Last Updated 28 October 2020

The Republic of Mali is a landlocked sovereign state in western Africa with a constitutional democracy and a population of approximately 14.5 million. Mali began a political transition away from authoritarianism in the early 1990s and many of the country’s institutions gradually began to become more free and democratic. However, progress stalled after a military coup in 2012 deposed the sitting president, Amadou Toumani Touré, and a rebellion took place in northern Mali in the same year. Though a peace agreement was signed in the north in 2015, parts of the country remain politically unstable and under the influence of extremist armed groups. Thousands have died or have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict.

After weeks of protests over alleged government corruption, economic mismanagement and the inability to contain jihadist and communal violence (including the kidnapping of opposition politician Soumaila Cisse by an unknown jihadist group in March1, in August 2022 President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was deposed in a military coup. The international community largely condemned the coup and called for the release of the former President. The African Union suspended Mali’s membership,2 the UN called for democratic order to be restored as soon as possible3 and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) also took swift action by suspending trade with Mali and calling on neighbouring states to close their borders.4

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Constitution and government

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression.

However there has been a general decline in respect for human rights since the 2012 violence. The presence of extremist groups in northern and central parts of Mali and the inability to govern these areas have made the implementation of laws protecting freedom of religion or belief impossible.

The Constitution defines the country as a secular state and allows for religious practices that do not pose a threat to social stability and peace. However, Mali’s High Islamic Council has a significant influence over government in the predominantly Muslim nation.

The law requires all religious groups to submit to registration, with the exception of groups practicing indigenous religious beliefs; however, registration confers no tax preferences or other legal benefits, and there is no penalty for remaining unregistered.5

Passports and national identity documents do not designate religious identity.

Education and children’s rights

Under the Constitution state schools are not permitted to offer religious instruction. However, there are many private, parochial, and other religious educational institutions, both Muslim and Christian.

Family, community and society

According to US Government estimates, Muslims make up around 95 percent of the population, the majority of whom are Sunni and follow Sufism. Christians, groups with indigenous religious beliefs and the non-religious make up the remaining five percent. While historically Islam in Mali has been moderate and pluralistic, the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam imported by groups such as the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has grown in the past decade, particularly in the north of the

In 2012 a rebellion by Tuareg tribesmen and an Islamist takeover of the north, followed by a military coup by officers seeking a more militant response to the uprising, led to a drastic deterioration in the human rights situation in Mali. Islamist militant groups gained control over Timbuktu and Gao, imposing Sharia (Islamic law) and destroying Sufi Muslim shrines and other sacred sites that they deemed un-Islamic. Following a French military intervention and peace-building efforts, Mali held successful presidential elections in August 2013 and parliamentary elections at the end of November 2013.

However, the Jihadists returned to northern Mali in March 2014, and continue to trouble the region. Some Islamist’s have sworn allegiance to ISIS. The various groups are financially supported by smuggling drugs such as cocaine bound for Europe. The destabilization caused by these groups diminishes the Malian states ability to regulate and intervene in religious affairs on behalf of secular; Mali suffered its worst year of extremist violence in 2019. In one of the worst attacks, in June 2019, at least 100 civilians were murdered in Sobame Da, a mainly-Christian village in the Mopti region of central Mali.8

In June-August 2020 a wave of anti-government protests took place in Bamako, which called for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. Security forces used excessive force to disperse protesters by firing warning shots, attacking with truncheons and tear gas, resulting in at least 14 people being killed and 300 wounded.9 The protest movement is made up of a number of civil society and opposition groups and is fronted by the popular Muslim cleric, Mahmoud Dicko, who also served as chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council for a decade. While not a politician, Dicko has been dubbed “the people’s imam” and the “moral authority” of Mali.10 He holds conservative views, and has previously opposed sex education in schools and the “promotion” of homosexuality.11

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Mali’s media were considered among the freest in Africa before the conflict and coup. Criminal libel laws had not been invoked by authorities since 2007, and there were no reports of harassment or intimidation of journalists in 2011. During 2012, however, an unprecedented number of journalists were illegally detained and tortured by the military and Islamist militants.

Freedoms of assembly and association were respected prior to the coup, but were violently suppressed during the civil war.

Access to the internet and social media was unduly restricted during the 2020 protests.12

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