Mali - History
Mali is a country old enough to have rock paintings that date back to a time when the Sahara was a blossoming paradise but the first known empire in the region was the Empire of Ghana. This was destroyed in the 11th century by Muslim Berbers from Mauritania and Morocco who objected to the lukewarm manner in which the empire embraced Islam. By the middle of the 13th century, however, Sundiata Keita, leader of the Mandinka people, had strategically converted the empire to Islam and taken out a monopoly on the gold and salt trade. Under the influence of several progressive Mansas (Lords), Djenné and Timbuktu became the commercial Shangri-las of West Africa, with several mosques and a couple of universities being built as part of the push to create a great and powerful empire.
But to the east the Songhaï had established their own city around Gao. They were powerful and well organised and, more to the point, had been busy creating a professional army and a civil service while the Mali empire had been building universities. When push came to shove, the traders and students were no match for the soldiers and bureaucrats and the Songhaï Empire took over the Sahel. Their victory was short-lived, however, lasting a mere century before there was another bloody and losing encounter with the Moroccan Berbers. At the same time European ships were plying the coast of West Africa, thus circumventing the Saharan trade route and knocking the bottom out of the Sahel wealth. The city of Timbuktu was abandoned and began to acquire its out-of-the-way reputation. In 1883 Mali became a French colony and, although a few railways and irrigation systems were built, Mali was always considered the poor cousin of other West African colonies.
In June 1960 Mali finally gained its independence and merged with Senegal to form a federation but the honeymoon was short and turbulent and by August Senegal had seceded and Modibo Keita became the first president of the Mali Republic. Keita opted to play both sides of the political fence by retaining political and economic ties with France but relying heavily on Soviet military advice. In a fit of national pride Mali left the franc zone in 1962, established its own currency, and embarked on a series of disastrous socialist policies that sent the economy bust and caused a national tightening of the belt. These austere cost-cutting ventures proved to be highly unpopular and in 1968 Moussa Traoré took over the country in a bloodless coup.
Traoré ruled Mali from 1968 to 1991 but not always well and not always benevolently. Mali was a relatively peaceful republic in the 1970s and '80s, although there were several obligatory coup attempts and a well-publicised student strike in 1979. In 1991, however, all Traoré's sins came home to roost. His heavy-handed treatment of Tuareg rebels, his repeated refusals to consider political pluralism, and his open-fire policy toward strikers and rioters led Lt.Col Amadou Toumani Touré to take control of the country and appoint a civilian, Soumana Sacko, to head a transitional government. In 1992 multiparty elections were held and Alpha Konaré was invested as President. Konaré was reelected by a landslide in 1997, but could not run for a third term.
Touré, who'd become a national hero for his abdication in favour of a democratic process following the coup he staged, came out of retirement to win the presidency in May 2002. The former general is widely respected for his peace efforts and humanitarian work. Touré faces some tough challenges; although Mali is a relatively stable country, it is still one of the poorest in Africa. The nation is still recovering from the devastating droughts and famines of the 1980s, in which people and livestock died, wells dried up and villages disappeared beneath the sand. However, the economy is improving, and recent discoveries of deposits of gold may help the country from its knees.