seniority” factor, Gowon was the Chief of Staff (Army) – a position, which despite its weakness was symbolic of Army-wide authority at a time of breakdown of law and order.

3.        Seniority aside, Mohammed had lost momentum and “coup leadership” because of the manner the mutiny evolved.  It basically started as a coup-within-a-coup triggered by Lieutenant Pam Mwadkon’s mutiny at Abeokuta, followed in sequence by Ibadan.   Faced with a fait accompli, Mohammed later ordered others in Lagos to “adjust to the situation” but he could not have been oblivious to the implications of what had happened.  He had vacillated at the last minute and even more junior officers – particularly from the middle belt – took charge.

4.        Then there was the geopolitical factor.  Joining and staying in the British colonial Nigerian Army had never been very popular with the true Hausa and Fulani people. Young and fiery Murtala Mohammed, from Kano in Hausa heartland (subsequent claims about his ancestry aside), was not viewed as belonging to so called “martial” minority areas of northern Nigeria. Such groups included the Dakokori of Niger, Tiv, Jukun and Idoma of Benue, various tribes of Plateau, Bachama/Numan of Adamawa and Kanuri of Bornu provinces respectively.  And yet, on the ground, holding the guns of July, were soldiers from precisely these jurisdictions. Even his fellow ‘coup commanders’, Captain Martin Adamu and Major TY Danjuma, were middle belters.  Who was going to back him against “nice man” Gowon?  Not even Hassan Katsina, a Fulani Prince who was professionally senior to him, would do so.

5.        Geopolitics and control of the troops on the ground was also a factor in the inability of Brigadier Ogundipe, then Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ, to impose his authority.  He had tried to launch an attack on Ikeja Barracks and the airport to dislodge the mutineers but it failed. When he tried to give an order to a northern NCO from the Federal Guards Unit the soldier said he would only accept orders from Captain JN Garba, the 2ic of the unit and a fellow northerner.  To complicate Ogundipe’s position, the Attorney General, GC Onyiuke, told him that he had no authority to deputize for the Supreme Commander.  When Ogundipe sent Gowon to negotiate with the mutineers at Ikeja, Gowon was co-opted.

After he emerged from the power tussle, he initially appointed Mohammed to the Supreme Military Council (SMC). But Gowon kept Mohammed out of any significant official policy-making position outside his role at Army Signals.  After a magazine article in the Nigerian Outlook poked fun at him, Mohammed then stopped attending SMC meetings.  And so, Murtala Mohammed, whose personality, upbringing and approach to leadership was radically different from Gowon’s, withdrew into his shell, content with sniping at Gowon from a distance as the unofficial military “opposition” or “alternative view”, second guessing everything Gowon did. 

Frustrated, he even resigned his commission at the end of 1966.  The letter he wrote to Gowon was to become the first of many he would later write, asking to be released.  In the first letter he allegedly said he did not want to be seen to be undermining Gowon, particularly since there were rumors that he was planning to force Gowon out using troops from the “far North.” Gowon had to contact some Kano politicians – like his Uncle, Alhaji Inua Wada – to convince Mohammed to return to the Army. He did so two weeks later, but, according to Major General Garba (deceased), their rivalry actually worsened until they were ‘reconciled’ (by Garba) in 1972. 

During the run-up period to the civil war, for example, Mohammed expressed the view – to anyone who would listen  – that Gowon was weak and indecisive.    As far back as October 1966 he even predicted that Nigeria was headed to war and that early decisive confrontation with Ojukwu was the right approach. Gowon, however, preferred a non-confrontational, consensus-building method. Viewed as a “hawk”, Mohammed was, therefore, excluded from the Nigerian delegation to the Aburi talks in 1967.  When the war did eventually breakout, however, and Lagos was threatened by the Biafran invasion of August 9, 1967, Gowon found in Mohammed’s personality the commander he needed for the situation.  And sure enough, supported by elements of the Federal Guard, and a detachment of Colonel Adekunle’s 3MCDO, with active encouragement from most of the local population, Mohammed rolled back Biafran troops from the West and Midwest.

