1.1 Traditional authorities’ role in governance and stability

Central governments in countries such as Mali, Niger and Libya have historically lacked authority over and/or an effective presence in their border regions. Instead, governance in these areas is often in the hands of traditional authority figures, such as tribal chiefs or religious leaders.[6] These authorities have persisted throughout colonial times, post-independence state-building processes, regime ruptures, authoritarian reversals and rebellions, and more recent processes of state decentralisation, armed conflict, and post-conflict stabilisation and state building.[7] It therefore seems a fair assertion that traditional authorities are around to stay for years to come.

Over the course of the last decade, these border regions have also become theatres of violent conflict. The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 set into motion a range of conflict events in Libya that reverberated throughout the entire region. The increased availability of arms (due to the looting of weapons stockpiles) and the return home of foreign Tuareg fighters trained in Gaddafi’s army set in motion the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali – ultimately leading to the Malian coup d’état in March that same year, and the establishment of a French military presence as well as the deployment of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in July 2013. However, these missions could not prevent the hijacking of the rebellion by a number of violent extremist organisations present in the region – or the spread of conflict dynamics to central Mali and across the border into Niger.

The armed (extremist) groups that roam across the region tend to be located in the same border regions governed by traditional authorities. It is unclear how traditional authorities have been affected by the presence of these armed actors. In principle, and given traditional authorities’ historic role in conflict mediation and the promotion of community stability, they could be key partners for (inter)national efforts to promote local dispute resolution and mediation. In addition, their governance might appease local communities, whose resentment of central state neglect might otherwise form a fertile breeding ground for the mobilisation of armed (extremist groups).[8] But this presupposes that the rise of armed groups has not affected traditional authorities’ ability to exercise their historic functions nor local communities’ acceptance of traditional authorities as governance actors. Would state-building and stabilisation processes benefit from the inclusion of traditional governance actors as positive entry points for change, or would those actors be empowered as spoilers and obstacles to peace and improved governance?

To provide insights into these dilemmas, this study set out to answer the following research questions:

How do the traditional authorities engaged in local governance in fragile settings, such as areas of limited statehood, build and maintain legitimacy? And what consequences does this have for (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability?

Two key concepts require further elaboration. Areas of limited statehood, first, are areas that ‘still belong to internationally recognized states ... yet their domestic sovereignty is severely circumscribed. Areas of limited statehood concern those parts of a country in which central authorities (governments) lack the ability to implement and enforce rules and decisions or in which the legitimate monopoly over the means of violence is lacking, at least temporarily.’[9] As will be described in more detail below, this is the case in all of the border regions under study here.

Legitimacy, second, is a notoriously difficult concept to define. This study applies a multidimensional perspective to legitimacy, as advanced by Beetham (2013), which focuses on the extent to which power conforms to rules, the extent to which these rules are justifiable in terms of shared beliefs (values), and on the extent to which power is legitimised through expressed consent – meaning that these authorities exercise specific functions.[10] The benefit of this multidimensional perspective is that it does not presuppose that everyone who comes to a position of power through commonly established rules and procedures is necessarily perceived as legitimate by his or her subjects. Neither does it presuppose that everyone who is able to provide effective governance, such as armed groups who provide security and enforce a tax in return, are commonly accepted in the communities under their control. Instead, it highlights how these different dimensions interact and may thereby strengthen or undermine traditional authorities’ legitimacy.

In line with this multidimensional perspective, the following questions will therefore be addressed in each of the countries under study here:

Rules: How do traditional authorities come to power and how is their mandate defined? To what extent have their positions and mandates been incorporated into the formal state framework? Has this changed recently, and if so, why?
Shared beliefs (values): To what extent are traditional authorities recognised as a valid source of authority and what are the general agreements on the ends that their authority should serve? Has this changed recently, and if so, why?
Functions: To what extent do people, other state actors, and/or the international community turn to traditional authorities for the fulfilment of tasks that correspond to their mandate? Has this changed recently, and if so, why?

