This study revealed a strong preference for customary leaders to be divorced from politics to ensure that their counselling is pure and not based on external interests.

In Douentza, it was mentioned that if the customary leader belongs to an opposition party, his power would be undermined. This is seen as a general issue here because many customary leaders have become members of the opposition since decentralisation. One belief in Douentza is that democracy has led to the fragmentation of families, and thus people are less willing to listen to the village councillors’ decisions. It was also expressed that, because of democracy, people who disagree with the village chiefs’ decisions are more likely to ignore them and instead bring their cases to the formal justice system.

In Mopti, respondents wanted to depoliticise the customary leaders because being involved in politics prevents them from making their decisions in an upright way ‘as they did in ancient times.’ One interviewee also explained a belief that from the beginning of the postcolonial era the government intended to weaken these leaders because they were the ones who rebelled. Nevertheless, the preference is still to try to ‘manage certain cases at the level of customary justice ... [because] we do not need a French system that divides us more.’

Democracy was also identified as weakening the customary system in Niafunké, where an elected prefect chose a village chief who was not supported by the village council and the communal council (see figure 7). This led to litigation at the Supreme Court in Bamako, and the village was left without a chief in the meantime. The decision-making process of some customary leaders in Niafunké is also seen by some as being corrupted by politics given that they allegedly make decisions based on political interests rather than from ‘the soul and conscience.’ This issue led one respondent to prefer modern justice where ‘at least there are remedies’ and help in defending one’s position.

Figure 7
An example of customary justice in Niafunké

This issue of politics and customary justice also came up in a discussion that a customary leader in Niafunké had with mayors from Tombouctou. In Tombouctou, they reportedly attempted to restore the principle that a mayor cannot be the chief at the same time, but those chiefs who were also mayors would not agree. The basis of the argument for chiefs to be apolitical is that chiefs must be seen as being open to everyone. If both the position of mayor and chief are held simultaneously, faith in the chiefs can dwindle.

In Gao, it was also mentioned that although the marabouts still treat everyone the same way, the village chiefs have become political and therefore discriminatory against certain parties (figure 8). And in Ansongo, it was argued that the customary leaders and imams should not be attached to a political party to ensure their impartiality.

Figure 8
An example of customary justice in Gao