Nevertheless, they had their clashes.  Mohammed, for example, appointed T/Lt. Col. Samuel Ogbemudia as Administrator of the Midwest without checking with Gowon.  It took about 57 agonizing days for Gowon to ratify the appointment. He was caught by lobbyists for the job (like Colonel David Ejoor and Mr. Timothy Omo-Bare of the Police and their supporters). He was indignant with Mohammed for lack of due process. But he had appreciation for Ogbemudia – famous for his skills with the mortar – on account of his loyalty to the federal cause.  While there was also the need to show Mohammed who was in charge, there was also the need not to make his own Divisional Commander look bad in public.    It was classic Gowon.

It did not stop there.  The 2nd Division was involved in violations of Gowon’s wartime operational code of conduct at Asaba in October 1967.  Mohammed later lost an untold number of men and millions of dollars in equipment during his unsuccessful attempts to take Onitsha via an assault river crossing.   Amid blistering criticism from colleagues (like Shuwa) as well as AHQ, Mohammed later adopted a less ambitious approach, eventually taking Onitsha via an unopposed crossing into the 1st Division area.  The officer who actually took Onitsha in 1968 under Mohammed’s supervision, was a young man from Katsina, Sandhurst trained T/Major (later Major General) Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (now deceased).  This was followed by another military disaster at Abagana, after which Mohammed simply left the country to get some rest.  He later requested a posting back to Army signals when he learnt that he had been replaced as the Divisional Commander. That he was not court-martialled for some of these transgressions is amazing.    However, in an interview with Elaigwu, Gowon said,

“Honestly, mine is not to destroy anyone.  There is no doubt about it, for his contribution to the war efforts and to the country generally, I thought one must not use a big hand and destroy such a promising young man. Honestly, I just allowed him to get on with his work. He virtually cut off himself except concentrating on his signals and since he was getting our communications properly through I did not bother until when I decided to appoint him the Commissioner for Communications…”

Gowon’s emergence on July 29th/30th 1966, therefore, created, on one hand, an internal “northern” schism with Murtala Mohammed – a schism that perpetuated old political rivalries between the middle belt and the core northwest (far north).  Then Lt. Col. (later Major General) Hassan Katsina’s stabilizing influence, however, ensured that it did not get out of hand – at least for a while.

Gowon and Ojukwu

On the other hand, the Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was promoted Lt. Col. on the same day April 1st 1964 alongside Yakubu Gowon and David Ejoor, refused to accept Gowon as the new Supreme Commander.  Gowon actually joined the Army several years before Ojukwu and was commissioned 2/Lt. on October 19, 1955 (his 21st birthday). But Ojukwu’s date of commission was backdated to September 22, 1955 on account of his University degree.  Gowon became a Lt. on September 9, 1957, 13 days before Ojukwu. But Ojukwu became a Captain on September 22, 1961, just shy of one month before Gowon became a Captain.  On March 7, 1963 Ojukwu was promoted Major, two days before Gowon.  However, both men became Lt. Cols. on the same day.

Ojukwu’s refusal to recognize Gowon was advertised as a regimental preference for maintaining Army seniority (even though Ojukwu, as Military Governor of the Eastern region and later C-in-C of Biafra, was not the most senior eastern officer either).  Brigadier Ogundipe, Colonel Adebayo and Lt. Cols. Wellington Bassey, Hilary Njoku and Imo were senior to Gowon.   (Bassey and Njoku were even made temporary Brigadiers by Ironsi) Ejoor had originally been senior to him (as a young officer) too but had since become his mate (alongside Ojukwu).  Nevertheless, practically speaking, none of the aforementioned officers could exercise control over the mutinying troops and even Gowon had great difficulty doing so.  This was not by any means a normal situation.

Thus the “seniority” schism of 1966 with Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu was a factor (among others) in the outbreak of the civil war. The “seniority” schism of 1966 with Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed would later explode into the open – as one of several factors – on July 29, 1975.

