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Here’s What You Need to Know About Mali


About Mali

Mali, a landlocked country in Western Africa, shares a border with Niger on the east, Burkina Faso and the Côte d’Ivoire on the south, Guinea to the south-west, Senegal and Mauritania to the west, and Algeria to the north. Its population is over 16 million and the country’s size is 1,240,192 sq. km. Bamako is the capital. There are eight regions in Mali and its north reaches into the Sahara while the south contains the Niger and Senegal rivers. Agriculture and fishing are cornerstones of the economy, while resources include salt, gold, and uranium.

Modern Mali was formerly part of three empires controlling trade in the Sahara. These were the Mali, Songhai, and Ghana empires. Mali became part of the French Empire in the 19th century. In 1959, French Sudan, of which Mali was a part, gained independence as the Mali Federation. Senegal withdrew from the federation, leading to the Republic of Mali. In 1991, a coup led to a new constitution and multiple political parties. In Mali, about half of the population live below the international poverty line.


What is modern-day Mali was once part of three empires that controlled the trans-Saharan trade. None of these kingdoms had rigid ethnic identities or boundaries. The Ghana Empire was the earliest. It expanded in West Africa until the Almoravids conquered it in 1078.

On the upper Niger River, the Mali Empire formed and reached its height in the 1300s. Centers of trade and Islamic learning were Djenne and Timbuktu. Internal intrigue led to the empire’s decline and the ultimate rise of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai came from Nigeria and were a West African power under the Mali Empire’s rule.

The Songhai gradually became independent from the Mali Empire in the late 14th century. The Moroccan invasion in 1591 under Judar Pasha led to the Songhai Empire’s collapse. This marked the end of the region as an important trading crossroads. The trans-Saharan trade routes lost importance after Europeans established sea routes.

The French took control of Mali in the late 1800s. Most of the area was a part of French Sudan by 1905. French Sudan and Senegal united in 1959 to form the Mali Federation. This Federation gained independence on June 20, 1960. Within a few months, Senegal left the federation and the Sudanese Republic gained independence as the Republic of Mali. Modibo Keita became the first president and established the nation as a one-party state. Keita cultivated relations with the East and had a socialist orientation.

After economic decline, Keita was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1968 led by Moussa Traore. This regime attempted economic reforms, but drought and political turmoil. The regime survived three coup attempts and student protests. Until the late 1980s, the Traore regime repressed the dissent until the late 1980s.

After the public continued to demand reforms, the Traore regime allowed some liberalization in politics. A full democracy was refused. The return of many Tuaregs to Mali in 1990 and rising ethnic violence led to opposition movements.

A coup occurred in 1991 and a transitional government set up a new constitution. Alpha Oumar Konare won the first multi-party presidential elections in 1992. He was reelected in 1997 and enacted economic reforms and combated corruption. Amadou Toumani Toure succeeded Konare in 2002 when he won elections. Toure led the military side of the 1991 coup.

An insurgency began in 2012 led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). A coup occurred that March and the MNLA took control of northern Mali and declared independence. They were overthrown soon after by Islamists groups who supported Sharia law.

President Ibrahim Boubacar KEITA  has been in power since 4 September 2013 and is still currently president in 2014.


Mali is southwest of Algeria and has an area of 1,240,000 sq. km. It is comparable in size to South Africa and is the 24th largest country. Mali mostly lies in the southern Sahara and is mostly flat, but rises to rolling northern plains covered by sand. In the northeast, the Adrar des Ifoghas is a large massif.

In the south, the climate is tropical and it is arid in the north. There is little rainfall in Mali. The rainy season is from late June to early December. The Niger River commonly floods in the rainy season. Mali’s natural resources include uranium, phosphates, gold, salt, limestone, and kaolinite. There are many environmental challenges including erosion, inadequate water, deforestation, and desertification.


There are eight regions and one district, each with a governor. There are an additional 49 cercles, and 288 arrondissements. The arrondissements are governed by mayors and city councils.

Politics and Government

The constitution of 1992, which was modified in 1999, governs Mali as a constitutional democracy. Powers are separated between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The president has executive power and is elected to a five year term, with a limit of two terms. The president is the commander in chief and chief of state. Appointed by the president, the prime minister is the head of government and appoints the Council of Ministers. The legislative body is the unicameral National Assembly and each deputy is elected to a five year term. After the 2007 elections, the Alliance for Democracy and Progress held 113 of the 160 seats. There are two sessions of the National Assembly each year.

There is an independent judiciary, but it is subject to executive influence due to the executive’s power in appointing judges. The Supreme Court is the highest court and a Constitutional Court reviews legislative acts and arbiters elections. Lower courts also exist but village elders typically resolve rural disputes.

President Ibrahim Boubacar KEITA was elected by popular vote, 77.6 percent. The election that was supposed to take place in April 2012 was delayed until July 2013 following the coup in March.

Foreign Relations and Military

Over time, Mali’s foreign relations have become more pro-Western. Mali has an ambivalent relationship with France, but good relationships with the U.S. and the West in general. Controlling regional conflicts is a major goal of the government. It is part of the African Union. In the north, the insecure border is a concern and cross-border banditry and terrorism are concerns.

