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Access to justice for ordinary citizens is a key component of the rule of law and democracy. Mali was once considered a democratic frontrunner on the continent, but political instability and insecurity in recent years have revealed democracy’s foothold as tenuous. The state’s weakness has raised concerns about the quality and extent of democratic practices and institutions, including the extent to which rule of law and access to justice have taken root in the country. 

Political unrest erupted in early 2012 when Tuaregs in the North launched a rebellion, the government lost control over parts of the country, and anti-government protests broke out in Bamako. A disgruntled military staged a coup d’état just a month before the planned 2012 general election. 

Under immense international pressure, elected government was restored in mid-2013. Since then, the government has gradually regained control of the North. But even under a peace accord signed in mid-2015, occasional militant attacks have continued, and many observers remain concerned that the country could again unravel. 

Like the country as a whole, the Malian justice system has faced deep threats and disruptions, especially in the North, where its reach was limited during the insurgency. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Mali’s justice system suffered from inadequate personnel and budgetary capacity even before the 2012 conflict (Human Rights Watch, 2015), and these problems continue despite the government’s success in re-establishing courts and deploying legal and police officials in the northern regions of Timbuktu and Gao. HRW reports that one consequence of the conflict is a large backlog of cases against individuals suspected of insurgent activities (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Reflecting the legal system’s challenges and the need to establish the rule of law, the government requested help from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes associated with the rebellion in northern Mali.

Survey responses in Mali suggest that access to justice remains severely compromised. Public trust in the judiciary is low, and perceptions of corruption are high. Malians have some of the lowest contact rates with the judicial system among the 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015. Delays, the system’s complexities, and perceptions of bias lead many Malians to rely on traditional and local authorities to dispense justice, rather than engaging with the courts. As the country regains its footing and rebuilds democratic political institutions, it is clear that making the justice system more trustworthy, comprehensible, and fair to ordinary Malians must be a key priority.