Ghosts of juntas past: Can France get it right in Mali this time?

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Moussa Traoré, former President of Mali
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Should foreign allies prioritise liberty or stability in states undergoing extra-constitutional transition? France again faces this challenge in Mali, with the easy maintenance of the status quo in counter-terrorism operations guaranteed for the supposedly low price of support for a military junta inching back towards constitutionalism. Much has been made of the parallels between the 2012 coup d’état and the 2020 coup, but parallels with that of 1968 appear more striking and potentially instructive in terms of how the junta is received in France.

The leader of that coup d’état, Mali’s former military strongman Moussa Traoré, passed away recently.  Right now, with the emergence of a second strongman entirely plausible, the speed of Mali’s return to constitutionalism may depend on how well the junta are able to sell-themselves to foreign partners as a stabilising force. If one amongst them does intend to fill Traoré’s shoes, it can only be hoped that the French government will have learned from the mistakes of the past and will not be so quick to see military rule as a non-ideological, technocratic, safe-pair of hands.

The past of the present

In February of 1969 the new French ambassador in Bamako wrote in glowing terms of his first meeting with Moussa Traoré. He described the young Head of State as intelligent, showing marked conscientiousness and professionalism in his work. He relates that Traoré, when questioned on his motives for toppling his predecessor the year before, explained that he had been disgusted by the extreme socialist regime of Modibo Keita. In particular the debased way he believed it had interacted with foreigners, and argued that for the honour of Mali as well as his sense of liberty and patriotism had felt compelled to act. Apparently charmed by this champion of French values, the ambassador reported to Paris that Traoré’s early decisions reflected his personality; the modesty and austerity of his private life reflected in an absence of official ceremony. He concluded that:

Of great moral integrity, Lt. Moussa Traore could present an example to the nation. (1969)*

Other Western diplomats were not so taken with the new leader of Mali’s military junta. The Belgian Ambassador’s overriding impression of their first meeting was of Traoré’s youth and nervousness.  An impression shared by the British ambassador, who had only arrived in Bamako to present his credentials to Modibo Keita the day before the coup d’état which removed him from power, necessitating, one can only imagine, some creative use of diplomatic tip-ex on his letter of credence. He reported to London a serious but nervous youth, who spoke little and softly. The experience of rule however, turned this quiet youth into one of the region’s most fearsome military strongmen. A man for whom, the language of French liberty may have been familiar, but who in the name of stability allowed little of it for his citizens.

Softly, softly …

Similarly to the junta of today, Traoré’s regime trod softly in the first instance. They won credibility with the release of Keita era political prisoners and by announcing a move towards democracy and a new constitution. However, as it appears will be the case with the current junta, this liberalising phase did not last long. Traoré’s regime more rapidly than its predecessor turned to the tools of the authoritarian, and with greater barbarity. Far from ending political incarceration, a prison even more feared than that of Modibo Keita in Kidal was opened at the salt mine of Taoudenni, deep in the northern desert. The daytime temperatures in this facility reportedly reached 50 degrees centigrade and the prisoners were effectively worked to death cutting blocks of salt by hand.

Despite this contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of the Traoré regime, France did not withdraw their support. Indeed, by the mid-70s with the gap between the two painfully obvious the French government still felt that ‘The leadership team is for us-overall-very favourable and if it were to be replaced …, it would without doubt be to our detriment.’ (1976)*

The Quai d’Orsay remained confident that through the gruff patriotism of these military men, the interests of France were secure with the Traoré regime due to the attachment many key figures felt to the former metropole. The Quai believed that aside from economic development, Traoré’s regime had only two other foreign policy objectives, safeguarding national sovereignty and maintaining a special relationship with France:

 … national sovereignty can never be threatened and … the desire to keep relations with France of a privileged character are finally the essential motives of their foreign policy. (1977)*

Such words are doubtless winging their way back-and-forth now between Bamako and Paris with regards to the current junta government. Whilst in public France has stressed the importance of democracy it appears that this is not motivated by abstract principle. Defence minister Florence Parly’s justification for the French demand for a swift return to constitutional rule highlights the primacy of security concerns, “If this does not happen, the risk is that all this benefits terrorists first and foremost,” she said. “Terrorists feed on the weakness of states.” It is not hard to see how a canny military junta could position themselves, as Traoré did, to take advantage of these security concerns.

Whilst Mali’s opposition groups initially welcomed the August 2020 coup d’état, relations with the junta soured over the issue of whether the President will be a civilian or military officer. For both the M5-RFP opposition coalition and ECOWAS this appeared a red-line as it would have effectively constitutionalised an extra-constitutional transfer of power by military force. This is not a precedent which anyone wants. The appointment of former Defence Minister (and former Traoré aide-de-camp) Bah Ndaw appears unlikely to fully assuage doubts as to the juntas medium-term intentions.  However, if the junta is able to persuade France that the continuation of their counterterrorism operations in Mali are best served by a strong, military government French support may be enough to enable them to ride out the displeasure of the opposition and neighbouring states.

Liberty, equality, fraternity

Historically, Paris’ commitment to the values of liberty, equality and fraternity have proven shallower than their commitment to the nebulous ideas of stability and security. If one of the current junta is able to position themselves as a non-ideological bulwark against political Islam, as Traoré did with socialism, he may be able to maintain French support with only the most token gestures towards constitutionalism. 2020 is not 1968, but it remains to be seen whether France has moved on from an old way of thinking.

Joe Gazeley is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a Junior Research Fellow at the IHR in London.

*These quotes are from French diplomatic documents gathered over the course of my doctoral research which are available in the following files:

-DAM339QONT-19, Ambassador Louis Dallier (Bamako) SECRET to Foreign Affairs Minister Michel Debré (Paris), (French Diplomatic Archive La Courneuve, February 15, 1969)

-DAM339QONT-65, Mali: Fiche d’audience, (French Diplomatic Archive La Courneuve, May 4, 1976)

-DAM339QONT-61, Note: Foreign Policy of Mali, (French Diplomatic Archive La Courneuve, January 20, 1977)

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