The ongoing conflict in Mali is rooted deep in history and is, in part, a product of geography. Indeed, history and geography are intertwined in the region, and understanding them helps explain Mali's physical borders, severe regional differences and the recurring threat of rebellion emanating from the north.
The Niger River essentially divides the country into two distinct regions — one arid and conducive to nomadism, the other relatively verdant and ideal for societal development. Each has distinct historical imperatives, economic foundations and levels of political power in the central government. Historically, geography fueled the development of trading centers in Mali, shaped competition with regional empires and attracted colonizers. Today, with multinational forces still attempting to uproot jihadists in northern Mali, the effects of history and geography remain evident.
The borders that define modern Mali — as well as its preceding empires — vary by region. The long, straight borders of northeastern Mali run through the Sahara desert, circumscribing the rocky, sandy region north of the Niger River. The more jagged borders of southwestern Mali surround the country's verdant, most populous regions and its most valuable agricultural and mineral resources. Running roughly through the middle of the country is the Niger River — essentially the country's backbone.
The geographic distinctions of the regions north and south of the Niger River have bred economic, ethnic and societal differences as well. For example, the inhospitable north is inhabited primarily by the Tuaregs, who traditionally have had a nomadic culture and survived by herding animals and trading goods. While the north has few factors ideal for human settlement, the terrain in southern Mali boasts thicker vegetation, a more humid climate and more consistent rainfall. Historically, this environment has allowed the region's myriad ethnic groups — most related to the Mande people — to cultivate an agricultural economy. Southern ethnic groups have also been heavily involved in mining activities.
Distinct Historical Imperatives
Historically, the desert terrain in the north was part of important trans-Saharan trade routes, and for centuries, Malians alternated between trading and clashing with other North African empires. For example, the Moroccan empire would occasionally support desert raiders or conduct its own southward invasions. To protect trade revenues, regional empires needed to maintain access to the desert trade routes — and the water features that supported them — so defending the region against indigenous raiders and foreign powers was imperative. Indeed, today's borders, which were not demarcated until colonial times, represent the need to guarantee buffers against dangers emanating from elsewhere in the desert.
Southern Mali's humid, tropical environment, in turn, protected the region from northern empires, whose armies depended on cavalries that were vulnerable to disease in the unfriendly climate. This factor also prevented southern societies from raising their own cavalries, which these societies would have needed to expand widely.
Farther west, empires occupying territory that includes parts of modern day Mali extended their reach along the Senegal and Gambia rivers all the way to the Atlantic coast. As trans-Saharan trade later declined, however, separate economic systems arose along the coast and the upper Niger River. This shift fueled the rise of stronger coastal societies, eroding the regional dominance of those based along the inland Niger Delta.
Unity and the Decline of the North
Trading settlements began blooming along the Niger River as early as 250 B.C. Some of these cities, including the fabled Timbuktu, united in the 13th century to form the Malian Empire — the first entity resembling modern Mali. The trade along the Niger River fed into the trans-Saharan trade, and the area functioned as the major staging area for the transport of goods and people from West Africa through the Sahara Desert.
While Mali was united in the 13th century, the northern and southern regions still served separate purposes. The southwestern part of modern day Mali was a major gold producer — indeed, an estimated half of the gold production in the world at the time originated from the Malian Empire. In addition to its role facilitating trade through the Sahara, the north produced salt, an expensive and necessary commodity in those days.
But when global trade patterns changed during the 17th century due to the colonial ambitions of European powers, seaborne transportation became the most cost-effective way to export Malian commodities. As a result, the trans-Saharan routes were eventually abandoned, as well as the northern trade in salt. Northern Mali and the trading cities along the Niger River went into decline and never quite recovered.
Colonialism and Rebellion
When French colonizers arrived in 1892, they were interested primarily in southern Mali and its gold reserves and agricultural resources. The French — like other former rulers — did not want the north to devolve into an anarchic security vacuum, conducive to threats posed by desert raiders. But they also did not want to pay the heavy political and economic costs or provide forces on the scale that would be necessary to control the vast region. Instead, they chose to partner with pliant local forces, usually by arming them to fight against other militias perceived as threats to French interests.
The distinct histories of Mali's two main regions have led to political differences and unequal weight in the central government. While the political core of Mali has always been located in the southern part of the country — primarily because sedentary civilizations tend to be better suited for political organization than nomadic cultures — this socio-economic gap continued to widen after the end of French colonial rule.
The arming of proxies to maintain security in the north, combined with the revenues and access to weapons generated by the black market trade, has sparked occasional Tuareg rebellions against the Malian state. One recent example was the revolt beginning in 2012 that led to a coup in Bamako and the current conflict in northern Mali. The involvement of al Qaeda's regional franchise, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other jihadist organizations in this conflict is still further exploitation of the age-old dynamics created by Mali's defining geography.