One of the main components of the annual Governance Month, which kicked off last week, are the so-called 'governance clinics,' in which normally high officials participate and during which citizens can raise any pending personal issue that needs a solution.
According to the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), which organizes the month in collaboration with the ministry of local government, during last year's event some 2300 such cases were presented, 85% of which were solved within a short time.
And whenever President Kagame goes on a community outreach visit, as he did recently in Rusizi and Nyamasheke, the people are always given the opportunity to ask him any question - very often, this also takes the form of a request for his assistance in solving a problem that is stuck at the local level.
In Nyamasheke, for instance, a young girl came forward (despite local officials trying to prevent her) to complain that she had been raped by a district official; while the latter had been fired and initially arrested, he was later released and now apparently an unconcerned free man. Questioned by Kagame, the mayor and police officers admitted to be aware of the case and were unable to provide a convincing explanation for this state of affairs. The President sternly ordered them to put the matter right within a week.
In another case, a man complained to Kagame that a plot of land of his had been given to a construction firm, yet he had so far not received any compensation. A few days later, it was announced that he had been paid one million francs.
This raises the question whether the Head of State (or other high officials) should really be wasting his time to deal with such petty (although admittedly for those concerned very serious) issues, which are most of the time rather straightforward and could be easily handled by local authorities or, as in the rape case, the police.
According to Fatuma Ndangiza, the deputy CEO at RGB, it is unfortunately a reality that is not likely to go away soon. "Through local leaders, there is a kind of permanent governance clinic, but that seems not enough for all the queries that citizens have, considering the abilities and responsibilities of local leaders," she observes. "Some of the local leaders really try as hard as they can yet the queries end up stuck somewhere in the hierarchical line, while others are just incapable to intervene due to fear of bias or because of abuse of power."
"That's why we have to look for other ways to dig deeper in order to solve even those issues left behind which are in most of the cases relatively hard," adds RGB's CEO Anastase Shyaka.
'Waste of time'
Abdallah Sebudandi, himself a local leader in Rwamagana, largely agrees. "For me, I'd go for fear of bias and incompetence but not positional powers. And to some extent I'd also add corruption."
He explains that as for fear of bias, the truth is that some local leaders don't want to solve issues which involve close friends, relatives and neighbors. "They don't worry about being biased as such, but about what it will do to their image if they are seen to rule in favor of their friends. To me, that's incompetence," Sebudandi insists. "If you worry about your image and as a result favor the wrong people, you are no longer a leader."
He therefore urges his colleagues to use their judgment in solving citizens' queries because that is their job. "After all, when our bosses come to visit our communities and find out about those issues, they will point the finger at us and our image will suffer, which we would have avoided by solving the issues we can solve and forwarding what is beyond our powers to those who can do something about it."
And during his recent visits, President Kagame reminded the residents of Rusizi and Nyamasheke districts that as citizens, they hold the power. "You should demand accountability when you think we are not doing our job right. You should hold all of us leaders accountable, including me," he said.
Yet maybe the high officials are perpetuating the problem by accepting to get involved in such local problems. For instance, Josephine Mukashyaka, a resident of Ndora sector in Gisagara, says the people feel more comfortable in presenting their case to the President or a Minister because it always results in immediate action.
"When the President tells your mayor that your question has to be solved, you know that you'll have the answer in a few days, while you have been seeking help for months or even years," she points out. "When a local leader here tells me he will solve my query as quickly as possible, I am not convinced; they keep on delaying and in the end you give up."
Mukashyaka confesses that even now she has certain issues that she would only present to a high-ranked official. "Asking these local leaders of ours would be a waste of time."