Mali is a country that has had its ups and downs. It’s been a center of Empire – one of the biggest, richest and most accomplished empires in African history, and it’s been a neglected corner of a much bigger French colonial empire. When it declared independence in 1960, it was as part of a federation with next-door Senegal, but that didn’t last long. Senegal withdrew from the partnership within months and Mali became a republic.
The Mali Empire peaked in the 14th century and some would say, it’s been downhill ever since. One driver of the descent has been this scholarly observation: the Mali kingdoms “had neither rigid geopolitical boundaries nor rigid ethnic identities.”
The boundary that defines Mali today was the work of Frenchmen, mostly in the 18th century, and they also lack much political or ethnic logic.
In the 21st century, one of the most consistent worries of Malian government has been its porous borders and the threat of being dragged into, or exploited for, violent conflicts destabilizing countries next door. Internally, ethnic divisions between peoples of very different regions of Mali or among tribes long-settled in the same territory have complicated successive governments of Mali for the past 60 years. The bottom line: Mali has been an empire and a vassal state, part of a federation and an independent republic, but one would be hard put to define a Mali nation. Some other, more parochial loyalty always gets in the way.
This Spring, Mali held parliamentary elections, meant to bring the country together, but there were all-too-familiar “irregularities,” and doubts were raised about the legitimacy of the vote and the government that ran it. By mid-August a military coup was brewing, and within days President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé had been arrested, and resigned.
Whatever comes next, two things won’t change: Most of Mali will bear the hottest climate on earth, being made ever-hotter and drought-prone-drier by climate change, and all of Mali adds up to one of the poorest economies on earth.
Vicki Huddleston served under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, and earlier under President George H.W. Bush was in charge of US policy toward Cuba at the State Department. She also served as and was the principal adviser on Africa to the Secretary of Defense. She is co-author of a report for the Brookings Institution that was a blueprint for President Obama’s diplomatic opening with Raúl Castro in 2014. She has written opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Washington Post. Her memoir OUR WOMAN IN HAVANA: A DIPLOMAT’S CHRONICLE OF AMERICA’S LONG STRUGGLE WITH CASTRO’S CUBA is published by The Overlook Press. Ambassador Huddleston lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.