Here is some background information on Mali, courtesy of the brilliant Maria Victoria Albina
, a public health student who has been working here with GAIA all summer. Victoria has graciously agreed to be a guest blogger for us over the coming weeks.
Here is some basic info about Mali, gathered from Oxfam, Lonely Planet and many others. Pictures are either my own or from random websites... enjoy!
Mali is the largest country in West Africa with a land area greater than that of France, Spain,
Portugal and Austria combined. Nevertheless the Malian population is a little under 10 million – around a sixth as many people as in the UK. This landlocked country is bordered by seven others. To the west lie Senegal and Mauritania, the Ivory Coast to the south, to the southeast Burkina Faso and to the east Niger. To the north and the north-east is Algeria. The Niger river courses through the country in a life giving sweep, splitting into a vast inland delta before reforming itself to empty into the Gulf of Guinea.
The northern region of the country extends into the treeless Sahara and is almost entirely flat and arid desert. This area makes up almost two thirds of Mali. In the central region of scrub savannah, known as the Sahel, life follows the annual flood of the Niger River. Further south, where rainfall and rivers are more plentiful, the land is marginally more lush. It is here that the capital, Bamako, is situated.
Mali has long functioned as a
crossroads between northern and western Africa. As a consequence, the country holds a rich and varied cultural heritage. Mali is traditionally divided in two; the nomadic areas of the Sahara and the Sahel and the agricultural region to the south. More than four fifths of the population live in rural areas. A combination of climate, migration, history, and culture has painted Mali with a mosaic of diverse peoples. To the north are nomadic groups of the Tuareg, of Berber origin, and Moors. To the south is a variety darker skinned peoples. The largest is the Bambara, who live along the Niger River. The Soninkle are descended from the founders of the Ghana empire and live in the western Sahelian zone. The Malinke, descendants of the Malian empire, live in the southwest, while the Songhay are settled in the Niger valley from Djenné to Ansongo. The Dogon live in the north-central plateau region around Bandiagara. The Voltaic group includes the Senufo, and the Mininianka; they occupy the east and southeast. The Fulani herders are found everywhere in Mali where large herds of cattle, sheep and goats can be grazed.
Islam is practised by nine-tenths of the population, animism by most of the rest and Christianity by a small number. Whilst French is one legacy from colonial times, few people speak it and the most common language is Bambara.History
The Great empires
The area that Mali now occupies came to prominence in the thirteenth century when the first of a series of influential and wealthy empires, the Malinke empire, was established there. Commercial and cultural centrepieces of Africa, these empires dominated trade routes, exerted tremendous influence and became centres of learning. The wealth of the Malinke sultans was legendary. Some estimates reckon that two-thirds of the world’s gold of the time was in their hands. Indeed, when Sultan Kankan Musa, stopped in Cairo, during his pilgrimage to Mecca, in the fourteenth century, he distributed so much gold that its price fell for the next twelve years! Each year 12,000 camels would cross the desert between Mali and Cairo. Trade extended into present day Europe via Morocco and Moorish dominated Spain. This intensity of commercial and cultural interchange with the Arab world and Europe gave international prestige to the newly established and thriving University of Timbuktu. At its height the university catered to around 15,000 students. However, the Portuguese broke the Malinke virtual monopoly of the rich trans-Saharan gold trade, by diverting gold to the coast to exchange for European goods.
By the fifteenth century, in the face of attacks from surrounding groups and the loss of trade to
the Portuguese, the Malinke empire gave way to the Songhay empire. Nevertheless, the empire continued to combine lucrative trade with a rich intellectual life. This period ended dramatically in 1594 when competition for the Saharan trade routes precipitated an invasion from Morocco. Timbuktu was pillaged and the university destroyed. The development of rival states contributed to the decline of the empire. The 'convert or die' jihad of El Hadj Omar Tall, leading an invasion from Guinea and Senegal in the mid 1800s, further weakened an already divided land which was unable to resist the final invasion; the occupation of the French.A French colony
The French incorporated the area of Mali into the vast territory of French West Africa. Mali was to be the bread-basket for the area providing rice for the coastal French colonies and cotton for France. Colonisation heralded significant changes. Bamako was chosen as the site for the new capital. Trade, which had traditionally flowed north across the Sahara to the Mediterranean, was turned back to the Atlantic and Dakar. The Saharan trade routes dried up. To grow the rice for their colonies French engineers used forced labour to build ambitious irrigation projects, rivalling the Aswan Dam in scale. However the French never concentrated on Mali as they did in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal; its importance lay mostly in its strategic position. No major infrastructure projects were attempted, other than the irrigation project on the Niger and the railroad from Dakar to Bamako.The colonial legacy
Although life continued much as it had before for the majority of Malians during the French occupation, Malians may remember the French for four reasons.1. the French discouraged traditional customs such as the dina; a code of conduct by which disputes over land were resolved between pastoralists, cultivators and fishing communities.2. Malians were conscripted to fight in both World Wars.3. although only spoken by a tiny, educated minority, French is the official language.4. the French destabilised the nomadic communities of the Touareg by requisitioning their herds of camels for the first world war effort.Independence
In the atmosphere of democracy that prevailed after the end of the second world war and amidst increasing calls for self-governance from Mali, the French embarked on a policy of gradual concessions, starting in 1945, that led to independence in 1960. Aware of their limitations Mali and Senegal joined in the federation of Mali but their differences of interest soon caused the alliance to collapse.Socialism, drought and dictatorship
Led by Modibo Keïta, the same man who had steered Mali to independence, Mali broke its links with France, withdrew from the Franc Zone (a system governing foreign exchange, credit and monetary relations between France and 13 former French colonies) and became a socialist republic. However, the centrally managed economy was a disaster and Mali soon had to rejoin the Franc Zone. Foreign debts and plummeting agricultural production led to the overthrow of Mr Keïta in a military coup in 1968.