The military has an army, air force, paramilitary Republican Guard and Gendarmerie. The Ministry of Defense and Veterans controls the military. The forces are poorly paid and equipped. Following an agreement with Tuareg rebels in 1992, there irregular forces were incorporated into the regular military. President Toure is a former general and has the military’s support. The forces are generally under the government’s control. The U.S. has helped train and equip Mali’s military.


As one of the world’s poorest countries, a worker’s average yearly salary is $1,500. GDP is $18.9 billion.

Agriculture is a key industry and cotton is the largest export crop. Mali also produces millet, corn, rice, tobacco, and tree crops. 80 percent of Mali’s exports are gold, agriculture, and livestock. 80 percent of Malians work in agriculture and 15 percent in services. Common livestock are cattle, sheep, and goats. In 1991, relaxed mining laws led to foreign investment. In southern Mali, gold is mined and the country has Africa’s third highest production.

Mali remains dependent on foreign aid as the country’s fiscal status fluctuates with gold and agricultural commodity prices and the harvest; cotton and gold exports make up around 80% of export earnings. Mali is developing its iron ore extraction industry to diversify foreign exchange earnings away from gold. Mali has invested in tourism but security issues do not encourage tourists to visit the country which makes it a hard sell. Mali experienced economic growth of about 5% per year in years leading up to 2011, but the global recession, a military coup, and terrorist activity in the north of the country caused a decline in output in 2012; growth resumed at a slow pace in 2013 and remains so in 2014.

Threats to Mali’s economy is a return to physical insecurity, high population growth, corruption, weak infrastructure, and low levels of human capital.

Energie du Mali (EDM) maintains water and electricity production. Half of Mali’s power is hydroelectric.


Population was estimated at 16 million in 2014. The growth rate was 3 percent annually. 65 percent live in rural areas and between 5 percent and 10 percent are nomadic. The south is home to 90 percent of Malians and Bamako has 2 million residents.

The median age in 2014 was 16 years and 48 percent were younger than 15. Each woman averages 6.16 children and the birth rate was 45.53 per 1,000. There were 16.5 deaths per 1,000. Life expectancy was 55 years. Mali’s infant mortality rate is one of the world’s highest at 104 per 1,000 live births.

Many sub-Saharan ethnic groups make up Mali’s population. 46.3 percent are Bambara. The Mande group is 50 percent of the country’s population and are made up of the Bambara, Khassonke, Soninke, and Malinke. Other major groups are the Peul, Voltaic, Songhai, Tuareg, and Moor. Most inter-ethnic relationships are good. The Tuaregs have been mostly forced from their nomadic life by droughts over the last several decades.

French is the official language, but over 40 African languages are used. 80 percent of Malian can communicate in Bambara.


94.8 percent of the people of Mali are Muslim and 2.4 percent are Christian. The remaining 2.8 percent follow indigenous religions. Muslims are mostly moderate Sunni or Sufi. The country is officially secular.

Health and Education

Poverty, poor sanitation and hygiene, and malnutrition are challenges. The country has some of the worst health development indicators. No more than 50 percent have access to safe drinking water in 2014 and sanitation was only available to 22 percent. Per capita health spending was $5 and medical facilities and medicines are limited. Cholera, tuberculosis, and malaria are prevalent. There is a low immunization rate and child nutrition is poor. Mali does have one of sub-Saharan Africa’s lowest HIV/AIDS rates at 0.9 percent.

Education is free and compulsory for nine years. The rate of enrollment is low mostly due to the inability of families to pay for school supplies and fees. Rural areas also lack an adequate number of schools and have shortages of materials and teachers. Literacy rate estimate is 33 percent with rates lower among females than males.

Human Rights

Estimates show 91.6 percent of Mali’s women and girls have undergone some form of female genital mutilation.

On March 17, 2014, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita expressing concern about the lack of justice for abuses during the armed conflict.


Musical traditions derive from the griots, who are commonly referred to as the “Keeper of Memories.” Music is diverse and some influences are Toumani Diabate, Ali Tarka Toure, Tinariwen (a Tuareg band), and Afro-pop artists.

Mali has been a lively intellectual center with a good literary tradition. Literature was mainly passed by word of mouth. Mali’s best-known historian, Amadou Hampata Ba, wrote down these oral traditions for history. Yambo Ouologuem is Mali’s most famous novelist.

Most Malians wear colorful robes called boubous that are widely seen in West Africa. They also participate in dances, ceremonies, and festivals. Malian cuisine has millet and rice as staples. There are variations in cuisine regionally.


Football is the most popular sport and Mali hosted the African Cup of Nations in 2002. Mali reached the 1972 African Nations Cup final, but lost 3–2 to Congo. They failed to qualify for the finals again until 1994 when they reached the semi-finals, an achievement repeated in 2002, 2004 and 2013. The  Mali national football team, nicknamed Les Aigles ( The Eagles ).  The Eagles did not qualify for the 2014 world cup in Brazil. Several notable players from Mali play abroad, but there are formal and informal games in the country as well. Basketball and traditional wrestling are also popular sports.



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