Majority in Sub-Saharan Africa Wouldn't Use Formal Courts

Majority in Sub-Saharan Africa Wouldn't Use Formal Courts

Majority in Sub-Saharan Africa Wouldn't Use Formal Courts

The FINANCIAL -- Although African states are modern in many ways, many people still turn to traditional systems, such as tribal elders and village chiefs, to settle their legal disputes. More than half of adults in sub-Saharan Africa say they would turn to a traditional justice system (39%) or religious leaders (14%). A median of 38% across 32 countries say they would use their government's judicial system and courts.

In many African countries, legal systems inherited from colonial powers operate alongside more traditional systems. While serious crimes typically end up in government courts in most countries, everyday disputes often do not. Traditional African legal systems are diverse, ranging from Somalia's Xeer system of elder consultation to Kenya's Islamic Kadhi courts to Sierra Leone's customary law overseen by traditional chiefs.

Africans' continued reliance on traditional justice systems might at times reflect state weakness, so it is not surprising that residents of countries with relatively strong central governments are more likely to refer disputes to the government judicial systems, such as South Africa (71%), Senegal (60%) and Rwanda (54%). Residents of West African countries Guinea (15%), Sierra Leone (16%) and Liberia (17%) are the least likely to take disputes to court. These are followed by South Sudan (23%) and Somalia (29%), where central government control is extremely weak or nonexistent.

While a tribal chief or religious leader may live only a door away, gaining access to government legal systems sometimes requires a long trip to a provincial capital, often making traditional justice systems the cheaper and easier option. Thus, Africans living in rural locations (36%) are significantly less likely to say they would refer a legal dispute to the government than are those living in urban areas (55%).

Similarly, sub-Saharan Africans who are older, have less education or don't express confidence in their country's judicial system are less likely to settle a legal dispute with government courts. More than two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans with postsecondary education (68%) would refer a legal dispute to their government judicial system, compared with 24% among those with no formal education. Those who identify as Christians or Muslims are equally likely to say they would refer a legal dispute to religious leaders (a median of 14% each).

Though Somalis are the most likely among African populations to say they would refer a legal dispute to religious leaders (40%), more than one in four people in predominantly Christian countries -- such as Uganda (29%), Ghana (26%) and Zambia (26%) -- say they would do the same. In places where residents might view court systems as complex, expensive or corrupt, members of the same religious communities may choose to take legal disputes to priests, ministers or highly esteemed figures in local churches.

Bottom Line

Decades after most African countries reached independence, traditional forms of justice continue to play an important role throughout the region, supplementing government systems and at times replacing them. These structures may have government legitimacy -- including Rwanda's controversial Gacaca courts, which tried hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects -- or they could be small and informal, such as two villagers resolving a property dispute through the mediation of a local pastor.

These findings emphasize the importance that national governments and development partners in these regions must place on engaging traditional justice systems. While informal systems often dispense fast, inexpensive legal solutions that promote harmony within a community, they may neglect human rights or procedural fairness. In many African societies, efforts to address laws and norms regarding disputes such as marriage or property rights can't occur only at the national level, but must also take into account the strength and prevalence of these informal systems.