The main research objectives of this project are to provide a strong evidence base of: 1) how traditional authorities obtain and maintain their legitimacy both before their constituencies and before the central government, especially in conflict-torn spaces as Libya and Mali where authority is heavily fragmented; and 2) how these authorities can be involved in the promotion of governance and stabilisation processes and what that would require in terms of engagement by the international community. In this manner, the study explores whether working with traditional authorities could contribute to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 16, promoting the rule of law, ensuring equal access to justice, and ensuring responsive inclusive and representative decision making, as well as stability in the region.

1.2 Studying the legitimacy of traditional authorities in Mali, Niger, and Libya

The study focuses on five border regions: Kidal and Ménaka in Mali, Tahoua and Tillabéri in Niger, and the Fezzan in Libya. Mali, Niger and Libya are neighbouring countries located across the Sahel region and Sahara desert that connect west to north Africa. A common feature of these three countries is that their border regions, especially those in the Sahel region and the Sahara desert, are areas of limited statehood. Establishing a central state presence has always been a challenge – either because of a lack of means and/or because of the unwillingness of governing elites to invest in these peripheral regions. The areas are home to semi-nomadic ethnic groups who often feel more connected to kinsmen located across state borders than with the dominant ethnicities governing their countries’ capitals. The cross-border ties of these ethnic groups’ facilitate (illicit) exchanges and trade relationships that often form the only economic lifelines available to border communities. Grievances tend to abound over state neglect. Past negative experiences with state security forces (particularly in Mali and Niger) have created resentment towards and mistrust of the central state.

Figure 1
Municipalities included in this study
Municipalities included in this study

All three countries are home to a large Berber ethnic confederation called the Tuareg. Although the Tuareg are a minority ethnicity in every country, their historical presence on the trans-Saharan trade routes, combined with their key role in formative conflicts in the colonial and postcolonial era alike, has left its marks on governance and stability in the region.[11] Their presence in the border regions of different countries creates a unique natural experiment that allows for the tracing of the evolution of traditional authority regimes over time under different state structures, different types of regimes, and the influence of different contextual pressures and challenges (see Chapter 2 for a comparative overview).[12] The three country chapters in this report explore how each country’s unique socio-political trajectory continues to influence traditional authority structures today and their relationships with non-state armed groups and state authorities.

As discussed above, a second common denominator in all three countries is that, in recent years, they have become theatres of violent conflict. Yet the conflict dynamics in each country are manifested in many different ways. To account for the different effects this has on traditional governance structures, the border regions selected were those that represent the most common variations in armed governance and instability:

Mali: Since the outbreak of the 2012 Malian rebellion, northern Mali has fallen into the hands of non-state armed groups. While the armed groups that together constitute the pro-autonomy alliance Coordination des Movement de l’Azawad (CMA) which controls the northern Kidal region, the Ménaka region is in hands of armed groups belonging to the pro-central state Platform coalition. Selection of these regions allows for a comparison of the traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different types of armed governance.

Niger: The Tillabéri region has seen decades-long cross-border cattle raids and revenge violence between Nigerien Fulani and Malian Tuareg. Radical armed groups have been able to capitalise on these conflict lines, which has resulted in a rapid increase in cross-border violence and instability in the Tillabéri region. Tahoua is the hotbed of Tuareg rebellions in Niger and is also experiencing an increase in cross-border violence from Mali. Nevertheless, the municipalities selected for this study are located in a more secure area of Tahoua – allowing for a comparison of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different security conditions.

Libya: The Fezzan region in Libya has known a long history of state neglect. Yet its Tuareg population was deemed an important ally for central governors from colonial times to the present day. Today, the two main national conflict actors seek to establish alliances with Tuareg armed groups to shift the balance of power in their own favour – albeit in a haphazard manner as both sides are reluctant to expend the resources needed to establish an effective and sustained presence in the Fezzan. Inclusion of the Fezzan in this study therefore allows for an exploration of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern in a context of state neglect and national conflict.

Our selection of municipalities was made with the aim of ensuring we did not include localities with homogeneous populations. The reason for this is that traditional authorities play an important role in conflict mediation – especially in land use conflicts involving different types of land users. Oftentimes, different types of land users belong to different ethnic groups, such as is the case for Fulani herders and Songhai farmers (see Chapter 2 for an introduction to the main ethnicities included in this study). Previous studies have shown that the conflict mediation role of traditional authorities forms an important component of their legitimacy.[13] As summarised in Table 1, this study therefore includes municipalities with different ethnic compositions – including different heterogeneous Tuareg municipalities composed of different Tuareg tribes and castes – to explore the extent to which traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern are affected by the ethnic composition of the localities within which they operate.

