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Mali: Historical Background
Country Study > Historical Background


Early History: The area now constituting the nation of Mali was once part of three famed West African empires that controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and other precious commodities. All of the empires arose in the area then known as the western Sudan, a vast region of savanna between the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical rain forests along the Guinean coast to the south. All were characterized by strong leadership (matrilineal) and kin-based societies. None had rigid geopolitical boundaries or ethnic identities.

The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire, which arose along the Mali-Mauritania border, possibly as early as the fifth century A.D. but making its presence felt in the region by the eighth century. Although originally formed by Berbers, the empire was soon dominated by the Soninké, a Mande speaking people. From its capital in Kumbi Saleh on the edge of the desert, the empire expanded throughout southeastern Mauritania, southwestern Mali, and northern Senegal from about A.D. 700–1078. The Soninké kings never fully adopted Islam, but the empire had good relations with Muslim traders. Nevertheless, the Ghana Empire fell in 1078 as a result of invasions by the Almoravids, nomadic Muslim Berbers who expanded and spread Islam throughout northwest Africa in the late eleventh century. Kumbi Saleh was destroyed in 1203 by a former vassal state, the anti-Muslim Soso Kingdom, which ultimately controlled the southern portions of the former Ghana Empire.

The Mali Empire arose from a small kingdom based on the upper Niger River that expanded rapidly in the thirteenth century under the Malinké ruler Sundiata Keita. Sundiata led a Mande revolt against the Soso king and then unified a vast region of the western Sudan into the Mali Empire. The empire reached the pinnacle of its power in the fourteenth century when it extended over a large area centered in the upper Niger and encompassed numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces. The most famous ruler of that century was Mansa Kankan Musa I (1312–37). Like other Mande rulers, who had adopted Islam fairly early, Musa was Muslim, and the Mali Empire’s wealth in gold became renowned in both the Arab and Western worlds when he made the hajj to Mecca in 1324–25. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient trading cities of Djenné and Tombouctou (often seen as Timbuktu) were centers of both trade and Islamic learning. Subsequently, the empire declined as a result of court intrigue and disputes over the succession. Vassal provinces revolted in the late fourteenth century, and the Songhai Empire ultimately supplanted the Mali Empire in the fifteenth century.

The Songhai people originated in what is now northwestern Nigeria and gradually expanded up the Niger River in the eighth century. They were well established at Gao by 800 and accepted Islam in around 1000. For several centuries, they expanded and controlled neighboring states but were subject to the Mali Empire. In the late fourteenth century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern part of the Mali Empire. Further expansions occurred under the direction of Askia Muhammad, who established the Askia Dynasty (1492–1592). Tombouctou and Djenné prospered once again, as the rulers actively promoted Islam. The empire eventually collapsed as a result of both internal and external pressures, including a Moroccan Berber invasion in 1591. The fall of the Songhai Empire marked the end of the region’s role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by the European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost their significance.

French Colonization and Independence: In the colonial era, Mali fell under the control of the French beginning in the late 1800s. By 1893, the French had appointed a civilian governor of the territory they called French Sudan, but active resistance to French rule continued. By 1905, most of the area was under firm French control. French Sudan was administered as part of the Federation of French West Africa and supplied labor to France’s colonies on the coast of West Africa. In 1958 the renamed Sudanese Republic obtained complete internal autonomy and joined the French Community. In early 1959, the Sudanese Republic and Senegal formed the Federation of Mali, which gained full independence from France as part of the French Community on June 20, 1960. Following the withdrawal of Senegal from the federation in August 1960, the Sudanese Republic became the independent nation of Mali on September 22, 1960, with Modibo Keïta as president. Keïta quickly established a one-party state, withdrew from the French Community in 1962, adopted an independent African and socialist orientation with close ties to the Eastern bloc, and implemented extensive nationalization of economic resources. Following a progressive economic decline, however, Mali was forced to rejoin the Franc Zone in 1967.