Gowon as wartime commander

The strategic success of Gowon as a wartime leader must be acknowledged.  He led a large and complicated country through a difficult crisis.  Although reviled as “weak” and “compromising” by his critics who hold him partly responsible for the long duration of the war, there are many well-informed officers who still hold the view that only someone with his forgiving and tolerant character could have held Nigeria together at that time.  His decision to create 12 States in May 1967 – on the advice of civil servants – is still regarded by many on both sides of the isle (including former Biafran Intelligence Chief Odogwu) as a masterstroke that helped spell doom for Biafra.   His wartime code of conduct for troops was the first of its kind in Africa – although it was often ignored.  His handling of the difficult diplomatic scene was also brilliant – although Biafra proved to be a formidable adversary on that front.  Nevertheless, none of Nigeria’s neighbors supported the break-up of the country.  His magnanimity after victory in 1970 by avoiding Nuremberg type trials won him international stature.  

However, the structural weaknesses that would eventually consume the Gowon regime were put in place fairly early.  Soon after he was anointed as the new ‘Supreme Commander’, the “separation” from the Army began.  Like Ironsi, the title “Supreme Commander” conferred certain absolute powers on him.  However, complex political negotiations with regional representatives who in turn were reporting to the various regional military governors, set the tone for Federal-State relations and the subsequent emergence of powerful State Governors.  These Governors used the distractions of the federal government first with restoration of law and order in the barracks and later with the prosecution of the war to consolidate their powers.  It was not that obvious during the conflict but became apparent afterwards, particularly from the standpoint of their military colleagues in the barracks. At federal level, Gowon, who had little prior experience in non-military public administration, was soon ensconced within the outstretched arms of sophisticated civil servants.

At the “Meeting of Nigerian Military Leaders” held at Aburi in Jan 1967, for example, discussants comprised Lt. Col. Gowon, Regional Governors (Col. Adeyinka Adebayo, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu, Lt. Col. David Ejoor and Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina), and the Chief of Staff SHQ and Naval Chief, Commodore JEA Wey.  Others were the Administrator of Lagos, Major Mobolaji Johnson, the Police IG, Alhaji Kam Salem and another senior Police officer, Mr. T Omo-Bare.   The civil servants who were present – as secretaries – were Mr. SIA Akenzua (Cabinet Office) – now the Oba of Benin, Mr. PT Odumosu (Secretary to the Government, West), Mr. NU Akpan (Secretary to the Government, East), Mr. DP Lawani (Governor’s Office, Midwest), and Alhaji Ali Akilu ((Secretary to the Government, North). None of the “three musketeers” of July 1966, (Mohammed, Danjuma and Adamu) was present.  Years later, this oversight would be cited by Gowon’s Army critics (perhaps unfairly) as one reason for Ojukwu’s ability to allegedly manipulate the conference, leaving Gowon vulnerable where it not for the subsequent intercession of federal permanent secretaries. 

The organization and management of AHQ during the war also revealed certain trends.  The Supreme Commander (Gowon) had no prior field command experience above the sub-unit level.  He was very well trained no doubt (perhaps one of the best trained), and had plenty of staff experience, but he had never actually commanded a battalion (except over the weekend of January 15), let alone a Brigade – and certainly not a Division.  The divisional commanders were mostly independent, doing what they wanted to do.  When they misbehaved, as was the case with Mohammed and Adekunle, Gowon preferred a non-confrontational approach.  Then Major General Gowon hardly visited the warfront – the first time being in early 1969 after the war had already been in progress for almost two years.   He also had a penchant for communicating directly with Field Commanders, using a radio set at Dodan Barracks, bypassing the AHQ.  This habit was a contributor to Adekunle’s disastrous “Operation OAU” which Gowon had secretly authorized without AHQ input.   There was plenty of waste and massive corruption not only in the Ministry of Defence but also among arms purchasing teams (and dealers) sent abroad to acquire weapons and ammo.  Many of these problems (as well as detailed plans for future operations) were detailed in a special report prepared by the British Defence Attache, Colonel Robert E Scott, in December 1969 titled “Appreciation of the Nigerian Conflict.” It was later leaked to The Sunday Telegraph and parts of it published in January 1970.  The Nigerian Government was very upset. Colonel Scott was declared persona non grata.

Political undercurrents were never far from the surface either.  When he created States in May 1967 he openly promised that those who were dissatisfied with it would get a chance to make amends.  In January 1969, Gowon warned the Army that they had limited capacity to run a complex civilian administration and that a process for handing over the country to elected government was essential after the war.  In October 1969 in the setting of the resolution of the Agbekoya problem in the West, he reiterated the promise to review the Creation of States issue again.

