Rock paintings and carvings in the Gao and Timbuktu regions suggest that northern Mali has been inhabited since 50, 000 BC, when the Sahara was fertile grassland across which roamed an abundance of wildlife. By 5000 BC farming was taking place, and the use of iron began around 500 BC. By 300 BC, large organised settlements had developed, most notably at Djenné.
By the 6th century AD, the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt and slaves had begun, facilitating the rise of Mali’s three great empires. The Empire of Ghana covered much of what is now Mali and Senegal until the 11th century. It was followed by the great Empire of Mali, which in the 14th century stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Nigeria. During the Empire of Mali’s golden age, Timbuktu was developed as a great centre of commerce and Islamic culture. The Songhaï Empire, with its capital at Gao, came next, but this empire was destroyed by a Moroccan mercenary army in the late 16th century.
By the end of the 19th century, Mali was part of French West Africa. Remnants of this colonial era that are still visible today include the huge Office du Niger irrigation scheme near Ségou, and the 1200km Dakar–Bamako train line, the longest rail span in West Africa; both were built with forced labour. Such vast infrastructure projects notwithstanding, Mali remained the poor neighbour of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. France’s chief interest was in ‘developing’ Mali as a source of cheap labour and cash crops (rice and cotton) for export.
Mali became independent in 1960 (for a few months it was federated with Senegal). Its first president, Modibo Keita, embarked on an unsuccessful period of one-party state socialism. Ambitious planning schemes went awry, the economy wilted, and Keita was, somewhat humiliatingly, forced to ask the French to support the Malian franc. Eventually, in 1968, Keita was overthrown by a group of army officers led by Moussa Traoré.
During the Cold War, Mali was firmly in the Soviet camp. Continual food shortages were exacerbated by droughts (which did devastate the northern regions in 1968–74 and again in 1980–85), but were largely due to government mismanagement and government instability. From 1970 to 1990 there were five coup attempts, and the early 1980s were characterised by strikes, often violently suppressed.
But it was not all bad news: thanks to market liberalisation (and adequate rainfall), in 1987 Mali produced its first grain surplus.
The Tuareg uprising began in 1990, and later that year a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration drew 30, 000 people onto the streets of Bamako. Following strikes and further demonstrations, on 17 March 1991, security forces met students and other demonstrators with machine-gun fire. Three days of rioting followed, during which 150 people were killed. The army, led by General Amadou Toumani Touré (General ATT as he was known), took control. Moussa Traoré was arrested, and around 60 senior government figures were executed.
Touré established an interim transitional government and gained considerable respect from Malians and the outside world when he resigned a year later, keeping his promise to hold multiparty elections.
Alpha Oumar Konaré (a scientist and writer) was elected president in June 1992. Though a widely respected and capable leader who oversaw considerable political and economic liberalisation, Konaré had to deal with a 50% devaluation of the CFA during the 1990s (which resulted in rioting and protest) and an attempted coup. In sharp contrast to many African leaders, Konaré stood down in 2002, as the new constitution he’d helped draft dictated; he is now Chairman of the African Union. The former general, Amadou Touré, was rewarded for his patience and elected as president in April 2002.
In the spring of 2012 a separatist movement threw Mali into chaos culminating in a military coup on the 21st of March against a civilian government perceived by some in the forces as not taking a tough enough approach towards the rebels. Under the watch of West African regional body ECOWAS the army has returned power to the politicians but the situation remains tense and the separatists have managed to seize much of the north of Mali including the historic town of Timbuktu. Sadly, uncertainty now reigns in this once model of African democracy and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office is warning against all travel to the country. You can find more information about the crisis at the Mali profile page on the BBC news website.