Beyond dichotomy: recognising and reconciling legal pluralism in Mali
Erwin van Veen, Diana Goff & Thibault Van Damme
October 2015
Beyond dichotomy:
recognising and reconciling legal pluralism in Mali
CRU Report
The Sahel Programme is supported by
Nationale Postcode Loterij


This report contends – and substantiates - that in the short-to-medium term better justice outcomes in Mali can only be achieved by stimulating greater mutual recognition of, and synergies between, the country’s customary and state judicial systems as more or less equal components of the country’s ‘justice ecology’. Accepting that the Malian state does not have, will not have and should not aspire to have a monopoly on the provision of justice for the next few decades is a critical starting point for making improvements to how justice is provided in matters that affect Malians in their daily lives. As this will be a contentious endeavour, a gradual approach is needed to identify directions for development that are both acceptable and feasible. A five-step process may provide this:

Map the nature and legitimacy of Mali’s many customary justice systems with the aim of developing a better understanding of their performance and development potential.
Organise ‘Justice Summits’ throughout Mali to discuss the problems that Malian citizens encounter in their justice systems and how these can be creatively resolved using state and customary justice mechanisms.
Make greater use of customary justice leaders as legal officials of the state to increase mutual exposure and create shared experience between the various elements of Mali’s legal pluralism.
Work towards recognition of those customary justice systems in positive law that enjoy adequate levels of popular legitimacy and are open to development in order to offer Malians more synchronised ‘paths to justice’.
Imagine what the next iteration of Malian justice could look like, based on the results of steps 1–4, drawing from the strengths of both state and customary systems while achieving both modernisation and maintaining an organic fit with Malian culture.


We owe a debt of thanks to the Dutch ‘Nationale Postcode Loterij’ (National Postcode Lottery), which generously sponsored the Sahel Programme of Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit of which this report represents a part. Without it, the report would not have been written.

We would also like to express our gratitude to Lalla Mariam Haidara of CERCAD (Bamako, Mali) for helping identify appropriate interviewees for this study, for making it possible to meet them and for contextualising some of the interview findings.

Furthermore, we are indebted to Dr Abraham Bengaly and his team at the Observatoire des Droits Humains et de la Paix (ODHP, Bamako, Mali) – Aguissa Ag Mohamed, Abdoulaye Moussa, Yaya Sidibé and Bocar Kalil – who conducted vital research on the ‘state of justice’ in northern Mali that we used for this report. They did this work within a tight time frame and yet with analytical rigour. Visiting the areas of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal can be risky, so we are grateful that they managed to conduct their business without incident.

As the analysis for this report was carried out in parallel with a more specific analysis of Mali’s penal process, we were able to make use of resources and findings in ways that enhanced both studies. For enabling this, we thank Roelof Haveman (Dutch embassy in Bamako, Mali) and Jan McArthur (International Development of Law Organization).

We have also greatly appreciated the swift and competent advice of Thomas Gilchrist (an independent consultant on human rights and conflict) and Grégory Chauzal (Clingendael) on several occasions as we sought to understand and contextualise particular aspects of international efforts to support justice in Mali.

Finally, we want to acknowledge Malick Coulibaly (former Malian minister of justice), Mamadou Ba (rule of law adviser at the Dutch embassy in Mali), Jan de Vries (Netherlands Helsinki Committee) and Jort Hemmer (Clingendael) for their review of this report. The copy-editing was done with the usual efficiency and quality by Jane Carroll, while Textcetera competently took care of its typesetting. The infographic was designed by Frédérik Ruys of Vizualism. Thank you.

The report’s contents as well as any errors naturally remain the responsibility of the authors

About the authors

Erwin van Veen is a Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. He specializes in understanding the politics and change dynamics of security and justice provision, as well as modern conflict dynamics and the nature of associated peace processes.

Diana Goff is a Research Fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. Her research focuses on understanding the dynamics that drive the organization and provision of justice in fragile environments, including access to justice, restorative, transitional and customary justice.

Thibault Van Damme is a project assistant at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. His research focuses on understanding political and security dynamics across fragile environments in Africa.

Cover photo

Toguna, a public building that can serve as a place for customary justice.

© Leslie Lewis