The abovementioned challenges have important long-term consequences for traditional authorities, and the stability of the regions in which they are active:
First, the enduring practices of hereditary rule and elitist appointments within traditional structures perpetuate the status quo and damage the legitimacy of such structures in the eyes of marginalised communities. Younger and underrepresented members of tribes and communities will seek alternative structures that provide greater opportunities for empowerment.
Second, the increased roles and responsibilities undertaken by traditional authorities in areas of minimal state presence are empowering in the short term, as reflected by high levels of community trust in such cases. However, chronic resource shortages in these areas will inevitably leave traditional authorities exposed and overburdened, and levels of community trust will begin to reflect this reality. When legitimacy is tied to effective governance, traditional authorities in these regions are in an unenviable position.
Finally, traditional authorities are valued and respected among their constituents, particularly in the fields of conflict resolution and mediation, but this reputation is being undermined by the need to make short-term allegiances for security at the expense of long-term stability. By siding with political or armed actors, traditional authorities risk eroding their neutrality and close community ties, upon which much of their legitimacy is derived.
Based on these findings, a number of general recommendations for policy makers can be concluded:
Efforts should be made to address the exclusive tendencies of traditional authority structures and key dynamics that contribute to this, such as their politicization. From our discussions with high-level political elites in Niger, there emerged a call to organise a national forum to discuss the negative effects that the introduction of democratic governance has had on traditional authorities’ perceived neutrality and legitimacy. Given that we find politicization has similarly affected traditional authorities in Mali, we argue that the time has also come for a broader regional debate on the role of traditional authorities in contemporary governance structures. The dialogues, which should include underrepresented groups, could inform processes such as the current constitutional reform in Mali, which seeks to provide traditional authorities with designated seats in a new second chamber, or the further development of local governance interventions in Libya.
A second recommendation, specifically proposed by the Nigerien Minister of Justice, is to codify traditional authorities’ customs in the form of jurisprudence and to standardise their justice provision. This could improve the transparency and objectivity of local justice provision and allow for a comparison between the traditional (sharia) law implemented in these countries and international human rights norms. In areas presently under the control of armed groups, such as northern Mali, efforts to engage with Qadis (traditional religious figures in reconciliation and justice, administering verdicts on the basis of Islamic law) in this manner would allow for the establishment of a channel of communication between the central state and justice providers that currently operate under armed governance. A related recommendation is to train and equip all types of traditional authorities – especially those with limited access to resources – to ensure the effectiveness and neutrality of their governance.
A third main recommendation is to support mediation efforts at local level to build a foundation of stability that could subsequently be scaled up. Although this will not solve all conflict in the region, it could prevent the further spread and escalation of local conflicts before they take on an ethnic dimension or become co-opted by radical armed groups. Due to their historical role as conflict mediators and representatives of their communities, traditional authorities are pivotal partners in such inter-communal dialogues. Moreover, the recent experience of the Clingendael Academy training negotiation skills for communities subject to herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria showed that traditional authorities are also key partners because the outcomes of these dialogues will need to be communicated back to the full community to build acceptance and support.
There are already a number of organisations present in the border area between Mali and Niger that arrange meetings between representatives of different communities to encourage trust and dialogue. These efforts should be further supported. Investing in capacity building for traditional authorities, such as negotiation skills and their understanding of important rules and regulations – such as the pastoral code – is likely to improve the success rate of such reconciliation efforts. Facilitating dialogue and the exchange of experiences at regional and national levels could subsequently scale these efforts up. This would also allow for the establishment of a communication channel between local communities and the (inter)national community.
The findings from our country studies also act as a warning signal for the Sahel and West Africa region more generally. Traditional authorities are often the only authority structures present in regions threatened by (radical) armed groups, which have shown the ability to capitalise on local fault lines that are often linked to conflicts over access to natural resources. Many of the recommendations presented here should therefore be applied to at-risk regions as well, to strengthen local resilience against armed governance. Such a proactive approach would entail supporting traditional authorities’ ability to engage in effective and transparent governance efforts, including justice provision, combined with support for preventive inter- and intra-community conflict resolution. Although such measures will not defeat (radical) armed groups, they could make it much more difficult for them to anchor themselves in new localities.