Mali was the core area of the great empires of the western Sudan: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, with centers of trade, learning, and culture in such cities as Djenne, Tombouctou, and Gao.
The state of Ghana originated early in the Christian era and reached its apogee between 950 and 1050. The empire of Mali originated in the 11th century, but its period of greatness began under Sundiata, who ruled from around 1235 to 1255, and reached its peak in the early 14th century under Mansa Musa, who extended the empire until it reached from the Atlantic coast to east of Gao.
The decline of Mali was rapid, although the kings continued to rule until 1645. Its place was taken by the Songhai Empire of Gao, whose great kings were Sunni Ali, from 1464 to 1492, and Askia Muhammad, from 1493 to 1528. At its greatest extent, Songhai reached from the Atlantic to Kano and included most of modern Mali and parts of Guinea. Most of the empire was destroyed by a Moroccan invasion in 1591.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, several small states developed along the Niger basin, notably that of Segu. The states fell during the mid-19th-century holy war waged by the Muslim leader Umar Tal, whose theocratic empire extended from Tombouctou to the headwaters of the Niger and Senegal. His son and successor, Ahmadu, was defeated by the French in 1893.
In 1904 modern Mali was made part of the French colony of Haut-Senegal-Niger and in 1920 was constituted the French Sudan, as a constituent territory of French West Africa.
African political activity was banned by the French in Mali until after World War II (1939-1945). Various parties that were then formed eventually merged to form the Sudanese Union, which became the Malian section of the interterritorial African Democratic Rally. By the time of the 1957 reforms, the union was the main party.
In 1958 the French Sudan voted to join the new French Community, and it was proclaimed the Sudanese Republic on November 24, 1958. On January 17, 1959, it joined with Senegal to form the Federation of Mali, which proclaimed its independence June 20, 1960, with Modibo Keita as president. The federation broke up in September, the former French Sudan retaining the name Mali and Keita remaining president of the new Republic of Mali, proclaimed September 22, 1960. Later that same month the republic became a member of the United Nations. After independence Mali pursued a policy of economic development along socialist lines.
In November 1968 army officers overthrew the one-man rule of President Keita and established a military junta led by Lieutenant Moussa Traore, who later assumed the presidency. His government, however, was unable to advance the economy appreciably, having to contend both with lack of capital and a famine-causing drought in the mid-1970s. An internal power struggle in 1978 led to an attempted coup. In the aftermath, several former members of the junta were tried and sentenced, while political unrest and repression spread. President Traore, running as the only candidate, was returned to office in 1979 and 1985.
A border war with Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) was halted by a cease-fire in late 1985. Under pressure from its creditors, Mali restructured its economy in the late 1980s to privatize unprofitable government enterprises. Traore was overthrown in March 1991 by a group of army officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure, who pledged to return the country to democratic rule. A new constitution providing for a multiparty republic was approved in January 1992, and Alpha Oumar Konare was elected president in April. Rioting students opposed to Konare damaged numerous government buildings in Bamako in April 1993. An attempted coup by supporters of Traore collapsed in December of that year.
The constitutional court declared the legislative elections held in April 1997 to be invalid because of fraud and lack of organization. Opposition groups urged that presidential elections scheduled for May be postponed. The elections were held nonetheless, although they were boycotted by all but one of the opposition groups, and Konare was elected to a second five-year term. Toure, the leader of the 1991 coup, was elected president of Mali in May 2002.