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The Northwest African Republic of Mali is a landlocked, with a long border with Mauritania and Algeria, and shorter borders with Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Guinea, and Senegal. It is the eighth-largest country in Africa.

Until a military coup in March of 2012, and another in December of the same year, Mali was a democratic republic. Its constitution calls for a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, with executive power held by a president who is elected for a five-year term. The president appoints a prime minister, who serves as the head of government.

Currently, the status of its current government is uncertain and may be superseded. In January of 2012, rebels took control of northern Mali, consisting of well over half the country, and declared secession and the formation of a new state, known as Azawad. This followed an attempted coup a few months earlier. With the assistance of French troops, Malian forces were able to retake the north a year later, but its control is far from complete, and its hold over the northern part of the country is unstable.

The people of north Mali are mostly Muslims, of Sunni or Sufi orientation, while those involved in rebel activities are of the Maliki branch of Sunni Islam, who hold that consensus and opinion more than on a strict reliance on the writings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mali was once part of several kingdoms and empires, including that of Ghana, which had control of the area from the 4th to the 11th centuries. The Mali Empire began along the upper part of the Niger River and attained the epitome of its strength in the 14th century. Islam became the dominant religion during the Mali Empire, and Timbuktu became an important center for trade, education, and culture. The Mali Empire was brought down by the Songhai Empire, which came about through an invasion by Moroccans, who made Gao their capital and were at their greatest strength in the late 15th century. The Moroccans were unable to maintain control over the region, however, and Mali broke up into several states, then devolved into anarchy by the end of the 18th century.

The early 19th century brought about a resurgence of Islam after a long period of famine, drought, locusts, and anarchy. A couple of minor Islamist empires emerged as Muslim states opposing French colonialism. However, by the end of the 19th century, the technologically superior French forces were in control. Mali renamed French Sudan, became part of the Federation of French West Africa. French rule did not last long, though. While France was distracted by two World Wars, a nationalist movement grew in Mali, let by Modibo Keita, a descendant of the Mali emperors.

In a 1958 referendum, French Sudan voted to join the French Community as an autonomous republic, joining Senegal the following year to form the Mali Federation. Within a year, its union with Senegal dissolved and, that same year, the Sudanese Republic, renamed the Republic of Mali, achieved full independence from France, severing ties with the French Community.

With Keita as president, Mali was a one-party state loyal to socialism. In 1968, Keita was overthrown in a military coup and died in prison in 1977. The years and decades that followed brought a continuation of unrest, with coups and attempted coups, interspersed with protests and disputed elections, which have continued to today. However, the government's international orientation has become more pro-Western, and its relations with the United States, in particular, have improved. Insecurity at its borders remains a significant problem.

Mali is not without natural resources, including substantial deposits of gold, uranium, kaolinite, phosphates, salt, and limestone, but it also faces problems with deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification, as well as an inadequate water supply. The country's key agricultural export is cotton, and it also grows rice, corn, tobacco, and other vegetables. About 80% of its people are employed in agriculture. Despite its natural resources, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Approximately 90% of the people of Mali are Muslim, mostly Sunni, but Ahmadiyya, Shia, and Sufi are also present. About 5% of its population is Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, while the rest adhere to traditional African religions. Atheism is rare, and not socially acceptable.

At least fifty languages are spoken in Mali. Although French is the official language of the country, few people in the country are fluent in French. Bambara is the most commonly spoken language. Public education in Mali is free and compulsory between the ages of seven and sixteen, although actual school enrollment is low. Sankore Madrasah, one of the oldest universities in the world, is in Timbuktu. The University of Bamako is in Bamako, Mali.



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