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Population: 15.8 million (UN, 2011)
Mali is one of the world's poorest nations. Since independence from France in 1960,
it has suffered droughts, rebellions, a coup and 23 years of military dictatorship.
But since 1992, when its first democratically-elected president took power, Mali has had a civilian government.
In 1958 it was proclaimed the Sudanese Republic and the following year it became the Mali Federation after uniting with Senegal. However, Senegal seceded and Mali became independent in 1960.
Although swathes of Mali are barren, the country is self-sufficient in food production thanks to the fertile Niger river basin in the south and east. However, Mali is saddled with a chronic trade deficit making it heavily dependent on foreign aid and the money sent home from emigrants working abroad.
In 1985, Mali fought a brief border war with Burkina Faso and relations between the two countries continue to be strained. In the early 1990s, the army was sent to the north to quell a rebellion over land, cultural and linguistic rights by nomadic Tuareg tribes. In May 2008, Tuareg non-state armed groups killed 17 soldiers in an attack on an army post in the north-east of the country despite a ceasefire agreed a month earlier. Sporadic fighting continued throughout 2008, even while a cease-fire had been signed. In early 2009, military successes for the government and the surrender of several hundred rebels boosted hopes of a return to a peace process.
More recently, reports have surfaced of Islamist militants exploiting differences between neighbouring Saharan states in order to continue to operate unrestrained. In April 2010, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger announced the establishment of a Joint Military Staff Committee based in Tamanrasset, Algeria, aimed at tackling terrorism, kidnappings and trafficking.
2012 brought heightened instability in Mali. A coup in March saw dissident members of the armed forces seizing the Presidential Palace and announcing the dissolution of the elected government led by President Amadou Toumani Toure. In April, Tuaregs in the north declared independence in a move not recognised by the transitional government. (See Current conflicts section for more)
This overview is based on the BBC online country profile of Mali.