Table 1
Criteria for region and municipality selection[14]





Type of region

Kidal – separatist armed governance structure

Ménaka – pro-state armed governance structure

Tillabéri – governance under radical extremist threat

Tahoua –governance without radical extremist threat

Fezzan – neglected area under contested statehood

Homogeneous municipality

Alata (Chamanamas Tuareg)

Ayarou (Songhai), Banibangou (Zarma)[15]

Tchintabaraden (Kel Dinnik Tuareg)

Heterogeneous Tuareg municipality (different tribes/castes)

Kidal (Ifoghas, Idnan, Taghat Malet)

Ménaka (Daoussak, Imghad, Ichidinharene)

Kao (high- and low-level castes)[16]

Ghat (high- and low-level castes)[17]

Heterogeneous municipality (different ethnicities)

Anéfis (Tuareg, Arab)

Abala (Arab, Tuareg, Hausa)[18]

Abalak (Tuareg, Hausa, Fulani, Arab)

Ubari (Arab, Tuareg, Tubu)

The report is based on data collected throughout March and May 2019 (see Annex for the full methodology). In each of the 12 selected municipalities (in bold, Table 1), local research teams conducted 20-25 structured key informant interviews (KIIs) with traditional authorities, religious figures, state authorities if present (such as mayors, security forces, and the judiciary), non-state authorities such as leaders of armed groups and self-defence groups (again, to the extent that these were present), and civil society organisations. In addition, the local research teams conducted 1-4 focus group discussions (FGDs) per municipality, with 5-15 respondents per session. In total, the study relies on data obtained through 323 KIIs and 34 FGDs. The consortium also organised 1-2 rounds of follow-up workshops and meetings in the three countries to discuss the initial findings and recommendations with the local research teams, as well as with a wide range of experts, (traditional) authorities, NGOs and members of the international community (some of whom are also potential end-users for the project’s findings).[19] Key data collected on the relationships between traditional authorities and other actors in the municipalities under study here can be found at our project website: link.

1.3 Structure of the report

The report is structured as follows. Chapter 2 introduces the figure of the traditional authority in more detail and traces the historical development of traditional authority structures across the region. It shows how several current conflict lines can be traced back to a continuous process of renegotiating local governance structures within and across different ethnicities, as well as with central state structures, at critical junctures in time. This is not to say that intra- and inter-ethnic tensions are the cause of current conflict dynamics in the region. Rather, the chapter makes the point that these tensions are an ever-present dividing line in society that can be instrumentalised by actors seeking to destabilise the region, and/or that actors intervening in the region risk activating (unintentionally) existing tensions as spoilers of stabilisation processes. Prevailing ethnic governance legacies are a key factor to take into account when intervening in the region.

Chapters 3-5 are country case studies that have been written as stand-alone chapters with specific recommendations tailored to the stabilisation and governance interventions currently being implemented in each country.

Chapter 3 (Niger) shows how traditional or customary chieftaincy in Niger is a powerful asset of local governance. Niger maintained the colonial policy of formalising and integrating the chieftaincy into the territorial administration and the justice system. Since 2015, traditional governance is organised by a law that further integrates chieftaincy into the central government.[20] Yet processes of democratisation and decentralisation have led to a sense of institutional crisis in the chieftaincy relative to the position it held under single-party and military regimes. In the regions studied, and especially in Tillabéri, this sense of crisis is compounded by the security threat created by inter-communal conflict and radical extremist armed groups that exert cross-border influence.

Chapter 4 (Mali) shows that high-level traditional elites in northern Mali have become entrenched in armed governance structures – either as founders of non-state armed groups or as close allies of these groups. Rebel movements and armed governance are marked by strong fragmentation among tribal and social caste lines – a dynamic that became particularly pronounced from the 1990 rebellion onwards. An increasingly fragmented armed actor landscape has been the result, which has had important consequences for the position of traditional authorities – in terms of their ability both to govern and to present themselves as conflict mediators who can work across vertical and spatial boundaries between the various armed groups. As such, current armed governance dynamics are actually undermining the legitimacy of traditional authorities in the longer term. While they may be able to continue to exercise (some of) their governance functions, many respondents note that armed actors determine the leeway of traditional authorities’ work and that community members increasingly turn towards armed groups’ representatives who are more able to address their conflict issues.