But also, in 1969, Gowon got married to Ms. Victoria Zakari in a State and Society wedding in Lagos which, considering the wartime situation and ongoing suffering appeared lavishly distasteful and imperious to many observers, including warfront commanders.  The presence of a resident woman in his life naturally resulted in a decrease in Gowon’s interactions with former fellow bachelor, and wartime pal, then Lt. Col. JN Garba.

Before the war ended, Mohammed, who Gowon wrongly assumed “virtually cut off himself except concentrating on his signals “, was at it again.  He secretly approached Colonel Obasanjo of the 3MCDO in October 1969 and requested that he slow down the push to end the war in order that certain Army Officers could use the delay to extract concessions from Gowon and force him to share power in a “Presidential Commission”. Mohammed was fearful that a victorious and internationally recognized Gowon after the war would be less amenable to Army influence.   According to him,

“…you will be lucky, the man will be a victorious general and you will not be able to talk to him.’

Nevertheless, Obasanjo refused.

When the war finally ended on January 12, an editorial in the Nigerian Observer the next day commented that

“All of us must have learned the bitter lesson that in war there are no victors nor vanquished but only losers.”  

This became a maxim of the Gowon regime.

Boards of Inquiry into activities of former federal officers in Biafra aside, many officers felt that there should be no medals or decorations awarded for the civil war – seen as a fight between brothers.  That is why there is no “Civil War” medal to this day.   This attitude in the Army reflected the broader challenges of reconstruction, reconciliation, and rehabilitation.

Within the federal army, however, one major concern was what to do with officers who had been rapidly promoted or commissioned from the ranks in wartime. In 1970, fear that they would be asked to give up their status and remunerations nearly led to a mutiny by certain field officers in the 2nd Division.  On March 6, therefore, Brigadier Hassan Katsina, Army Chief of Staff, announced that there would be no general demobilization – even though the Army had grown in size from 10,000 to approximately 250,000 men.   Gowon himself, acutely aware of the inherent instability of military regimes would later be quoted by the Chicago Daily News on August 29 as saying:

“The trouble with military rule is that every colonel or general is soon full of ambition. The navy takes over today and the army tomorrow”

He was right.

However, in his book, “Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria”, Kirk-Greene reflected on a quotation from JG Randall’s book Lincoln, “One can say that [he] was honest, but not that the country was free from corruption during [his] administration.”  Even at this stage some of Gowon’s Governors were already perfecting the art of provocation.  Back in February 1970, for example, as domestic and international organizations were scrambling to rush food and medical supplies into starving Biafran enclaves, and plant yam seedlings, Rivers State Governor Diete-Spiff ordered champagne and caviare for a wedding. The act created an international Press furor – but it would not be the last.

From an ethnic standpoint, one of the consequences of the creation of 12 States and the ethnic distribution of top policy making appointments at the center in his regime was that none of the three major ethnic groups (Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo) exercised much political power.  Unlike during the first republic, the minorities were in a very strong position. On a strategic political level Gowon had to decide whether to pursue post-war constitutional or administrative reforms prior to handing over to civilians.

Meanwhile, with the war now over, Colonel Murtala Mohammed ran into Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo again and reportedly said:

“We told you not to end the war the way you did so as to sort things out, you went gadam…gadam…gadam…and finished it.  And now you have a lion in your hand, a lion that does not roar, bite nor claw – absolutely inefficient and ineffective.”

The Nine Point Plan

In October 1970, Gowon announced a six-year nine-point plan, which he said, must be accomplished “before the government of the country can be handed over with a full sense of responsibility”. 

The points were as follows:

1.        Reorganization of the Armed Forces.

2.        Implementation of the National Development Plan and reconstruction of wartime damage.

3.        Eradication of corruption.

4.        Creation of more States.

5.        Adoption of a new Constitution.

6.        Introduction of a new revenue allocation formula.

7.        Conducting a National census.

8.        Organization of new genuinely national political parties.

9.        Organization of elections at state and federal level.

According to Gowon, “The target year for completing our political program and returning the country to normal constitutional government is 1976.”

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