Mali – ‘The land of glory and riches of Empires’

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“Mali guards its secrets jealously. There are things which the uninitiated will never know, for the griots, their depositories, will never betray them” recited by Malian djeli (or oral historian) Mamadou Kouyate. Once home to several pre-colonial empires and to the richest man of time (Mansa Musa), the arid West African country of Mali is one of the largest on the continent. For centuries, Mali’a northern city of Timbuktu was a key regional trading post and centre of Islamic culture and world-renowned for having produced some of the stars of African music, most notably Salif Keita.
The West African country of Mali covers 478,800 square miles (1,240,000 square kilometres) of area, almost all of which is land. Mali is completely landlocked and is bordered by Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niamey, and Algeria. Mali by calculation is the 176th most densely populated country in the world with 41.1 people per square mile (15.9 people per square kilometre). The population of 19 million citizens are split into north and the south of Mali and this is used in the conversation between Malians from both regions. However, the problem in both cases is that everyone has a slightly different understanding of where the south ends and the north begins. In our understanding though “the north” is defined as the area that was controlled by various armed groups between March 2012 and January 2013. This extends from the northern areas of central Mali’s Mopti region to Taoudenit in the north and Gao in the east. Northern Mali is lightly populated relative to the southern parts of the country. Of the most affected areas, the Mopti region is by far the most populated at two million people, followed by the northern regions of Timbuktu (682,000), Gao (544,000), and Taodenit, Menaka, and Kidal (68,000). Many of Mali’s citizens (the remaining 12 million people) live in its southern regions (DNP 2015). Mali is considered an Islamic society, with over 90% of the population practising Islam. Most Muslim people in Mali are Sunni, but there are also Ahmadiyya and Shia communities present. The small non-Muslim population is split evenly between Christians, and those practising indigenous beliefs.

The economy in Mali is largely based on rural agriculture, which occupies 70% of its workforce. Sadly though their economy is doing very poorly. Mali is both one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, as well as on a list of 37 very poor, and very indebted countries. In recent years though the landscape has changed for Mali as the country wants to invest a little more than XOF10,000 billion ($17.19 billion) in the infrastructure sector as suggested by the former prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga. The funds will go into road infrastructures and for the creation of a special economic zone in Sikasso. Mali still today depends heavily on regional transport corridors and regional infrastructure. Its access to ports is granted through three international corridors which are vital to the economy. But Mali still faces critical infrastructure challenges. Perhaps the starkest lies in the power sector. The cost of producing power in Mali is among the highest in the region ($0.33–0.39 per kWh). The country should focus on policy choices that meet through the technology choices to meet its infrastructure targets.

Mali’s landlocked conditions, together with its very uneven distribution of both population and economic activities between the arid north and the much richer south, challenge the country’s ability to sustain this pace of growth. These two aspects define and challenge Mali’s development and infrastructure agendas. If Mali were to be one of the dominant forces of West African again, it can look at its past glory and richness of King Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa who knew how to unit and influence trade, politics and territory for centuries.