27 January 2013

Rwanda: President Shouldn't Have to Deal With Local Problems


The Governance Month, which started last week, will once again see the organization of 'governance clinics' during which any citizen can table personal issues that seem to be stuck somewhere in the official pipeline, sometimes for a long time. The meetings will be attended by officials from the Rwanda Governance Board in order to ensure that solutions can be found.

And during his recent visits to Rusizi and Nyamasheke, President Kagame too was asked for help by local residents in cases that seemed to be on hold. As we detail in our cover story, in one tragic instance a young rape victim had to appeal to the President to see justice done.

When such high officials intervene, the deadlock is broken and the problems are solved swiftly. While that is of course good news for those involved, it is at the same time a shame that such situations should occur. Decentralization was introduced exactly to ensure that local problems can be dealt with locally, whether they concern the entire community or just a few individuals. And when it comes to punishing crime, the police and judiciary should ensure fair and impartial treatment of the accuser and the accused.

The problem is of course that in all local communities around the world, there is an undercurrent of friendships, nepotism, mutual interests and petty rivalries etc., to which the authorities are not immune. In the end, local leaders (including the local security forces) are members of, and have close ties with, the communities they serve. In those circumstances, cases of abuse of power will always occur.

It becomes a problem, though, when citizens who feel wronged, or who think their case is being unnecessarily delayed, don't see any other solution than to wait for the President to come along to ask for help.

Of course, there are existing structures which they could use, but sometimes they might be too daunting or too complicated for the common people. Decisions can always be contested in court, and the local 'access to justice' bureaus have made that step easier to take, but still no ordinary person will happily engage in a court battle until it is really the only option. Then there is the Ombudsman, but with only an office in Kigali, it is rather difficult to access (even though its officials are supposed to regularly visit the districts to receive cases).

Therefore, the concerned bodies (the Rwanda Governance Board, Minaloc, the Ombudsman) should sit together to examine other mechanisms, at the local level, that make it easier for citizens to appeal against a decision or complain when there is no progress in their case. Not only would that be a relief to the people, but undoubtedly also to the President who, when visiting communities, could henceforth deal with the big development issues instead of having to make sure that someone gets compensated for a confiscated plot of land.

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