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Access to justice in many of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is a complex issue. In many parts of Africa, informal justice forums are still key to the judicial system ” and this is something that many westerners criticise ” feeling that those traditional fora are too simplistic, and that they are not up to the task of dealing with complex modern issues of justice. What this ignores is that even traditions were ‘invented’, and this makes them modern in content.
In the 1960s, many sub-Saharan African countries became independent, and this break-off caused a lot of changes in the area. The countries turned back to their traditional, informal forums for justice, but these forums were not intended to last ” the expectation was that as Africa modernised, those old forums would be replaced. Informal, traditional ways of settling criminal and even civil disputes still remained popular even as recently as the late 90s and early 2000s, however.
One of the reasons that judicial reform has been so slow to take place is that so many Africans live in rural villages, where it is not easy to access the formal, official state justice system ” even in areas where there has been extensive judicial reform at the city level, if the awareness is not there in the rural areas, and there is not a vehicle for people to access that justice, the older methods will prevail, even if only informally.
The state justice systems, where they have been invested in, often have limited resources, and wish to focus those resources on serious cases. This means that minor disputes in a village or a settlement will be brushed off or ignored “disincentivising those involved in those disputes from bringing them to the attention of those authorities in the first place.
The European Development Fund has contributed a significant amount of money and also development assistance to sub-Saharan African countries, to support the development of the justice system, but those systems are still in their infancies even now. While on paper there are now procedures, policies and laws in place and there are schemes to support ordinary citizens who need to access the judicial system, putting those systems into practice requires buy-in at every level, and that is something that will take a long time to occur.
There is resistance from older government officials and those who are involved in the more traditional systems ” these people see the new systems as too much red tape, and as too much involvement from ‘big government’ in what should be local matters. There is also too little belief from the citizens themselves, who have been let down in the past, and see “justice” as being perhaps a scary form of degrading or physical punishment, rather than a fair system for all.
That culture is changing ” and increasing representation from women and young people is one thing that is helping to improve the public image of the justice system.