This study has endeavoured to provide a clearer picture of the customary justice mechanisms in the northern Malian regions of Gao, Mopti and Tombouctou, including how they function, and of the issues surrounding them. Despite our efforts within the constraints of available resources to interview a cross-section of the population and across as large an area as possible, the sample size and geographic area covered were not large enough for conclusive results. Nevertheless, the snapshot can still be used to point the way forward in terms of policy recommendations and as a basis for further study.

First, as in most fragile or conflict states where communities tend to be disconnected and fragmented from one another, customary justice mechanisms in each of the selected circles have unique characteristics. Accordingly, each circle would need to be approached in a context-specific way, including in terms of their connection to politics and corruption. Political economy analysis of local justice sector dynamics can also assist in making informed decisions about the best entry points for each circle from all levels to ensure inclusive engagement.‍[15]

Second, interventions are shown to be welcome in certain cases, for example, for customary justice actors to receive enhanced training, for judgements to be recorded and for the state to put its enforcement power behind customary justice rulings. Given the expressed interest and openness to such interventions, it would be advantageous for donors to build on this existing momentum for change. Further, efforts by the Malian state to revalorise the role of the qadi and other traditional mechanisms in peace negotiations and to use customary justice to better address land disputes are ripe entry points for any interventions to strengthen these systems.

Third, certain identified justice gaps could be addressed, for example, in the area of crimes related to the crisis, which very few customary justice leaders were willing to address, and which are also not currently being effectively dealt with by the formal or international justice sector. As the optimal solution is not always a possibility in fragile or conflict states, those who consider customary justice systems to be the best available solution to address such crimes could build on the desire in certain locations for training in war crimes investigations, human rights, science and technology. As respondents also recommended, the state would need to support these actors, whether through the justice or security sector or both. As mentioned, a justice gap is also reported in Mopti, at least at the customary justice level, related to distribution of the property of those who have left and then returned.

Fourth, the role of vulnerable groups — namely, women, slaves and the youth population — is still contested in customary systems. Thus, resistance would need to be countered, as well as the question of whether strict adherents to Islamic law would be able to reconcile their rulings with all of the rights accorded by the Malian state. A variety of interventions would still work to create change, including the forceful implementation of quotas at the leadership level, the creation of competing inclusive mechanisms, and creating space to debate whether excluding these vulnerable groups at the leadership level is in line with one of the primary values of customary justice, which is to address the justice needs of the entire community. Such interventions have been attempted enough in both development and general institutional change contexts that stakeholders should be able to find lessons learned and evidence as to their impact in various settings.‍[16]

Fifth, the customary and formal justice systems in Mali are shown to work together in an intermingling way, which could be better clarified and perhaps adapted into a more coherent unified system. Supporting the engagement of these actors in organised dialogues such as justice summit events or smaller gatherings, both at the national and local level, could enable them to come to a better understanding of one another’s methods, and to discover updated ways of working both together and apart. More creative strategies could also be used, such as radio shows or dramatic productions, which use story-telling methods to describe issues such as how each system works or how they could be better fused together.

Sixth, because this study did not include members of the youth population in any significant way, a follow-up study that focuses on this sector would be helpful to ensure that the customary justice mechanisms in these regions have youth support. Given that the age group of those 14 years and younger makes up 47.27 percent of Mali’s population alone, the buy-in of youth into the value of these mechanisms will be essential if they are to be effective in the future.‍[17]

Finally, not all needs of these systems can be fully met by interventions into the justice sector alone. For example, many desire to have the judgements recorded, but because many of the actors and beneficiaries of these systems are illiterate the concurrent or preceding need is for literacy training. Looking at these issues from a sector-wide approach is then likely to be more effective than targeted justice sector interventions.

Goff, D. 2016. ‘Working with Informal Justice: Key considerations for confident engagement,’ Knowledge Platform Security and Rule of Law, The Hague, December.
‘Mali Demographics Profile 2016,’ Index Mundi, 8 October 2016, link (accessed 12 July 2017).