Fighting extremism through justice in Mali

Blair Glencorse, IBA Fellow for Innovation

Where it functions, justice plays a vital role in supporting peace, stability and inclusion. But, in parts of Mali, the legal system remains corrupt, inefficient and exclusionary.

On the banks of the River Niger, in the dense heat around 150 miles northeast of Bamako, a fisherman explains local justice issues. ‘Here, there is a distrust of government,’ he says. ‘Why would we expect government to deliver justice? The government in Bamako has never included our people. Our biggest problems are created by justice workers themselves.’

This distrust undermines the legitimacy of the state and is a key driver of insecurity in Mali and across the Sahel. ‘The chain of justice has always been broken by corruption,’ another young person in Macina, in the Ségou Region, told us recently, ‘this is the cause of conflict.’

The instability in the centre of the country has worsened this year – with dozens recently killed in an attack on a passenger bus among several other incidents. The United Nations has a peacekeeping mission of over 15,000 troops and a budget of almost $1bn a year for Mali; while the American, British, European Union, French and other governments have deployed additional troops or military support. But the solution to the problem is not military might, it’s justice.

In places where justice functions, we understand the value it plays in upholding the rule of law and supporting peace, stability and inclusion. We expect due process and fair decisions, backed by a system predicated on our legal rights as citizens. The formal legal system in parts of Mali, however, is exactly the opposite. It remains corrupt, inefficient and exclusionary.


It is also out of reach for many citizens – literally. In some rural areas it can be hundreds of miles to the nearest court – hardly worth the trip for decisions that are largely influenced by money and power. Indeed, the most recent survey shows the rate of contact between Malians and the formal legal system is one of the lowest on the continent. And, in places where literacy can be as low as 30 per cent, formal legal processes are in any case very difficult for ordinary citizens to navigate, even if they were so inclined.

These problems are exacerbated by the scale and severity of the crimes committed by armed groups in central and northern Mali; and by the sense among many victims that the state sees them – despite their suffering – as somehow complicit in the insurgency. Those that administer justice in these areas, such as judges, are themselves also subject to threats and many have abandoned their posts; while witnesses of crimes are afraid to speak out during ongoing violence.

At the Accountability Lab, we recently set up what we call Citizen Helpdesks – starting in the central Ségou Region – to gather information from thousands of citizens on critical issues and to work with power-holders, including government representatives and justice officials, to close the feedback loop on local challenges. Our first report reinforces the fact that, because of the lack of trust in the government (including the formal justice system), citizens turn much more frequently to community leaders and family members to solve problems.

Citizen Helpdesk volunteers during training in Segou, Mali. Photo credit: Accountability Lab

This points towards the beginning of the solution to the challenges in Mali: efforts to build upon informal justice systems as a way to grow trust from the bottom up. Traditional conflict mediation usually involves local leaders, such as qadis, imams or village elders, who hear disputes and make decisions in a way that is seen by communities as generally fair.

There may now be ways to begin to bring together these informal systems with more formal justice mechanisms. For example, a recent law provided greater formal authority to customary leaders in relation to land disputes, which tend to be a central driver of conflict.

Justice, justice and nothing but justice. The first and last remedy for the crisis threatening the survival of our country and its people lies in justice

Mamadou Ismael Konaté Former Mali Justice Minister

At the same time, there is some progress at the local level to rebuild the trust around existing, formal legal mechanisms. In Ségou, we learned that a variety of local actors within the justice system, such as police officers and court officials, are now coming together with civil society on a monthly basis to decide on priorities, for example. The media is writing about the judicial process to help citizens understand its value. Donors are also building the capacity of judges, prosecutors and lawyers more broadly, and working to find ways to protect justice workers from violence in the most insecure parts of the country.

A third piece of the solution lies in addressing human rights violations directly. The Malian government and the international community need to make justice for the crimes committed in the centre and north an absolute priority –both politically and practically. There are always political trade-offs when these kinds of trials can affect the balance of power in unstable contexts, but a durable peace will be impossible without justice for the gravest of abuses.

There has been some progress in this regard, including through several recent trials of human right abusers domestically and with the conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi through the International Criminal Court. The creation of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission and a new transitional justice policy also provide the organisational framework for further progress going forward.

As the former Malian Justice Minister, Mamadou Ismaël Konaté, recently pointed out: ‘Justice, justice and nothing but justice. The first and last remedy for the crisis threatening the survival of our country and its people lies in justice.’ In Mali, peace will not be won through force; it will be won by finding ways – either formal or informal – to ensure equal and fair application of the law.

Blair Glencorse is an IBA Fellow for Innovation and Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Follow the Accountability Lab on Twitter @accountlab