Mali is one of the few developing countries that has a low crime rate. The incidence of violent crime is very low and petty crimes such as theft and pick-pocketing, are the most frequently reported violations. One of the explanations for this is Mali’s continuous reliance on traditional policing and justice mechanisms. This contributes significantly to addressing some of the issues facing the country’s contemporary justice system.
Post-conflict situations are compelling many African countries to turn to restorative justice. While it has gained significance through transitional justice processes, restorative justice has largely remained at the periphery of criminal justice systems. It is therefore equally important to study the role of traditional mechanisms in countries that have enjoyed relative peace and stability such as Mali.
Malians generally exude anti-prison behavior to such an extent that judges have to practice self-sanctioning in order to remain acceptable to the social contract that binds the many Malian families and ethnic groups. Malian society has a ‘class’ of traditional justices, thejeliw (griots / bards) whose main job is to ensure harmony and peace in the community. Nagel Mechthild, in a study on Gender Incarceration and Peacemaking in Mali, described the jeliw as a privileged group that intervenes in all kinds of disputes at all levels - from the domestic to the international. They are tasked with finding solutions if an offense is committed.
The jeliw use shame as a tool to reign in errand citizens and because they operate at both the domestic (horizontal level) and the national (vertical level), they wield political influence and their approval is essential in many spheres of life. Because they have the power to shame, victims often fail to argue their cases out. Shaming has the same effect as imprisonment since it can lead to marginalization. In a country that struggles with capacity in the management of prisons, this informal mechanism contributes to lowering the prison population. That this traditional justice mechanism lowers prison figures tremendously makes it a model worth exploring for African countries.
Interestingly the jeliw are also exposed to abuse just like judges and often get attacked by supporters of those they convict. They are often forced to humble themselves in order to maintain the respect they deserve from disputing parties.
Still, tensions are inevitable over the roles played by the jeliw. These can be largely interpreted as struggles between modernity and tradition. Urbanization has meant that thejeliw mediate over disputes largely to do with trading spaces, money and business-related issues. The net effect is that though urbanites tend to opt for other alternatives to intervene in disputes, the jeliw still wield enough influence in Malian society to discourage citizens from utilizing the official justice system. Mali’s legal system is based on codes inherited at independence from France, as well as on customary law. New laws were enacted after independence to adjust the system to Malian life but French colonial laws that were not abrogated are still in force.
There are also other means through which the public can intervene in disputes so that the police are rarely called in. There are jokers who intervene mostly in assault cases and theses anankun (joking relationships) play a significant role in maintaining harmony at the local level. They too use shame to embarrass parties in conflict and in this way. They prevent hostilities form escalating and force the parties to apologise. Then there are age-mates who have authority to intervene and resolve disputes when one of them is in a crisis.
Lastly, there is collective punishment which is another tool used by these traditional justices. At times, the entire clan can be fined because of one individual offender from their community and this puts pressure on the family to reprimand the errant person. As Nagel points out, these mechanisms remove imprisonment from being the fulcrum of penal justice and provide a possible option to achieving a just society.
Dr Annie Barbara Chikwanha, Senior Research Fellow, Africa Human Security Initiative ISS, Nairobi