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Country Profile


Country profile

Where is Mali? A trip to Mali, it is commonly said, is a trip to history. The country is at the heart of West Africa’s history and culture, the cradle of three of the greatest medieval African empires: those of Ghana, Songhai and Mali. Today, two cities in particular are reminiscent of the country’s illustrious past: Timbuktu and Djené.

Timbuktu rose from the sands well before Arab explorers came in the ninth century and was for hundreds of years one of Africa’s most prosperous cities – its university, for example, was in the fourteenth century as advanced as that in Oxford. Its twin, the river city of Djené, is known as the most beautiful city of the Sahel region: its Great Mosque, with its sublime minarets, is considered a perfect example of indigenous architecture.

The Malian empire was in decline when the French occupied it in 1850 – and French domination meant the end of the traditional trans-Saharan trade routes that had brought Mali its prosper-ity. Independence came in 1960 with Modibo Keita as the new nation’s first president; a member of Mali’s oldest ruling family, he was nevertheless a great enthusiast for African socialism and international non-alignment.

Mali’s post-independence history has been dominated, however, by the 23-year-long dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré, who overthrew Keita in 1968. The Traoré era was disastrous: grain surpluses turned to deficits and the twisting of the economy to fit the needs of the world market led to a large foreign debt. Repression was extreme, especially when mass protest took place at the imposition of IMF-driven austerity measures in the 1980s.

The Malian people’s patience with Traoré eventually ran out in March 1991. After almost a year of strikes and social unrest, students defiantly took to the streets. They were backed by the military and Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (known as ATT) stepped in as the country’s new leader.

There were two remarkable things about ATT. The first was that he kept his promise to hand over power to civilians within a year: multi-party elections in April 1992 saw Alpha Oumar Konaré elected as President. The second was his signing in April 1992 – at the eleventh hour of his leadership – of a National Pact between the Government and Tuareg rebel movements which had exploded into armed opposition the year before.

The main human-rights problems with the Konaré Government still relate to the Tuareg resistance – there has been regular evidence from Amnesty International of extrajudicial executions of members of the Tuareg and Moorish communities. But for all that, four years on, the Pact seems finally to be working out: at a ceremony in Timbuktu dubbed ‘The torch of peace’ in March 1996, rebel movements symbolically burned 3,000 weapons.

On the economic front Konaré has continued to privatize and adjust the economy to fit IMF dictates. The halving in value of the African franc in 1994 hit living standards hard and brought a cascade of social protests. But more recently the Club of Paris has cancelled 67 per cent of the country’s debt and the IMF has rewarded the Government for ‘good behaviour’ with a new loan worth 44 billion francs ($86 million). Partly prompted by optimism about a gold bonanza – the mining multinationals are prospecting in force – economic minister Soumaila Cissé has predicted that from 1997 Mali will not need external budgetary assistance. Ordinary people will wait a while to see how much of this promised prosperity actually trickles down to improve their quality of life.

Themon Djaksam


LEADER: President Alpha Oumar Konaré

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $270 (France $22,490)
Monetary unit: CFA (French African) franc
Main exports: Cotton and cotton products, live animals, gold, groundnuts, fish
Main imports: Oil products, chemicals & pharmaceuticals, machinery, transport equipment.
Agriculture accounts for almost all export earnings and employs 73% of the workforce. Among the gold prospectors are big companies like BHP from Australia, Iamgold from Canada and Anglo American from South Africa.

PEOPLE: 10.5 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 119 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). Only 30% of Mali’s people have access to health services such as clinics, the fourth-poorest record in the world.

CULTURE: The Bambara form the largest ethnic group. Others are the Malinke, Songhai, Peul-Fulani, Dogon, Tuareg and Moor. About 10% of people are nomadic.
Religion: Muslim 70%, traditional African religions 27%.
Language: French is the official language. Bambara is widely spoken; Arabic and Tuareg are common in the north.

Sources The World: A Third World Guide 1997/1998; Human Development Report 1996, UNDP;
The State of the World’s Children 1996, UNICEF; Africa Review 1996.

Previously profiled March 1985


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Fair in the villages but a big urban-rural divide.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
25%. Only four countries have a worse literacy rate than this.
1985 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Improving on this front, and gold should help more.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A multiplicity of political parties operate freely. Repression of Tuaregs has been a big problem but has lessened.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women participate in most areas of national life; maternal mortality is unacceptably high.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
47 years (Japan 80 years) Only seven countries (all but one African) have a lower life expectancy.
1985 [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Konaré Government acts as if its status as one of the IMF’s good students guarantees Mali a bright future. But it still delivers to its citizens a level of human development worse than all but three countries in the world. It has yet to prove itself capable of doing more for the poor than following the West’s bidding.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 287 magazine cover This article is from the January 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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