That coup heralded 23 dark years for Mali. The Military Committee for National Liberation (CMLN) led by Moussa Traoré, promised to fight corruption and straighten out the economy. The opposite was the case. The dictatorship evolved into a one-party system, the Union Democratique de Peuple Malien (UPDM), which held power until 1991. Mr Keïta died a mysterious death out in the desert, where he was held prisoner. Corruption became an institution; both as a form of government and as a way of life. The situation was aggravated by two extended droughts, in 1973-74 and again in 1984-85. Although the droughts opened up the country to international aid - the majority of the aid disappeared into the pockets of party officials.Structural adjustment
The military-based government opted for a policy of internal structural adjustment which started in 1981. Adjustment was designed to reform the economy and allow Mali to pay its foreign creditors. The first structural adjustment programme, launched in 1982, was intended to streamline government bureaucracies, encourage investment and the private sector, reduce subsidies and match government spending with government revenues. Many of the economic reforms were necessary but little thought was given to the social costs of adjustment. Deep cuts in government spending on health and education provoked howls of outrage from the people. The weakening of education and health services hit the poor and the most vulnerable hardest.Transition to democracy
From 1989 a broad-based coalition of social and political groups demanded a multiparty democracy, greater political freedom and full civil rights. Student protests were violently crushed. Meanwhile, the Touaregs were in open revolt in the north of the country and the government came under pressure from mass demonstrations in the cities. A series of bloody clashes between the people and the army culminated in the arrest of the president in 1991. Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré installed a transitional committee. The transitional body included members of each of the organisations that had helped to bring about an end to the regime of Mr Traoré. They organised a national conference to draw up a new social contract and design a new constitution, held a referendum on the proposed constitution, put in place the rules for multi-party elections, oversaw municipal, legislative and presidential elections under the auspices of international observers and put Mr Traoré in jail. Then, after the democratic election of Alpha Oumar Konaré in 1992, they left office. Mr Konaré, a key figure in the ousting from office of Mr Traoré, has held power ever since.Political stalemate
However, the economic and environmental crisis did not leave with Mr Traoré. Mr Konaré’s party, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema), tried with varying degrees of success and failure to tackle the war with the Touaregs in the north.War in the North
Mr Konaré inherited a delicate and potentially explosive stand-off when he came to power. Rising discontent in the northern provinces had led to an armed revolt by the Touaregs. Since 1900, when their traditional trade in salt across the Sahara was destroyed by the French colonialists, the Touaregs had felt marginalised and threatened by the new world order. They rebelled during the First World War to try to prevent the loss of their camel herds to the war effort and again in 1963; both times the rebellions were violently repressed. In July 1990 an armed attack on government offices in the town of Menaka ignited a widespread Touareg uprising. Equipped by Libya, the Touareg units were mobile and well armed. They inflicted some heavy defeats on the Malian army. The first peace accords, signed in 1991, were soon eclipsed by the fall from power of Mr Traoré. The Touareg leaders grabbed the opportunity to maximise their gains and relaunched the attack. The cycle of violence resumed. Just before the elections in 1992 an uneasy compromise was reached, the Pact Nationale, which made significant concessions to the Touaregs, pledging investment and infrastructure support.
The Pact failed to resolve the situation for a variety of reasons. The break down of law and order, continuing problems with banditry, the issue of the internally and externally displaced refugees (250,000 were living in camps in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania), the perceived indecision of Mr Konaré and the disunity of the Touareg leaders raised the level of tension to breaking point. According to the terms of the Pacte Nationale the Touaregs were allotted jobs in the army and the civil service whilst other groups were suffering the pains of structural adjustment.
In 1994, the Songhay population decided to act, creating a militia, named the Ganda Koy. What followed amounted to a pogrom which polarised the country with retaliation and counter-retaliation between the sides. The army, rather than acting to resolve the conflict, took sides. When the Touaregs launched their largest offensive by attacking the military base of Gao, the military refused to defend the city or its inhabitants. Instead, once the attack was over, they killed over 200 civilians from a peaceful Touareg community on the outskirts of Gao.
On the brink of civil war, several courageous individuals managed to get the two communities to meet and a fragile peace was established. This culminated with the ceremonial burning of 3,000 weapons in Timbuktu in 1996. As a result of the instability many aid organisations pulled out of Northern Mali and aid projects practically halted for the duration of the unrest.