One-Party Rule: In November 1968, a group of junior army officers led by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré overthrew the Keïta regime in a bloodless coup and established a 14-member Military Committee for National Liberation with Traoré as president. The military-led regime attempted to reform the economy, but its efforts were frustrated by both political turmoil and a devastating drought in the Sahel lasting from 1968 to 1974. Under the provisions of a new constitution approved in 1974, the Second Republic of Mali became a single-party state under the Democratic Union of the Malian People (Union Démocratique du Peuple Malien—UDPM). In subsequent single-party presidential and legislative elections held in June 1979, Traoré (now a general) garnered 99 percent of the votes cast. The Traoré regime faced student unrest beginning in the late 1970s as well as three coup attempts, but it successfully (and harshly) repressed all dissent until the late 1980s. Traoré was reelected, running unopposed, in 1985.

Attempting to address Mali’s economic problems, the government implemented some reforms in the state enterprise system, created new incentives for private enterprise, and attempted to control public corruption. It also signed a new structural adjustment agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the populace became increasingly dissatisfied with the austerity measures imposed by the IMF plan as well as their perception that the ruling elite was not subject to the same strictures. In response to the growing demands for multiparty democracy then sweeping the continent, the Traoré regime did allow some limited political liberalization. In National Assembly elections in June 1988, multiple UDPM candidates were permitted to contest each seat, and the regime organized nationwide conferences to consider how to implement democracy within the one-party framework. Nevertheless, the regime refused to usher in a fullfledged democratic system.

In 1990 cohesive opposition movements began to emerge, including the National Democratic Initiative Committee and the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali—Adema). The increasingly turbulent political situation was complicated by the rise of ethnic violence in the north in mid-1990. The return to Mali of large numbers of Tuareg who had migrated to Algeria and Libya during a prolonged drought increased tensions in the region between the nomadic Tuareg and the sedentary population. Ostensibly fearing a Tuareg secessionist movement in the north, the Traoré regime imposed a state of emergency and harshly repressed Tuareg unrest. Despite the signing of a peace accord in January 1991, unrest and periodic armed clashes continued.

Transition to Multiparty Democracy: After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in March 1991, Malians engaged in forceful demonstrations against the Traoré regime that degenerated into widespread rioting. Military forces fired on the protesters, killing more than 100, following which the regime was overturned by a military coup led by Amadou Toumani Touré, a lieutenant colonel in a paratroop battalion. The coup leaders soon formed a mostly civilian, 25-member Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People, which then appointed a civilian-led transitional government. A national conference, including representatives of political groups, labor unions, student organizations, and other social groupings, was held in August 1991. It produced a draft constitution (approved in a national referendum in January 1992) that created a multiparty democracy, officially the Third Republic.

Simultaneously, ongoing efforts to resolve unrest in the north resulted in a national pact signed in April 2002 with rebel forces. Among the measures agreed on were the creation of a new administrative region of Kidal, the incorporation of Tuareg fighters into the armed forces, the demilitarization of the north, and the implementation of programs designed to promote greater economic and political integration of the Tuareg. Nevertheless, sporadic violence continued well into the late 1990s.

Elections were held in early 1992 to elect a president, National Assembly, and municipal councils. Touré did not run in the presidential election. Rather, Alpha Oumar Konaré, a historian and former education minister, was elected to the presidency as the candidate of Adema, which led a coalition of opposition parties. The Konaré administration, inaugurated in June 1992, was characterized by significant tensions between Adema and its coalition partners. The political tension was exacerbated by the flawed presidential and legislative elections of 1997. The Constitutional Court annulled the first round of the legislative elections, won overwhelmingly by Adema, because of “serious irregularities,” but Adema and its allies won the restaged elections handily as well. Opposition parties boycotted the presidential election, and voter turnout was low, easing Konaré’s reelection.

Konaré stepped down after his constitutionally mandated limit of two terms and did not run in the 2002 elections. Touré then reemerged, this time as a civilian. Running as an independent on a platform of national unity, Touré won the presidency in a runoff against the candidate of Adema, which had been divided by infighting and suffered from the creation of a spin-off party, the Rally for Mali (Rassemblement pour le Mali—RPM). Touré had retained great popularity because of his role in the transitional government in 1991–92. The 2002 election was a milestone, marking Mali’s first successful transition from one democratically elected president to another, despite the persistence of electoral irregularities and low voter turnout. In the 2002 legislative elections, no party gained a majority; Touré then appointed a politically inclusive government and pledged to tackle Mali’s pressing social and economic development problems.

Last Updated: January 2005

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mali was first published in 2005. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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