The Status Quo Defied: The legitimacy of traditional authorities in Mali, Niger and Libya

Clingendael CRU and Knowledge Platform Security& Rule of Law
Mali Niger, Libya,

In many countries in the Sahel and northern Africa, the state lacks an effective presence in border regions. This has dire consequences for communities that reside there, as the state is generally unable or unwilling to provide them with basic security and services. State absence has become a particularly pressing concern since the 2011 fall of Gaddafi in Libya, which set in motion a chain reaction of armed group formation and the spread of violent extremist organisations that now threaten the stability of the region. By capitalising on both the absence of state security and local populations’ grievances about central state neglect, these groups have been able to cement their presence throughout the Sahel, in Mali and Niger for example.

This report explores whether traditional authorities in Mali, Niger and Libya could play a role in addressing these dynamics. Since pre-colonial times, traditional authorities such as tribal chiefs and religious leaders have performed governance tasks, such as the administration of justice and conflict mediation. They also play ‘an important symbolic role as representatives of community identity, unity, continuity, and stability. This has earned them a high degree of legitimacy among the public. In areas of state absence, traditional authorities could therefore provide pivotal entry points for local dispute resolution and mediation initiatives. Yet, as this report shows, traditional authorities have always been part of the political context, and are thus liable to be drawn into political – and sometimes violent – conflict.

To assess whether traditional authorities can contribute to governance and stability, this report aims to provide a better understanding of how traditional authorities come to power, the extent to which their communities regard them as legitimate authorities, and the extent to which communities feel that traditional leaders are best-placed to address their concerns.

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