Mali's fall from grace in 2012 came as a surprise to many, although not to close watchers of former president Amadou Toumani Touré (commonly referred to as ATT), who was deposed in a coup in April 2012. A band of mutinous soldiers ousted the president and his cabinet in the run-up to elections in which ATT was not planning to stand, claiming the leader was not adequately supporting the under-equipped Malian army against a Tuareg rebellion in the northeast of the country.
Somewhat ironically, the coup only worsened the situation in the northeast, allowing Islamist groups to gain hold of the region. They in turn pushed out the Tuareg groups and went on to install sharia law in the ancient towns of Gao and Timbuktu, destroying ancient monuments, tombs and remnants of history. Seven hundred thousand civilians were forced to flee in 2012 and early 2013, winding up in refugee camps in neighbouring countries as, at the request of the Malian government, French forces and Regional West African Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) troops launched air raids and ground attacks, successfully and quickly pushing back the Islamists from many of their strongholds. French forces began to draw down in April 2013, and in July of that year they handed over control of military operations to a UN force. At the same time presidential elections were held and won by Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, but none of this did anything to curtail the instability in the north, and as the French departed, violence increased and Tuareg and rebel groups retook some northern towns.
By mid-2015 the government signed peace agreements with a number of rebel Tuareg groups in exchange for a degree of regional autonomy and the dropping of arrest warrants that had been issued for their leaders. Although this helped to partially improve the security situation in the north, it has done little to halt attacks by Islamic militants on government forces and public places.
The continuing instability is deeply felt by most Malians: many businesses have closed, tourism revenue has dropped dramatically and important sites in Gao and Timbuktu have been destroyed. Sadly, many people feel that it is not only Mali's future that is under threat but also its long-celebrated culture and history.
For the majority of Malians, life continues as usual, although the impact of the conflict weighs heavily on their minds. For those who eke out a living working in shops or businesses, the emphasis is on earning enough to take care of their (large) families on a day-to-day basis. But many have placed long-term plans on hold, as they simply can't predict what the future will bring.
In the northeast of the country, life has changed drastically. The imposition of sharia law has meant that many bars and restaurants have been closed. The majority of Malians are Muslim, but the strain of Islam that is traditionally followed is moderate and liberal – many enjoy dancing, drinking and being social butterflies. Now in the north women must cover their heads, couples are stoned to death for having sex outside marriage and live music is banned. For those who have not fled from areas under this strict Islamist control life has become fairly miserable.
Malians hold fast to tradition and politeness is respected. Malians find it rude to ask questions or stop someone in the street without first asking after their health and their families.
And the Bands Played On
The breadth and depth of Mali's musical soundtrack is attributable not just to centuries of tradition but also to the policies of Mali's post-independence government. As elsewhere in West Africa, Mali's musicians were promoted as the cultural standard-bearers of the newly independent country and numerous state-sponsored 'orchestras' were founded. The legendary Rail Band de Bamako (actual employees of the Mali Railway Corporation) was one of the greatest, and one of its ex-members, the charismatic Salif Keita, has become a superstar in his own right.
But the 2012 coup and subsequent collapse in law and order in much of the country shook artists and musicians as well as politicians, interrupting album recordings and forcing Tuareg musicians to leave the country. The famous ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté, who also served as a griot (traditional caste of musicians or praise singers) to ousted president ATT was in the middle of recording an album when the coup hit. He finished the record, but the mark of the coup on it – and perhaps his future sales – is indelible.
Tinariwen, an intoxicating Tuareg group of former rebels from Kidal, were caught up in the crisis multiple times in 2012, with some of their members going missing and turning up in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Sadly, the Festival in the Desert, usually held in January and organised by Tuareg musicians, became another victim of the crisis.
Fortunately, music is harder to destroy than the ancient monuments and libraries of Timbuktu, but the crisis has certainly thwarted some musicians, restricting funding, electricity and inspiration. In the northeast, sharia law has meant that live bands and dancing venues have been silenced.
Outside Mali, the music plays on, including bluesy stuff such as that from the late Ali Farka Touré. Other much-loved blues performers include many from Ali Farka's stable, among them Afel Bocoum, Ali Farka's son Vieux Farka Touré, Baba Salah and Lobi Traoré. Some scholars believe that the roots of American blues lie with the Malian slaves who worked on US plantations.
Mali's population is growing by almost 3% per year, which means that the number of Malians doubles every 20 years; 47% of Malians are under 15 years of age.
Concentrated in the centre and south of the country, the Bambara are Mali's largest ethnic group (34% of the population). Fulani (15%) pastoralists are found wherever there is grazing land for their livestock, particularly in the Niger inland delta. The lighter-skinned Tuareg (1%), traditionally nomadic pastoralists and traders, inhabit the fringes of the Sahara.
Almost 95% of Malians are Muslim, and 2% are Christian. Animist beliefs often overlap with Islamic and Christian practices, especially in rural areas.
Mali has four national parks, but for all intents and purposes they're merely parks on paper rather than fully functioning, well-protected conservation areas, and in general Mali's wildlife has been devastated by decades of human encroachment and a drying climate.
Mali's most urgent environmental issues are deforestation (at last count just 10.3% of Mali was covered in forest), overgrazing and desertification (an estimated 98% of the country is at risk from desertification).
Despite the urgency of the situation, while the political and security situation remains so fragile, it's unlikely that any real attention will be paid to environmental issues.