The people of Mali use many types of justice mechanisms, both connected to and further disassociated from the state, to resolve their conflicts. This has led to the creation of a diverse justice ecology that includes both what are often described as ‘formal’ actors—such as state appointed lawyers and judges—and ‘customary’ actors—such as qadis, imans, village chiefs, family heads and elders.‍[1] Because the state lacks a large presence in northern Mali, customary justice systems are the dominant actors in the justice sector. Despite this, until recently little attention focused on how these mechanisms work and perform. This situation has changed in the wake of the 2012 crisis: international actors see these systems as being integral to the creation of a stronger justice system within Mali and a more peaceful state.

To contribute to an increased understanding of these customary justice systems and to facilitate potential engagement with them by national and international actors, this report captures the views of a cross-section of the population on this topic in six administrative ‘circles’ across three regions in northern Mali: specifically, Gao and Ansongo in Gao, Tombouctou and Niafunké in Tombouctou, and Mopti and Douentza in Mopti.‍[2]

Section 1 describes the categories and number of interviewees, and offers more detailed information about the customary leaders with whom we spoke. Section 2 describes how customary justice systems generally work in the northern regions of Mopti, Tombouctou and Gao; accompanying graphics show more specifically how they tend to work for each circle. Section 3 delves more deeply into the role of a specific customary justice leader, the qadi, which is of particular interest to policy makers because of a provision in the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation that the institution be revalorised in areas where this mechanism is heavily used. Section 4 discusses concerns interviewees had on the intermingling of politics and customary justice systems. Section 5 describes the extent to which interviewees view customary justice systems as being corrupt, also in comparison with formal justice institutions. Section 6 examines the role of customary justice systems in preserving social cohesion within their communities. Section 7 analyses how customary justice systems are seen in regards to their treatment of vulnerable groups such as women, slaves and the youth population. Section 8 discusses the role that customary justice mechanisms play in crimes related to the crisis, and Section 9 examines to what extent they are used for more general crimes. Section 10 reveals the reported high rate of use of customary justice systems for land disputes, and shows how a recently passed national law may work to improve the ability of customary and formal state authorities to work together on this issue going forward. Section 11 discusses specific recommendations of interviewees for customary justice systems. Section 12 provides policy recommendations for those national and international stakeholders who plan further engagement with these systems to point a clear way forward for development in this area.

The term ‘customary justice system’ is not universally defined. For this study, it refers to religious, traditional and other localized mechanisms.
Going forward any mention of Gao, Mopti or Tombouctou will refer to the circles and not the regions, unless it is stated otherwise.