PARIS – Mali is a landlocked West African country of 15 million people, covering 1,240,000 square kilometers (478,800 square miles), three-quarters of it desert. In the fourteenth century, the powerful Mali Empire included parts of modern-day Senegal, Guinea, and Niger. Defeated and divided, it became a French colony in the nineteenth century, regaining independence in 1960.
Mali’s population is diverse: desert nomads, notably Tuaregs, in the north, and a majority of sedentary black populations in the south. Many languages are spoken, but Islam, to which almost 95% of the population adheres, is a unifying factor. Agriculture is the main economic activity, notably in the vast internal delta of the Niger River, home to many tribes, including the Dogon, a people remarkable for their sculpture and architecture.
Long a military dictatorship, Mali became an African democratic success story from 1991 to 2012, before a coup crippled its rudimentary public institutions. In the north, Tuaregs traveling to Mauritania, Algeria and Niger, were particularly weakened by persistent drought and the collapse of the caravan economy. Many have turned to weapons, slave, or gold trafficking; some are demanding independence.
In the wake of the ferocious religious war that tore Algeria apart in the 1990’s, a great number of Muslim fundamentalist Arabs fled south to the vast Sahara that covers part of Mali. Then, in 2011, Western-backed regime change in Libya toppled Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi and drove more fundamentalists to flee into the desert – but not before they had gotten their hands on a significant part of Qaddafi’s heavy weaponry, as well as many vehicles.