Chapter 5 (Libya) explores how traditional authorities perceive themselves, and are perceived by the community, in two municipalities that are largely bereft of functioning state institutions, particularly since the revolution in 2011. It argues that Libyan traditional authorities are in an elevated position due to the governance crisis in the south of Libya and the predominant negative impression of state institutions. Yet their lack of resources, combined with the predominance of armed actors in the Fezzan, means that traditional authorities are constantly required to make tactical alliances in order to survive and govern as effectively as possible, further politicizing their standing. The result is an opaque and volatile governance structure that may be able to guarantee security in the short term but not more durable stability in the longer term. As for the future of traditional authorities in Libya, the people of the Fezzan display a strong desire for competent, elected state institutions. Traditional governance structures are perceived as exclusionary or self-interested, particularly by younger generations, and this jeopardises their potential as long-term governance actors in the region. Yet traditional authorities remain fundamental actors in the contemporary context and have proven to be uniquely effective in certain fields, meaning that they must be factored into future discussions about local governance in Libya, ideally in an environment based around functioning institutions and infrastructure.

Chapter 6 gives a comparative overview of the legitimacy of traditional authority structures in Mali, Niger and Libya. Based on a comparative analysis of the interview and focus group data presented in the country chapters, Chapter 6 identifies the main formal and informal rules that direct the way in which someone becomes a traditional authority figure, the beliefs that people hold about traditional authorities, and the extent to which people use traditional authorities and in which situations. It also highlights the four main challenges that traditional authorities currently face in these fragile settings: politicization, armed governance, insecurity, and challengers to the status quo. The chapter ends with some general pointers on how to incorporate traditional authorities into (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability.

Although, admittedly, much of what is considered traditional in the African context derives from pre-colonial practices that colonial and postcolonial states reinvented to suit their own objectives.
In this sense, collaborating with these actors could be in line with the 2015 Advisory Group of Experts on UN Peacebuilding Architecture recommendation that ‘new approaches need to be found, which understand peacebuilding, at least in its early phases, as having more to do with strengthening local domains of governance than trying to re-establish strong central authority’. United Nations, The Challenge of Sustaining Peace: Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, 29 June 2015, p. 16.
Risse, T. 2011. ‘Governance in areas of limited statehood: introduction and overview’, in: Risse, T. (ed.) Governance Without a State? Policies and politics in areas of limited statehood, New York, Colombia University Press, 6.
Beetham, D. 2013 (2nd edn). The Legitimation of Power, London, Macmillan.
The Tuareg have proven to be especially hostile towards the Malian and Nigerien central states, as evidenced by the multiple Tuareg rebellions in Mali (1963, 1990, 2006, 2012) and Niger (2007).
See McCauley, J.F. and Posner, D.N. 2015. ‘African borders as sources of natural experiments: promise and pitfalls’, Political Science Research and Methods, 3(2), 409-418.
Ursu, A.-E. 2018. Under the gun, CRU Report, The Hague, Clingendael; Logan, C. 2013. ‘The roots of resilience. Exploring popular support for African traditional authorities’, African Affairs, 112(448), 353-376.
Chapter 2 discusses the different ethnicities in more detail.
Also Fulani and Tuareg minorities present.
There are also two Fulani settlements in Kao.
Interviews were conducted in Al-Barkat (district within Ghat that is dominated by lower-income Tuareg members and families) and Awainat (district within Ghat that is dominated by high-income Tuareg members and families known as the ‘nobles’). These families are reportedly among the most influential Tuareg families in the country.
Also Tuareg and Fulani communities outside of the rural town.
The security situation in Libya did not allow for the organisation of a validation workshop in April 2019. In Mali and Niger, these validation workshops did take place in April. Validation workshops were organised in all three countries in June 2019.
République du Niger. 2015. Loi n° 2008-42 du 31 juillet 2008, relative à l’organisation et l’administration du territoire de la République du Niger, modifiée et complétée par l’ordonnance n° 2010-53 du 17 septembre 2010.