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Mali Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Mali, officially the Republic of Mali, is a landlocked country in western Africa that is bordered by Algeria to the north, Nigeria and Burkina Faso to the east, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea to the south, and Senegal and Mauritania to the west. Mali is Africa’s eight largest country by area and has a population of 19 million people. Modern Mali was once home to north Africa’s largest and most powerful Sudanic Empires that dominated the trans-Saharan trade route, the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires. Bamako the capital city is the largest in the country and the country’s economic center. French is the official language, but the languages of the Niger-Congo are the most used.

Early history of Mali

Archeological evidence suggest that Mali was once home to farmer-gatherer groups as early as 5000 BC. Around 500 BC the civilizations of the time began using iron and by 300 BC evidence suggest large settlements began to form. One of the earliest was Djenne an economic trading center formed by Muslim traders the Soninke. These traders would eventually create three great empires of North Africa, the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Empires.

Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire was one of the earliest empires in the Saharan region and dominated the territories between the valleys of river Senegal and the river Niger. Futa Toro, a semi-desert region located along the border between Senegal and Mauritania and concentrated around the middle-run of river Senegal, was a territory of the empire of Ghana called Tekur as of the 9th century. The kingdom of Tekur was among the first to convert to Islam sometime before 1040; and this was due to the various trading interactions they had with the Arabs on the trans-Saharan trade route.

Mali Empire

Sometime around the 11th century the Empire of Mali becomes the dominant force in the upper Niger basin, its domination of the region began under King Sundiata in 1235 and peaked under Mansa Musa who ruled between 1312 and 1337 and extended the empire to the Atlantic.

Mansa Musa came to power in 1312 C.E., after his brother, Abu Bakr II, abdicated the throne and departed on a large fleet of ships to explore the Atlantic Ocean hoping to reach the Americas, which “historically” never happened until Christopher Columbus did so several hundred years later. Mansa Musa inherited a kingdom that was already wealthy, but his work in expanding trade made Mali the wealthiest kingdom in Africa. His riches came from the trade of salt, gold, and ivory.

The ancient kingdom of Mali would spread across parts of modern-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. Mansa Musa developed cities like Timbuktu and Gao into important cultural centers. He brought architects from the Middle East and across Africa to design new buildings for his cities and would turn the kingdom of Mali into a sophisticated center of learning in the Islamic world.

When Mansa Musa went on a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1324 C.E., his journey through Egypt caused quite a stir. The kingdom of Mali was relatively unknown outside of West Africa until this event. Arab writers from the time said that he travelled with an entourage of tens of thousands of people and dozens of camels, each carrying 136 kilograms (300 pounds) of gold. While in Cairo, Mansa Musa met with the Sultan of Egypt, and his caravan spent and gave away so much gold that the overall value of gold decreased in Egypt for the next 12 years. Stories of his fabulous wealth even reached Europe. The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375 C.E. by Spanish cartographers, shows West Africa dominated by a depiction of Mansa Musa sitting on a throne, holding a nugget of gold in one hand and a golden staff in the other. After the publication of this atlas, Mansa Musa became cemented in the global imagination as a figure of stupendous wealth.

The Mali Empire began a slow decline after Mansa Musa’s death and eventually would be replaced by the Songhai Empire in the 15th century.

Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire was a dependent of the Mali Empire and existed alongside the Mali Empire for several hundred years. In the 15th century after the Mali Empire began to disintegrate, due to succession issues, they were able to capitalize on the Kingdoms weakness and take possession of the empire’s vast lands and wealth roughly around 1450. The Empire would last until the early 16th century until discord among the rulers would allow the army to be overrun by Moroccan forces.

Arrival of the Europeans in Mali

French military penetration of Mali began in the mid-1800’s with battles along the north Sahara region with several Islamic Kingdoms that dominated the area. Eventually by 1894 the French would conquer Timbuktu and the territories surrounding it and incorporate them into French Sudan (modern-day Mali and Senegal) as part of the French West Africa colony which included Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali.

Colonization of Mali

During World War I, discontent among local tribes in Mali, just north of Burkina Faso, would set the stage for the Volta-Bani War. The locals would create an army of roughly 15,000 soldiers and fight French occupation for a year. The French would create its largest army in Africa to defeat the rebels. After the conclusion of the rebellion the French would create a buffer zone between Mali and separate Burkina Faso into a separate colony called the French Upper Volta. A new governor would be appointed, and massive construction projects would begin to modernize Burkina Faso.

After World War II, France created the French Union, a political entity under the constitution of October 27, 1946. The French Union was created to replace the old colonial ruling system with a system that would assimilate the overseas territories with French citizenship and culture. The territories would be managed by the French Union President and have an assembly of representatives from the different territories. The territories would have their own legislative bodies and self-rule but ultimately power would lay with French parliament.

The French Union would ultimately cede control of the territories after uprisings in the territories, in particular Algeria which was on the brink of civil war. Algerians had become hostel to French settlers and French rule and sought complete independence. On January 31, 1956, the French Union would allow all territories to further develop their own governments and eventually gain independence. The French Union would ultimately be replaced by the French Community in 1958 which further granted the territories more autonomy and eventually a roadmap for complete independence.

Independence of Mali

In January 1959, French Sudan (modern-day Mali) joined Senegal to form the Mali Federation, which became fully independent within the French Community on June 20, 1960. The federation collapsed on August 20, 1960, when Senegal seceded. On September 22, 1960 French Sudan proclaimed itself the Republic of Mali and Modibo Keita becomes president and turns Mali into a one-party socialist state. Since its independence in 1960, Mali has suffered through many military coups and currently is under military dictatorship.

Economy of Mali

Mali’s economy of 18 billion-dollar GDP is heavily reliant on the agriculture and mining industry. The country is considered one of the poorest nations in the world and is heavily indebted to foreign banks. Political instability has been the greatest barrier to economic prosperity.


Agriculture accounts for almost 40% of GDP and employs almost 70% of the population. The industry produces a wide variety of cash crops such as cotton, millet, rice, vegetables, peanuts, and livestock.


The mining of gold and other precious metals accounts for 20% of GDP and employs 10% of the nation’s workforce.


The sector is 40% of GDP and employs 20% of the nation’s workforce. Telecommunications is the driver of this industry.