Rampant theft of electricity cables and other materials is undermining ongoing efforts to promote rural electrification as the government moves to connect more Rwandans to the national grid, Rwanda Today has learnt.
The theft, which is reportedly happening across Rwanda, also costs the taxpayer with financial losses to Energy Utility Corporation Limited (EUCL) as a result of theft and damage of the cables estimated at Rwf1.5 billion between 2006 and June 2015.
Some 2,069 suspects were arrested over the period.
The theft is allegedly being spurred by the boom in the steel and electronics industries as more firms enter the local market. While the cause of the increase is not clear, it is suspected that the stolen cables are sold cheaply within the country as they are expensive on the official market.
In addition, theft of metallic materials is also linked to the increase of blacksmith and scrap metal dealers in the country.
Under the second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS), the government seeks to increase electricity connectivity from around 20 per cent of the population to 70 per cent and from the current generation of 161 megawatts to 563MW by 2018.
Rwanda Today has also learnt that most of the thieves are former employees of Rwanda Energy Group, who are knowledgeable about the electric systems and are using equipment that they stole from REG. At least 13 theft cases have been reported across the country since last month, when thieves stole cables from pylons carrying the main electricity load and the poles connecting households to the grid.
An REG official cited Nyagatare, Gatsibo, Rwamagana, Gasabo and Rulindo as among the most affected districts.
Emmanuel Tulinduga, the EUCL branch supervisor in Gatsibo, said 10 cases of cable theft in the past month forced the disconnection of five transformers and at least 25 households in Rugarama, Murambi, Kiziguro and Kiramuruzi Sectors. The stolen copper cables have, however, been provisionally replaced with aluminium ones.
"We have streamlined local night patrols and REG/EUCL Branch Gatsibo Periodic Network inspections to curb this," said Mr Tulinduga. "We do not have permission to search hardware shops where we think they are sold."
Gatsibo has had 10 incidents. Electric cables of different sizes were stolen -- four 120 metre ones, totalling 200m; four 95m² (26m); four 50m² (65m); two 25m² (108m); two 10m² (195m); and four 35m² (8m). The total cost of all stolen cables is Rwf8,497,460, Mr Tulinduga added.
"Looking at how theft cases are occurring from one district to another consecutively, cables are being stolen by a well co-ordinated and equipped national gang which is moving across the 28 EUCL branches in the country," Mr Tulinduga observed. "They break into the electrical box and cut off the electricity before cutting the cables.
"Surprisingly, the thieves don't feel endangered even when electricity is on."
Chrysologue Ngendahayo, the EUCL branch supervisor in Rulindo, said the district recorded six cable thefts in four sectors in the past two months. The incidents were reported in Shyorongi, Rusiga, Cyinzuzi and Murambi.
According to the police spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner of Police Celestin Twahirwa, the law enforcers have recently registered many cable theft cases around the country but, in collaboration with REG, an investigation is underway to determine the market of the stolen goods and take appropriate action that will counter the demand for such materials.
"We have arrested many suspects around the country and some of them were sent to court and convicted for the theft of cables and destroying the infrastructure and faced penalties." said Mr Twahirwa.
Eastern Region Police Spokesperson IP Emmanuel Kayigi told Rwanda Today: "This theft has become very dangerous to the country's progress, causing a lot of loss to the government, which regularly replaces the stolen materials, and the citizens, who have to incur extra costs to buy new cables."